Route 66 review:  Old St. Pat’s Church is a remarkable piece of Chicago history

Part 1 of 2

So you’re expecting to attend the 30th annual World’s Largest Block Party in front of Old St. Patrick’s Church on Desplaines Street this weekend on June 27th and 28th, are you?  Better make sure you have tickets in advance – it’s quite the shindig.  While you’re there, you might want to take a closer look at the church itself.  From the street, of course – the church will likely be closed during the block party.  But it’s worth coming back in daylight to see the breathtaking Celtic Revival interior.  You won’t find such an Irish-looking church anywhere else outside of Ireland.  Besides, it’s an invaluable piece of Chicago history,  being the oldest remaining church building in the city and one of the city’s oldest public buildings still standing.

St. Patrick’s doesn’t reveal much outside.  It was designed by Carter & Bauer, one of Chicago’s earliest architectural firms.  The main structure was completed in 1856, the spires in 1885.  The exterior is of Cream City common brick, made from yellowish clay found along the shores of Lake Michigan near Milwaukee.  The base is of Joliet limestone, a good choice to go with the yellow brick, given the dolomite’s creamy color.

Old St. Pat's - 1, cropped - blog (MRTraska)

Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, designed by Asher Carter and Augustus Bauer, was constructed when the parish was a decade old.  (Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

It’s not the original structure used when the parish was founded in 1846 at Randolph and Desplaines streets.  That tiny wooden structure was used for a decade and was moved to this block when the parish bought property here in 1853.  This was the first English-speaking Catholic parish in Chicago; the first Catholic parish in Chicago, St. Mary’s, was built by the French.  St. Patrick’s Parish was created for Irish immigrants – laborers who came to work on the Illinois & Michigan Canal and those fleeing the Great Hunger that followed the notorious potato famine of 1848 in Ireland.  St. Patrick’s became a home to Irish culture.

The church and parish are known today as Old St. Pat’s for a reason.  St. Patrick’s is one of the oldest buildings in the city, having been spared from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which began only a few blocks south at DeKoven and Jefferson (where the fire academy now stands – a fitting if ironic tribute to the city’s resilience).  The church’s survival was locally taken to be a miracle, as the church was about a mile directly north of the fire’s starting point at the O’Leary barn whereas prevailing winds were from the southwest and south and drove the fire generally northeast and north.

Thomas A. O'Shaughnessy in 1914, while he was working on Old St. Pat's windows. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress American Memory Collection)

Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy in 1914 (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

The church prospered as the city was rebuilt. As the city grew, so did the parish. The arrival of Rev. William J. McNamee as the new pastor in 1911 triggered the transformation of a bland interior into a masterpiece of Celtic design – and by then, the parish was well enough off to afford it, though the main architect of the interior redesign, Chicago Daily News graphic artist and designer Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy, was never paid more than a modest salary beyond the cost of his materials.

The parish survived both world wars, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and the Korean War.  In 1956, the church celebrated its 100-year anniversary; it was also the first time in 60 years that the city had held a St. Patrick’s Day parade, which then began at the church and has ever since.  But the post-war years also saw a general deterioration of the central city as Chicagoans flocked to the suburbs and the promise of owning their own homes in fresh, outdoorsy settings.  During the 40 years between 1950 and 1990, the population of Chicago actually declined by 25 percent.  And as the downtown area’s fortunes fell, so too did the parish fell on hard times.  By 1950, the church itself was in danger of demolition.

By the late 1950s, the area around St. Pat’s was known as Skid Row with Madison Street as its main drag, beset by drunken derelicts and deterioration.  The crime rate rose, and many considered the area unsafe.  In 1962, there was a late-night break-in and assault in the rectory, though the housekeeper and the pastor, armed with his WW II service weapon, fought off the intruder.  Starting the next day, then Mayor Richard J. Daley stationed a policeman at the rectory at all hours, until Daley himself died years later.

During the late 1950s, construction of the Kennedy Expressway (I-90-94) delivered the final insult as it cut away much of St. Pat’s neighborhood.  Nevertheless, in 1964 the church was designated a Chicago landmark.  The main thing that kept the parish going over the years were its schools; however, by 1972, St. Patrick’s High School for Girls finally closed.  St. Pat’s hung on, but just barely.  When in 1983 the Rev. John Wall persuaded the controversial John Cardinal Cody (then Archbishop of Chicago) to let him become pastor of St. Pat’s, there were only four registered parishioners and not many more regular attendees at Mass.

Father Wall decided to start rebuilding the parish with outreach to young adults.  Thus in 1984 was born the World’s Largest Block Party, which would fund those efforts.  Then the pastor undertook an aggressive campaign to renovate the church, starting with the critical essentials:  new electrical systems, new plumbing and a new roof.  Coincidentally – and, perhaps, ironically – as the church’s physical infrastructure improved, so did the neighborhood.  The demolition of Skid Row and the addition of the modern Social Security Administration Building with its Batcolumn sculpture by artist Claes Oldenburg signaled the change.  This bleak, empty landscape saw the dubious erection (20 years late) of the large corporate residential complex and real estate boondoggle called Presidential Towers, a project that had to get a $160 million bailout and refinancing in 1992.  Slow to take off, it eventually gathered steam (and renters).  Non-corporate residents also slowly began to return to the area – and to St. Pat’s, which was starting to look spiffier than it had in decades.

The first thing you notice about the church’s exterior is that its two spires differ.  There’s a reason for that: the south spire represents the Western rite church, whereas the northern spire represents the Eastern or Byzantine rite church.  Taken together, they symbolically encompass all of Catholic Christendom.  The overall exterior is plain yet suitable enough for its era; it’s the interior that is the don’t-miss, especially since the most recent renovations.  The exterior might be any generic church of its time, but the interior is unmistakably Irish (please note: unles otherwise indicated, all photos on this page are copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved).

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O’Shaughnessy, an Irishman from Missouri, came to Chicago to study art.  The Celtic art in the Irish village built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition helped to stimulate the Celtic Revival movement.  This would profoundly influence O’Shaughnessy‘s designs for St. Pat’s.  Hired by Father McNamee as the master craftsman, O’Shaughnessy created the 15 magnificent stained glass windows plus the original interior stenciling, decorative motifs and a mosaic-lined niche in the back of the nave between 1912 and 1922.  This is the interior that early travelers on U.S. Route 66 in 1926-27 would have seen, the lucky dogs, had they stopped to visit the church.

His Celtic Revival décor is inspired by the famous Irish Book of Kells, a 1,200-year-old hand-illuminated Bible that O’Shaughnessy was able to see for himself during a visit to Ireland.  Remarkably, he was also able to persuade the monks to let him examine the book closely in the library with his sketchbook beside him and copied many of the designs.  This was after he had attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had studied there with stained glass expert Louis Millet (who worked with a number of famous architects, including Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright), and then had gone to Europe to perfect his stained glass technique.  (Sullivan, who was Irish himself and a step dancer like his father, also borrowed heavily for his interlace ornament from both Celtic art and Art Nouveau, so O’Shaughnessy wasn’t alone in this.)

But O’Shaughnessy‘s glass technique really developed as he worked on the windows for Old St. Pat’s.  The windows were done and installed in order, with the first one to the right of the altar and the rest numbered in clockwise fashion.  If you examine the nave windows in order, you can see his technique evolve over time.  There are other, smaller inset windows above the front doors and in the walls of the balcony stairs.  The glass colors for all of the windows were manufactured in 1912 per O’Shaughnessy’s own formulas by Kinsella Art Glass Studio of Chicago.  By 1920, there were 50 stained glass makers in the city, but few of them were able to achieve O’Shaughnessy’s glowing colors – and he used a total of 2,000 colors for these windows.

The trio of Art Nouveau windows above the choir balcony were the last ones O’Shaughnessy completed.  Together, they symbolize the three virtues faith, hope and charity, as viewed left to right from the nave.  The central window – named the MacSwiney Window after an Irish patriot Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork – is the most intricate of the lot; it uses more than 250,000 individual pieces of glass and no paint whatsoever, which tells you a lot about O’Shaughnessy’s level of skill by the time he did that window.

The MacSwiney (Hope) window  (Photo copyright M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

The MacSwiney (Hope) window, Old St. Pat’s  (Photo copyright M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

In a 1997 review of the restoration, art historian and critic Rolf Achilles of the School of Art Institute of Chicago wrote of the triptych: “This amazing set of windows is arguably the finest of its kind in the U.S.  Thousands of precisely cut and delicately hued areas of glass, separated by hairlines of lead, copper foil and bronze, are assembled in an unsurpassed spiritual imagery.”  They were completed in 1921.

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Next time:  Part 2 of 2

Until next time,
Your Route 66 scrivener, Marie

Note:  This post is partially excerpted from our upcoming book, tentatively titled The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago: A History of the Eastern Terminus by Maria R. Traska, Joseph D. Kubal and Keith Yearman; copyright 2014 by Maria R. Traska, all rights reserved.  No portion of this text may be used or reproduced by others without express written consent of the authors.



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