A brief history of St. Michael in Old Town.
St. Michael in Old Town was started by the Diocese of Chicago to serve the many German immigrants who had come to Chicago. As these immigrants settled in Chicago, they moved into the area north of the Chicago River known today as “Old Town.” The Archdiocese authorized the founding of St. Michael Parish in 1852, and a committee was established to organize the new parish, which was to be located near North Avenue and Larrabee Street. Michael Diversey, a prosperous immigrant brewer donated a small plot of land at North Avenue and Church Street (later to become Hudson Street) for the newly founded St. Michael’s parish. With property in hand, the committee set about to build a modest house of worship. With the bishop’s consent, the new parish was named for St. Michael, under the patronage of the archangel and in gratitude for Michael Diversey’s land donation.
Parishioners collected $750.00, and using all but $20.00, built a wooden church. On Sunday, October 17, 1852, St. Michael Church was dedicated. A small church bell, purchased with the remaining $20.00 welcomed the 43 families who made up the parish at its founding. The months that followed saw the acquisition of additional property adjacent to the original plot, which served to expand the potential for future parish buildings. The parish began the construction of a rectory and rented a nearby building to serve as a school for the parishioner children.
Barely a year later, the parishioners began to bicker, an era of revolving-door pastors began. In response to this problem, the Bishop wrote to the Baltimore-based Redemptorists Provincial Superior, asking for members of his order to take charge of the fledgling St. Michael Parish in Chicago. The Redemptorists came to serve the German faithful at St. Michael’s in 1860 and have been here ever since. Father Joseph Mueller, sixth pastor of St. Michael’s and the first Redemptorists pastor celebrated his first Mass at the church on February 26, 1860.
On Sunday, September 23, 1866, following a ceremonial blessing, workmen broke ground for a magnificent and huge new brick church to stand of the corner of Eugenie Street (then Linden Street) and Cleveland Avenue (then Hurl- but Street). To keep construction costs down, the exterior walls were of red sandstone bricks made locally. A point of pride for parishioners was the 200-foot height of the steeple, far eclipsing the 140-foot height of the Chicago Water Tower. St. Michael’s became one of the tallest structures in the city for awhile and could be seen for miles. On September 29, 1869 – the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, St. Michael’s new church building was blessed and dedicated.
1871 Chicago Fire
Two years later, however, tragedy struck not only the parish, but the city as well. On October 8, 1871, the fabled O’Leary house and barn on Chicago’s south side burst into flames, which fanned north, aided by gusty southerly winds. As the fire moved past Holy Name Cathedral, religious from nearby institutions rushed to St. Michael’s for respite, but they knew that the fire was just a few hours away. Priests, brothers, and nuns, helped by parishioners, packed parish treasures onto an oxcart and fled. Soon, flames tore into all the parish buildings, leveling all of them. Only the walls of the church remained standing.
The task of rebuilding began within a week, and a wooden combination church and school was erected. The roof was complete in October 1872, and on October 12, 1873, the rebuilt St. Michael’s church was consecrated and rededicated. St. Michael’s was one of the first Chicago churches to rise again from the ashes of the Great Fire. On January 30, 1876, the five bells in the as-yet unfinished church tower rang out officially for the first time. The original tower bells had melted into a bronze mass and collapsed into the church building as the roof blazed. The new bells were blessed and dedicated and were named: St. Michael, St. Mary, St. Joseph, St. Alphonsus, and St. Theresa.
The next phase of growth began in 1887, when work began on the
church’s 290-foot spire. Dedicated in May 1888, the tower was capped by a gilded cross more than 24 feet tall and 9 feet wide. A large four-faced Schwa Bach clock completed the tower decorations. In 1890, a large Kilgen pipe organ was installed in the church’s upper loft.
Twentieth Century Brings Changes
As the 20th century began, work began on redecorating the church’s interior. The capstone of the planning included the design and installation of five altars in the church. Dedicated and installed by the E. Hackner and Sons altar-construction firm of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the altar featured additional painting flourishes by Milwaukee liturgical artist Alhonse Briefmaier, the main altar being the most magnificent. Towering into the cupola, the Romanesque high altar combined silver, gold, and onyx, placing an 8-foot-tall statue of St. Michael the Archangel in a niche high above. St. Michael is surrounded by the angels Gabriel and Raphael accompanied by pictures of the nine choirs of angels. The four smaller, but artistically consistent side altars commemorate Catholic devotion and are dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, The Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Joseph and the Poor Souls in purgatory. The most exciting change, however, was the addition of the sixteen stained glass windows, designed and built by the Mayer Window Art Institute of Munich, Germany. Twelve large windows depicting scenes from the life of Jesus and the Blessed Mother were placed in the church, six on either side of the nave; four smaller windows were placed in the sanctuary. In 1913, extensive refacing of the church facade was coordinated by architect Hermann Gaul. A 9-foot statue of St. Michael, carved by Gault and Company, was raised to the niche above the main entrance.
By 1924, a new organ filled the church with sound from more than 2,200 pipes. Also new to the loft was a detailed St. Cecilia-motif “Rose Window” produced by the Mayer Institute of Munich. The altar was renovated for the centennial in 1952. The light-bulb motif of 1902 was removed from the altars and columns. The hand-carved wooden “Last Supper” was restored
By the 1990s, the church ministered to a whole new world, facing its own pressures, yearning in its own way for the Word of God. In 2002, St. Michael’s celebrated its 150th year. The parish has been a beacon and an anchor for those who have called themselves parishioners and those who passed through, merely guests. In a throw-away, consumable society, St. Michael in Old Town remains a steady, dependable source of inspiration and confirmation.
The parishioners of St. Michael in Old Town are lucky to be surrounded by the beauty that exists in our church. Many, however, do not know the stories behind that beauty, The Docents of St. Michael in Old Town offer tours of the church that focus on the history, art, and religion that is found in our great church. If you are interested in learning more about St. Michael in Old Town, the Docents invite you to take the 25-minute tour after the Sunday 11:00 a.m. Masses in the winter and the Sunday 9:00 a.m. Masses in the summer. All tours meet at the back of the church by the “1871″ display on the east side of the church. Please consult the bulletin for specifics of Sunday tours. Group tours can be arranged by calling the Parish Office at (312) 642-2498 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
After the tour take a moment to view the many artifacts on display in the Museum at the back of the church. These items on display are some of the important pieces of the history of St. Michael's.
Click here to preview pictures of the museum and its contents.
The Tour Director of St. Michael’s also provides training to anyone interested in becoming a docent. If you would like to share the history of St. Michael’s with others, please e-mail email@example.com or call the Parish Office at (312) 642-2498.
Parish Prayer for
Loving Creator, at our Baptism we were given the gift of faith.
Continue to bring our faith to life. In your goodness bless this mutual mission of the Redemptorist community and people of St. Michael in Old Town.
May we who have gathered around your altar and now join in prayer, open our hearts to welcome all your children, those known and unknown, sisters and brothers all. May our dedication to living our faith be supported by the parish staff, the pastoral council and this community of faith of St. Michael’s.
When the bells ring in our tower, may they be a reminder to all in our neighborhood of your unconditional love and ever abiding presence in every moment of our lives. May they ring to celebrate the faith you inspire within us. May they ring to call all of us to discipleship in Christ.
Loving Creator, accept our prayers, continue what you have begun in us. Deepen within us what you have made known through Jesus your Son, and inspire us through the wisdom and encouragement of your Holy Spirit, for you are One God, forever and ever. Amen
The Altars of Saint Michael in Old Town
The fifteenth pastor of Saint Michael in Old town started the plans for the Golden Jubilee Celebration in early 1901. In 1902, five new altars were completed by E. Hackner & Sons of Lacrosse Wisconsin, and installed. These are carved wood that has been painted in the Baroque style.
As was popular at the time 2,000 light bulbs illuminated the altars of the church and the arches. Two of these light bulbs are still in place on the Poor Souls altar. All others were removed in 1952.
In addition, a carving depicting “The Last Supper” was inset into the base of the High Altar of Angels. This carving was purchased by Saint Michael in Old Town at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. The carving, completed by an Italian artist from one piece of wood, was presented for sale in the Italian Pavilion.
In addition to the High Altar of Angels are from left to right; The Poor Souls Altar, The Sacred Heart Altar, The Family Altar (or Saint Joseph Altar), and the most revered Our Mother of Perpetual Help Altar.