Our History

Saint Michael in Old Town traces its roots back to 1852, when the Diocese of Chicago established the parish to serve the many German immigrants who had come to Chicago.
 

Michael Diversey, a German immigrant who had established a very successful brewery in Chicago, donated a small plot of land at North Avenue and Church (now Hudson) Street.  With property in hand, the parish committee collected $750 from parishioners and built a modest house of worship, named for St. Michael the archangel – with a nod to Michael Diversey, too.

Humble Beginnings

The church was dedicated on Sunday, October 17, 1852, with 43 families. In the following months, the parish acquired additional land adjacent to the original plot, allowing it to begin construction of a rectory. To serve parishioners’ children, St. Michael also rented a nearby building and converted it into a school.

But within a year, suspicions and old country animosities (Germany had yet to become a unified country) led to parish bickering and an era of revolving-door pastors that lasted until 1860. At that point, Chicago Bishop James Duggan – hesitant to send another priest to the troubled parish – made a momentous decision that not only solved the problems but that established a tradition of harmony and excellence that has lasted until this day.

His solution: asking the Provincial Superior of the Redemptorists, for members of his order to take charge of the struggling parish. He knew that the Redemptorists had served for decades in the various German principalities, and they were very aware of the regional differences and religious mindset of the people.  The Provincial Superior said yes, and so Father Joseph Mueller, C.Ss.R., sixth pastor (and the first Redemptorist pastor) of St. Michael celebrated his first Mass at the church on February 26, 1860.

At that time, St. Michael’s began growing. On September 23, 1866, following a ceremonial blessing, workers broke ground for a magnificent new brick church, standing at the corner of Linden (now Eugenie) Street and Hurlbut (now Cleveland) Avenue. A point of pride for parishioners was the 200-foot-tall steeple, which far eclipsed the 140-foot height of Chicago’s Water Tower.  St. Michael’s became one of the city’s tallest buildings, visible for miles. On September 29, 1869, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, St. Michael’s new church building was blessed and dedicated.

       

The Great Chicago Fire

Two years later, however, tragedy struck the parish, as well as the city of Chicago.  On October 8, 1871, the fabled O’Leary house and barn on the city’s south side burst into flames.  Fanned by gusty winds, the fire fanned north. As the fire roared past downtown’s Holy Name Cathedral, religious from nearby institutions rushed to St. Michael’s for respite, but they knew the fire was just a few hours away. Priests, brothers and nuns, and parishioners packed the church’s treasures into an oxcart and fled. Soon afterward, flames tore into all the parish buildings, leveling 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.  On October 12, 1873, the rebuilt St. Michael’s church was consecrated and rededicated, one of the first Chicago churches to rise from the fire’s ashes.

The next phase of growth began in 1887, when work began on the church’s 290-foot-tall spire. Dedicated in May of 1888, the tower was capped by a gilded cross, more than 24 feet tall and nine feet across. A large four-faced clock, crafted by Milwaukee’s famed Mathias Schwalbach, completed the tower’s decorations. A few years later, St. Michael’s installed a Pilcher pipe organ in its upper loft.

       

Change in the Twentieth Century

In 1902, St. Michael’s celebrated its Golden Jubilee by installing five altars, described in more detail in the Art and Architecture pages of this site. Largest is the high altar, capped by an 8-foot-tall statue of St. Michael the Archangel, surrounded by the angels Gabriel and Raphael.

Even more exciting were the 16 stained glass windows (again, see Art and Architecture) designed and built by the Mayer Window Art Institute in Munich, Germany. Twelve large windows, six on each side of the nave, depict scenes from the life of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. Four smaller windows were added in the sanctuary.

As the new century wore on, the parish community began to change. The St. Michael’s community, long a center for Chicago’s German Catholics, was beginning to assimilate into mainstream American culture. From the start, the church had conducted Mass and Sacraments, but German was used for sermons, missions, retreats, and parish publications. Slowly, English began to supplant the German language in those sermons and popular devotions.

The surrounding community changed, too, with a mix of Eastern Europeans moving into the area as many of the German families relocated to outlying areas. St. Michael’s recognized the growing need to minister to a changing community in the years to come. 

In 1924, St. Michael’s began raising funds to replace the Pilcher organ and remodel the choir loft. Built at a cost of $20,000, the new Kilgen organ (See Art and Architecture) had more than 2,200 pipes.  Gracing the loft was a detailed St. Cecilia-motif “Rose Window,” again by the Mayer Institute of Munich. 

A few years later, in 1927, the church celebrated its Diamond Jubilee, hosting various special events, including a Mass attended by Chicago’s George Cardinal Mundelein.

      

Depression, War, and Decline

At first, 1929’s stock market crash had little effect on St. Michael’s, as few parishioners invested in stocks. But the ensuing wave of bank failures and unemployment took a toll on the community and the church. Unfortunately, just before the crash, the church had launched a major fund-raising campaign to expand its small school into a full four-year secondary school. Dedication of the new St. Michael Central High School provided that school, but it left parishioners with a $600,000 debt to pay in a worsening Depression.

St. Michael’s survived the Depression. One loss was its small elementary school. Enrollment dropped sharply as many parents simply could not afford even a modest tuition. Other children dropped out of school, looking for any job that could help support their families.  The school was demolished in 1936.

 Slowly, and thankfully, the nation began to recover economically, in part because the coming of World War II turned the United States and its factories into the so-called “Arsenal of Democracy.” But the growing war clouds had a dark lining, too. As had happened during World War I, concerns about growing extremism in Germany, where many parishioners had their roots (and often families), led to conflicting loyalties.

 World War II’s end in 1945 brought a semblance of normalcy to the parish, and in 1952, St. Michael’s celebrated its centennial. Realistically, though, the neighborhood and the parish looked tired. Homes dated from before the turn of the century, and some larger homes had been divided into multiple-family apartment buildings. Some Old Town residents feared the community was about to become a slum.

 It almost happened. Some city planners wanted to rezone the neighborhood, raze many of the its structures, and replace them with factories and commercial structures. St. Michael’s and its pastor launched a vigorous campaign, working with other community and religious leaders to block the proposed rezoning. Church leaders throughout the area became advocates for neighborhood rebirth, zoning and code enforcement, and more effective law enforcement. A focus area was slowing the conversion of single-family homes to apartment buildings. Things began to improve, but it would take years to realize the full results of these efforts.

      

Revitalization

Favorable signs began to appear in the Old Town neighborhood during the 1960s, thanks to new residences, along with a spurt of commercial and tourist development on Wells Street. St. Michael’s celebrated the centennial of the church building in 1966, but the gentrification of the Old Town neighborhood had a negative side, too. As older buildings were torn down and replaced by upscale homes, many long-time members of the congregation began leaving the parish. Without their attendance and support, the high cost of maintaining the church complex increasingly become a challenge.

The first casualty was the 1929 St. Michael Central High School, where high costs and declining attendance forced its closure in 1978, after graduating its fiftieth class. Sale of the school building for condominium development provided a temporary financial respite, but financial problems continued, as an economic downturn slowed sales of the condo units.  Many new Old Town’s residents weren’t Catholic and didn’t attend churches as often as the lost neighbors. Compounding the problem were costly foundation and tower work on the church building.

Fortunately, a recovering economy put condo sales back on track, helping to stabilize the parish’s finances and funding needed restoration efforts. A $1.2 million fundraising campaign was another key element of the financial recovery, which continued through the church’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2002.

       

St. Michael Today

Since 2002, significant work has continued on the infrastructure to maintain the historic and architectural integrity. Tuckpointing, stained glass window restoration, interior design and a multi-phased restoration of the organ reflects the continued commitment to guarantee the church for future parishioners in Chicago.

 
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