As many of the city’s initial settlers had moved north into the region from southern Illinois, a Methodist circuit was established that brought Methodist preacher Jesse Walker to Chicago on a regular basis as the town’s first representative of organized religion. In 1831, Stephen Beggs was assigned to the local congregation as Chicago’s first resident minister to be joined the following year by Walker. Subsequently, the increased rate of settlement in early 1833 had also brought enough Roman Catholics to Chicago that they successfully petitioned the Bishop of St. Louis for a resident priest. Father John M. I. St. Cyr arrived in Chicago on May 1. At this same time, the commandant of the garrison at Fort Dearborn, Major John Fowle, a Presbyterian, had made a request for a minister to the American Home Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church, which brought the Rev. Jeremiah Porter to Chicago only twelve days after Father St. Cyr had arrived. Hence, by June 1833, three major Christian denominations had full-time resident ministers hard at work in the bustling town. It took the arrival of a fourth in July, however, to stir the original three from their complacency into a competition that would stretch over the next twenty years to build Chicago’s largest and most beautiful building dedicated to God.
On July 4, 1833, Dr. John T. Temple, a Baptist, arrived in Chicago. At first, he attended the Presbyterian services at the fort, but ideally he wanted to attend a Baptist service led by a Baptist minister in a Baptist building. He, therefore, requested the American Baptist Home Missionary Society to send a minister, and in anticipation of his arrival started construction of a two-story frame building along the emerging S. Water Street corridor on the southeast corner of S. Water and Franklin Streets. When Rev. Allen B. Freeman arrived in town on August 16, the Temple Building was ready for his use. Temple had spent over $900 of his own money on Chicago’s first house of religion. While the second floor was intended to provide space for a school, the ground floor was a hall for religious services. In the spirit of the day, the Baptists graciously extended the use of the first floor hall to their Protestant cousins, while at the same time forthrightly denying any such use by the town’s Catholics.
Left out in the cold, the Catholics had no choice but to eventually respond with their own structure, if they did not want to lose the battle over Chicago’s many souls to those who had their own building for worship. Therefore, the city’s Catholics had begun construction in August on Chicago’s first Roman Catholic church, St. Mary’s Church. Located near the southwest corner of Lake and State Streets, one block removed from the bustling S. Water Street district, the plain, small (25′ by 35′) building was erected during August and September 1833 by carpenter Augustine D. Taylor, who had just arrived from Connecticut in June. As the parish lacked the resources of Temple, and yet was in a hurry to complete the building in order to catch up with the Protestants, Taylor, therefore, employed Chicago’s new method of wood construction. St. Mary’s was the most famous of the early balloon-framed structures because, until Sprague’s research, many historians believed it to have been the first balloon frame erected. By October the church was sufficiently completed to be dedicated, although the interior had not yet been plastered and the exterior still needed to be painted. In fact, the building appeared quite stark (it cost only $400), for even the roof remained unbroken by a steeple or tower, which was not added until a later date.
By this time the Presbyterians could afford to build a larger, more expensive building than the Temple Building. Enjoying the hospitality of the Baptists, unlike the Catholics, they were not under any pressure to erect their building as fast as possible, so they were able to utilize the more traditional timber frame when they began work on the First Presbyterian Church on the southwest corner of Lake and Clark Streets. The time involved with frame construction was evident in that the church wasn’t sufficiently completed by Joseph Meeker to be dedicated until January 4, 1834. Somewhat surprisingly, Chicago’s first congregation, the Methodists, were the last to build a church, waiting until June 1834 to begin construction north of the river at the corner of N. Water and Clark Streets. One of the first actions taken by the new town trustees had been the implementation of a free ferry in September 1833 across the Main Branch at Dearborn. The Presbyterians’ decision to start construction may have been influenced by the start of work in March 1834, on the first bridge over the main branch of the river at Dearborn Street, only a block east of the lot owned by the Methodists. Unlike the stationary Randolph Street bridge over the South Branch, the Dearborn bridge that opened in August 1834, was made a drawbridge with a sixty-foot opening, anticipating the river traffic soon to come.
Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Mayer, Harold M., and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf. 1940.
Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy. Architecture in Old Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.
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