Posts Tagged 'landmarks'

St. Paul Catholic Church

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

The parish was established in 1876. Many Catholic parishes were then organized on an ethnic basis, and St. Paul was founded to serve Germans living south and west of 18th and Halsted Streets. The Great Fire of 1871 had destroyed a large part of the North Side German settlement. With the new McCormick Reaper Works opening at Western and Blue Island Avenues, the Lower West Side attracted many displaced German families.

St. Paul’s first services were held in private homes. As more people joined the congregation, an unused stable was moved to the southwest corner of Hoyne Avenue and 22nd Place, to serve as a temporary church. A four-room school was built. In 1886 the foundations for a permanent church were laid on the property. Then Father George Heldmann became pastor.

Heldmann had a grand vision for St. Paul parish, and inspired his people to share in it. To make home ownership affordable for the local immigrant families, parishioners organized the St. Paul Savings and Loan Association, which would eventually become one of the five largest S&Ls in the state. The little school building was expanded. Heldmann also took a deeper look at the plans for the new church. He wasn’t satisfied with them.

In 1897 Heldmann 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. He felt it would remind the parishioners of the churches they’d left behind in the old country, most notably the famous Cologne Cathedral.

Schlacks himself became the general contractor. The parishioners included many skilled masons and bricklayers, who did much of the labor in their spare time. 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. Like any work of art, the church was a living thing.

Father George Heldmann had built well, but not wisely. In rushing to finish the church and complete his other projects, he had plunged the parish into serious debt. In 1903 the archbishop removed him as pastor.

Still, the people did have their church. St. Paul was the first brick Gothic church in America, reputed to be fireproof. At 245-feet tall, the twin towers were higher than most Loop office buildings. The main pulpit was fashioned from Carrara marble. The Venetian mosaics and the stained-glass windows were worthy of the finest Old World cathedral.

As the years passed, the German families that 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 Lower West Side. 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 to a memorable night sequence in the 1987 movie The Untouchables. 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 that St. Paul was also doomed. The parishioners launched a restoration effort, contributing as much of their personal 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 out west from the Loop and look for the spires.


This is just one of the 60 stories in my most recent book, Hidden Chicago Landmarks.  Available at local bookstores or on Amazon.