FEATURE image: At the top of the high altar’s retable in St. Michael Church in Chicago’s Old Town is the figure of St. Michael the Archangel, the parish church’s patron. St. Michael is mentioned in several places in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The near northside Chicago parish has been administered by the Redemptorist Order since 1860.
The bell tower of St. Michael Church in Chicago’s Old Town at 1633 N. Cleveland Avenue. Until the mid-1880’s this church tower was the tallest building in Chicago.
In 1876, five years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that ravaged the city, the rebuilt St. Michael Church raised five new bells into the tower. They were cast by McShane Company. The tower’s four-sided clock was installed in 1888. Atop the steeple, the twenty-four-foot tall cross weighs over a ton.
By John P. Walsh
The story is told that if you can hear the five 2-to-6-ton bells peel from the 290-feet-tall tower of St. Michael Church you live in Chicago’s Old Town. Yet it depends on which way the wind is blowing.
St. Michael Church is one of Chicago’s oldest parishes and church buildings. It was founded by German Catholics in 1852. From their arrival in the 1830s and 1840s until World War I, German immigrants of all faiths made up Chicago’s most numerous nationality.
German immigrants soon migrated out of downtown Chicago and about two miles north to North Avenue. The east-west thoroughfare became known as “German Broadway.”
This European immigrant community expanded to eventually settle a four-mile square area that was called “North Town.” St. Michael Church was situated in the virtual center of North Town on land donated by successful German-born Chicago businessman and brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey had immigrated to the United States in the 1830s from Saarland in western Germany.
St. Michael Church stands on land donated expressly for the purpose of building it by successful German-American brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey emigrated from Germany in 1830, and by 1844 he was a Chicago alderman. The church is named after the wealthy beer maker’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel, whose limestone figure stands in the high niche on the façade (see photograph below). Diversey’s so-called Chicago Brewery, first established in Chicago in 1839, grew to become one of the most extensive establishments of its kind in the West.
The church building is built of red brick with limestone trim in the Romanesque style. Construction started in 1866 and was finished three years later. In 1871 the new building was virtually destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire along with its North Town neighborhood. Only the church’s exterior walls remained. Using these existing walls, the fire-gutted St. Michael Church was rebuilt and rededicated in 1873. Ashes from that infamous conflagration can still be seen in the church’s basement.
Gabled three-portal main entrance was added to the façade in 1913 by a Chicago architect. The architectural design harkens back to the cathedrals of Europe.
Main altar at one end of a 220-foot central nave.
Dating from 1902, the Main Altar of the Angels is a cacophony of German-style wood carving, 2013.
In 1851 when St Michael was founded, Chicago’s total population was around 30,000 making it the twenty-fourth largest city in the United States.
Ten years later, in 1860, right before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Chicago’s population had nearly quadrupled and ranked in the nation’s top ten largest cities.
Chicago’s Catholic Church hierarchy in the middle of the nineteenth century was mostly Irish. These English-speaking bishops relied on religious orders to handle a tidal wave of non-English-speaking immigrants to Chicago, including the Germans.
In 1860, the St. Michael Church parish was entrusted to the Redemptorists, a religious order founded in in 1748 in Italy. The Redemptorists with their German congregation built the St. Michael Church in Old Town that stands today. Over 170 years later, the Redemptorist order continues to shepherd the parish.
A mosaic of Saint Michael the Archangel in the floor at the entrance of the church. “Archangel” is a title that signifies he is the leader of all God’s angels.
The mosaic of the patron angel in the floor starts the church’s 190-foot-long nave. It is one of the many religious images—others in stone, wood and paint—that constitutes the interior and exterior decoration of St. Michael Church.
St. Michael the Archangel is mentioned four times in the Bible: twice in the Book of Daniel and in the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation. In the Book of Daniel, St. Michael the archangel helps the prophet Daniel and is linked to the “end times” of the world. In the Epistle of Jude, St. Michael the archangel guards the tombs of Eve and Moses and combats Satan to protect these holy sites.
In the Book of Revelation St. Michael and his angels do battle with the “dragon.” In addition to being charged with expelling Satan from Heaven (as depicted in the retable), St. Michael is charged with the care of all departed souls to introduce them to the holy light. St. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of soldiers, police, and doctors.
Detail of the Main Altar retable depicts St. Michael the archangel in the traditional iconography of armor with sword and shield casting Satan out of Heaven by God’s command.
The spacious, airy, and dramatic church sanctuary today looks basically as it did by 1902. The motivation for the church’s extensive redecoration in 1902 was its Golden Jubilee as well as one expression of the parishioners’ decided prosperity by the later 1890s.
Some Stained Glass
Created and installed by Mayer & Company of Munich for St. Michael Church’s Golden Jubilee in 1902, the tall and thin stained glass windows —the fourth set of windows to be installed into architect August Walbaum’s original design— depicted Biblical and other scenes. The window’s artistic technique drew upon centuries of European craft and design – and were recently cleaned in 2012.
Annunciation of Jesus to Mary Window (Luke 1: 26-38). Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus is stated explicitly in verses 34-35. In Hebrew her name, Miryām, means “exalted one.”
In that Jubilee year, the stained glass was installed along with the 56-foot-high carved wood retable of the High (or main) Altar of the Angels. Though there are five altars in St. Michael Church, the main altar is the most spectacular, drawing the eye forward and upward from practically anywhere in the church. Crowning this painted construct—which is so heavy that it required a new local foundation to be dug for it—is the figure of St. Michael the Archangel described in the Book of Revelation. The angel is garbed in his panzer (“armor”) running rebellious angels out of heaven. St. Michael is flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Nine choirs of angels and the saints Peter and Paul are also depicted in wood. Smaller human figures depict the four evangelists identified by their Christian symbols—specifically, the Winged Man (Matthew), Winged Lion (Mark), Winged Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). All five altars were made by E. Hackner Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, an early twentieth century designer, manufacturer and importer of artistic ecclesiastic furnishings.
Annunciation Window (Detail). The angel Gabriel’s greeting, “Hail, full of grace,” is a greeting that is full of peace, joy and wisdom. Mary is the object of God’s grace and favor and is shown to be chosen for a long time past. The depiction of lilies, whether in the angel’s hand or arranged into a bouquet by Mary’s side, is traditional imagery for purity.
In 1869 the St. Michael Church building cost over $130,000 to build which is approximately $2.65 million today. After the fire the repairs in 1872 cost an additional $40,000 plus unknown amounts of insurance money–or upwards of $700,000 today. Reconstruction did not include the stained glass windows which were installed in 1902. For a history of the stained glass in St. Michael church go to: https://johnpwalshblog.com/2016/05/10/angels-in-stained-glass-1902-complete-st-michael-church-in-old-town-chicago/.
Anointing of Jesus by Mary Magdalene at Bethany Window. The anointing of Jesus in Bethany by the sinful woman, traditionally the Magdalene. Though the story varies in certain details, all four gospels relate the anointing set in a house for a meal and a woman who pours expensive ointment on Jesus to which someone objects. In regard to the ointment, Mark’s account (14:3) records that it is the purest of spikenard which was very expensive costing over a year’s wages (Mark 14:5). Luke’s gospel speaks of Jesus’ feet being anointed by a woman who had been sinful all her life and who was crying (7:38). As her tears fall on the feet of Jesus, she kissed and wiped his feet with her hair. The iconography of the woman’s actions in the Gospels has traditionally been associated with Mary Magdalene though none of the biblical texts specify her as the story’s subject.
In 2020, the spikenard plant is part of Pope Francis’s coat of arms. He uses the image of the plant as does the Latin American church, as a symbol for St. Joseph.
Spikenard was grown in India, China, and Nepal and known in ancient Rome where it was used as a cooking agent. By the time of Jesus, in the early Roman Empire, spikenard was used primarily in perfume.
Coat of Arms of Pope Francis (2013-). According to the Vatican, the image of the plant to the right of the star on the blue background is spikenard and represents St. Joseph.
Let the Little Children Come to Me Window. In Jesus’s public ministry, crowds often followed and pressed in upon him and his disciples. Jesus’s famous words, “Let the little children come to me,” are cited in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14 and Luke 18:16. When the people’s children were brought to the miracle worker and teacher -even their infants- they wanted him to lay his hands on them and bless them. The disciples rebuked them and Jesus became “indiginant” as he said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
Sacred Heart Window. The first of four great visions in which Jesus Christ revealed his Sacred Heart to French St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) took place on December 27, 1673 in her Visitation convent in Paray-le-Monial in Burgundy France. In each of these visions Christ revealed messages that the young saint was to communicate. The greatest of all the visions took place in 1676. Before the Tabernacle on the altar that exposed the Eucharist, Jesus said: “Behold this Heart which has so loved mankind, that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself in order to demonstrate and prove its love for them.” St. Margaret Mary was ordered by her confessor, St. Claude de la Colombière, a Jesuit priest, to write down all her visions. Afterwards, the saint suffered great persecutions from the Church and others for these visions until she fell ill and died in 1690 at 43 years old. She was beatified in 1864 and canonized in 1920.
As with other American church building adaptations of earlier European architectural styles, the use of Romanesque rounded arches and corbels accentuated the use of Gothic-style glass in Chicago’s Old Town Roman Catholic church.
Central nave ceiling mural includes symbolic depictions of the four evangelists: Winged Man (Matthew); Winged Lion (Mark); Winged Ox (Luke); Eagle (John).
Its filigree evokes medieval illuminated manuscripts and perhaps is inspired by a scene painted in the 15th century in the dome of The Basilica of St Mark in Venice.
Pietà, copy of a 16th-century Swabian-style artwork made around 1913.
The Sacred Heart side altar (east nave). In addition to the central statue of Christ are those depicting Redemptorist Order founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori (Italian, 1696-1787) and Discalced Carmelite Order founder, St. Teresa of Avila (Spanish, 1515-1582).
St. Joseph altar (west nave) with a mural of Redemptorists before Christ’s Heavenly throne. At right, a wood confessional. The founder of the Redemptorists, Italian-born St. Alphonsus Liguori, was highly educated and spent much of his life in the confessional as a home missionary to his city of Naples, Italy’s ordinary denizens.
Side altar honors Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help whose image was important to Saint Alphonsus, founder of the Redemptorists who were the religious order pastors of St. Michael Church from 1860. Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878) gave this specific icon to the Chicago Redemptorists in 1865. After the Great Fire, it was picked out of the charred embers. Having survived intact in the rubble, it was taken as a sign to rebuild the church building and later set the icon into this German Baroque-style retable.
Two of the 14 traditional Stations of the Cross. The traditional Stations of the Cross that are in Church-wide use were composed by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) in 1761. St. Alphonsus was made a bishop in 1762, Doctor of the Church in 1871, and founded the Redemptorists in 1732. His stations are taken from the Gospels where the footsteps of Christ’s passion are chronicled and were venerated by the first Christians. St. Alphonsus Liguori’s stations are classic for their ability to stir the heart towards prayer, humility, and repentance. St. Alphonsus was born in 1696 in Naples, Italy and lived to be 90 years old. After an early career in law, St. Alphonsus heard the voice of Jesus calling him and became a priest in 1726. His parents were devout Catholics but not pleased by their lawyer son’s decision mainly because the clergy at the time was notoriously corrupt. In 1748 he published Moral Theology that received papal approbation and became an immediate success though it reflected some of the pastoral laxity of the Church in the 18th century which has remained controversial.
The history of St. Michael Church is a study in the rise of the German population to a dominant position in a new American city that was itself rising as the City of the Century. Chicago in less than 50 years developed out of an onion swamp into the second most populated city in the United States.
Between 1874 and following World War I, Chicago’s rapid emergence on the world stage was accompanied by Deutschtum (or “Germanness”) in its culture.
While Deutschtum appeared to be invincible, the Kaiser’s defeat in 1918 in the European war signaled the beginning of the end for German cultural dominance in Chicago. Their cultural hegemony in Chicago was virtually completely dismantled by the start of World War II.
G. Lane and A. Kezys, Chicago Churches and Synogogues.
P. d’A Jones and M.G. Holli, Ethnic Chicago.
D.A. Pacyga and E. Skerrett, Chicago, City of Neighborhoods.
D. McNamara, Heavenly City.
The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary, edited by John Coulson, Guild Press, New York, 1957.
The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Corp, New York, 1993.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition, Doubleday, New York, 1997.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph a Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., 1982.
St. Michael Church website.
Photographs taken by author February 2013; May 2016; and June 2022.