The bell tower of St. Michael Church in Chicago’s Old Town at 1633 N. Cleveland Avenue. It was in 1876 that the church having rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 hoisted five new bells into the tower that were cast by McShane Company. In 1888, the tower’s four-sided clock was installed. atop the steeple, the twenty-four-foot tall cross weighs over a ton. Until the mid-1880’s this church tower was the tallest building in Chicago.
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. They quickly migrated out of downtown Chicago the two miles or so north to North Avenue, a thoroughfare which became known as German Broadway. This Western and Eastern European community expanded to settle a four-mile square area that was called North Town. St. Michael Church was placed in the virtual center of North Town on land donated by successful German-born Chicago businessman-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 finished three years later. In 1871 the new building was virtually destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire along with iuts entire 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 famous conflagration are still present in the church’s basement.
St Michael Church, interior.
In 1851 when St Michael was founded, Chicago’s 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 almost quadrupled and ranked in the country’s top ten largest cities. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Chicago was mainly Irish and they relied on religious orders to handle a tidal wave of non-English-speaking immigrants such as the Germans. At St. Michael Church the charge was entrusted in 1860 to the religious order of Redemptorists founded in Italy in 1748. The Redemptorists with their German congregation built the church in Chicago that is seen today. One hundred and seventy years later the Redemptorist order continues to shepherd the parish.
The mosaic of the patron angel in the floor starts the church’s 190-foot-long nave. It is one more image—others in stone, wood and paint—in the interior and exterior decoration of St. Michael Church. St. Michael the Archangel is mentioned four times in the Bible: in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude, and the Book of Revelation. St. Michael the archangel is mentioned by name twice in the Book of Daniel where in the first instance he helps the prophet Daniel and in the second he 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.” St. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of soldiers, police, and doctors.
The spacious, airy, and dramatic church sanctuary today looks basically as it did by 1902. That was the year the stained glass was installed along with the 56-foot-high carved wood retable of the High (or main) Altar of the Angels. There are five altars in St. Michael Church but the main altar is the most spectacular, drawing the eye forward and upward. 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. He is garbed in his panzer (“armor”) running rebellious angels out of heaven. Michael is flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Also depicted are the nine choirs of angels and the saints Peter and Paul. 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). The five altars were made by E. Hackner Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, an early twentieth century designer, manufacturer and importer of artistic ecclesiastic furnishings. 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.
The Annunciation window, Franz Mayer & Company of Munich, St. Michael Church. In 1869 the St. Michael Church building cost over $130,000 to build (approximately $2.25 million today). After the fire its repairs in 1872 cost an additional $40,000, plus unknown amounts of insurance money (about $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/.
Created and installed by Mayer & Company of Munich in 1902 for St. Michael Church’s Golden Jubilee, 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 and drew on centuries of craft and technique. 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 the Old Town Roman Catholic church.
The ceiling mural over the central nave includes symbolic depictions of the four evangelists. Its filigree evokes medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as perhaps one of the scenes from the Book of Genesis painted in the dome of The Basilica of St Mark in Venice in the fifteenth century.
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 also rising. In less than 50 years Chicago developed out of an onion swamp into the second most populated city in the United States. Between 1874 until after 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 Europe signaled the beginning of the end for German cultural dominance in Chicago and was virtually completely dismantled by World War II.
Sources: 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; St. Michael Church website.
All photographs taken by author on February 13 and 17, 2013.