St Michael Art and Architecture

Walls of red sandstone brick, the beautiful and spacious 200 foot long
interior has long made it a popular site for weddings and other rites.

Today’s St. Michael’s church really has several “birthdates.” The large church, which replaced a smaller house of worship, was designed by noted architect August Walbaum. It was blessed and dedicated in 1869. Two years later, the building was almost leveled by the Great Chicago Fire, which completely destroyed the church interior but spared the brick walls and foundation. Rebuilding began immediately, and the new church – basically the St. Michael’s of today – was rededicated in 1883.  The final touch was the 290-foot spire, dedicated in 1888.

In 1902 for the Jubilee Celebration, new altars and windows were ordered and installed. Some of our famous stained glass windows can be seen here. The five altars installed for the 1902 celebration are shown below.


Five Altars

The Five Altars date from 1902, the church’s Golden Jubilee year. Carved from wood and painted in the Baroque style, they were completed and installed by E. Hackner & Sons of La  Crosse, Wisconsin, a noted producer of church altars (including St. Benedict’s in Chicago). As was popular at the time, light 2000 light bulbs illuminated the altars and arches. Two of these bulbs are still in place on the Poor Souls altar. The rest were removed in 1952.


High Altar of Angels

This ornate 56’ high carved wood, painted altar is the centerpiece of the church. The focal point is Saint Michael, flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Raphael, casting Lucifer from heaven. As you move down the altar, the nine choirs of angels are represented. Two life size heroic figures retained from the previous altar are inserted, Saint Peter is holding a key and Saint Paul is holding a sword. A little lower in the altar, four smaller statues are identified by their attributes; Matthew (Winged Man), Luke (Winged Ram), Mark (Winged Lion) and John (Eagle) from left to right.


Poor Souls Altar

This altar depicts a soul being raised from purgatory to be united with Christ through the intercession of the priest at Mass. You can see two of the remaining light bulbs, of the 2000, that decorated the High Altar and various arches. The light bulbs were removed in 1952. The Latin phrase at the bottom inset is translated as “The written book will be brought forth, in which the whole (record of evidence) is contained whence the world is to be judged.”


Sacred Heart Altar

This altar honors Christ as He appeared to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 16th century. On either side of Jesus are Saints Alphonsus Liguori and Theresa of Avila, both founders of religious orders. Saint Alphonsus founded the Order of Redemptorists which is the Order of priests that have been at Saint Michael in Old Town for over 150 years. Saint Theresa of Avila founded the Discalced Carmelite Religious Order of Nuns. Many young people pray at this altar if they consider the pursuit of Holy Orders


Family Altar or St. Joseph Altar

Saint Joseph tenderly holds the Christ Child at the height of the altar. He is flanked by Saints Joachim (father of Mary) and Anne (mother of Mary). Saint Anne is shown with the young Mary. There is an inset at the bottom of the altar detailing the death of Joseph. This altar is a favorite place for the entire family to gather to pray. Many pray for the health of their children. Also, many newlywed couples go in front of this altar to pray for their home to be blessed with children


Most revered Our Mother of Perpetual Help Altar

This icon survived the Chicago Fire. Parishioners pray for miracles on their behalf regarding a loved one suffering illness or to support their own needs. The icon is filled with symbolism of the crucifixion and is dear to the Redemptorist Order of Priests due to its history with Saint Alphonsus.


The Last Supper Carving

The carving, by an unknown Italian artist and carved from one piece of wood, was featured at the Italian Pavilion at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. It was offered for sale after the fair, and St. Michael’s purchased it to inset into the base of the High Altar of Angels.


The Stained Glass Windows

The current windows are actually the fourth set of windows in St. Michael’s. The church’s design featured tall, thin windows, with Romanesque arched tops. The repetition of the windows and columns provides a pleasing harmony.  Initially, costs demanded the use of simple frosted windows, destroyed in the 1871 fire.  It wasn’t until 1902, when the parish celebrated its Golden Jubilee, that St. Michael’s beautiful stained glass windows were installed. Franz Mayer & Company of Munich, Germany created these masterpieces.


The Kilgen Organ

Installed in 1925, this organ was built by the George Kilgen & Sons Pipe Organ Company of St. Louis, Missouri (Opus 3406). The company, no longer in business, initially built smaller pipe organs for Midwestern churches, but it later produced some famed larger instruments, including the chancel and grand gallery organs for New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The company also produced a large number of theater organs. Visitors who wish to hear this magnificent “King of Instruments” should plan to attend the 11 a.m. Mass on Sundays or masses on major church holidays.

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