A Gothic Gem on the Lower West Side

With its twin spires soaring over the surrounding cottages, St. Paul Catholic Church is visually stunning.  It calls to mind the medieval cathedrals of Western Europe.  And the story of St. Paul’s construction does follow that mode.

The parish was organized in 1876 to serve German Catholic families on the Lower West Side.  The first services were held in private homes.  In 1886 the foundation for a church was laid on the southwest corner of Hoyne Avenue and 22nd Place.  Then Fr. George Heldmann became pastor.

Fr. Heldmann wasn’t satisfied with the planned church.  In 1897 he had the old foundation filled in, and hired the young architect Henry Schlacks to build a grander structure.  Schlacks came up with a twin-tower Gothic design, which he felt would remind the parishioners of the churches they’d left behind in the old country.

0--St. Paul's

Schlacks himself became the general contractor.  The parishioners included many skilled masons and bricklayers, and they did much of the labor.  The materials used, as well as the traditional construction methods, earned St. Paul the nickname “the church built without a nail.”

The exterior walls were completed in only two years, allowing the church to be formally dedicated in the summer of 1899.  The signature front towers were finished the following year.

Work on the main altar and other parts of the interior went on in stages over the next three decades.  Even as he became a celebrated designer of churches, Henry Schlacks counted St. Paul as a favorite project.  He often returned to tweak his creation.

Fr. Heldmann had built well, but not wisely.  In rushing to finish the church, he’d plunged the parish into serious debt.  In 1903 he was removed by the archbishop.

Still, the people had their church. St. Paul was the first brick Gothic church in America, reputed to be fireproof.  At 245-feet high, the twin towers were taller than most Loop office buildings.  The Venetian mosaics and the stained-glass windows were amazing.

0--St. Paul during restoration

As the years passed, the German families who founded the parish dispersed to other parts of the city, and their place was taken by Poles and Czechs.  In the 1960s Mexicans began moving into the neighborhood.  Today they form the greater part of St. Paul’s congregation.

To the untrained eye, the church building itself seemed to be aging gracefully–it even served as the backdrop for a memorable night sequence in The Untouchables movie.  However, an engineering report in 2008 noted serious structural problems.  A major overhaul was needed.

Chicago was already losing such treasures as St. John of God Church and Temple Anshe Kenesseth Israel, and there were fears St. Paul was also doomed.  The parishioners launched a restoration effort, contributing as much of their labor as modern liability laws would allow.  The Archdiocese added a timely allocation of $10 million.  The church was saved.

Though it’s off the beaten path from most city tours, St. Paul Church is worth a visit.  Just head southwest and look for the spires.




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