Although the city’s population had stagnated at 4000 between 1837 and 1840, as the national economy began to regain momentum in 1844, so had Chicago’s size.  Since 1840, it had taken only four years for the population to double, and one year later in 1845, it had tripled to 12,088.  By 1847, another 4000 had arrived so that Chicago’s population was 16,859.  The four-fold increase in population had caused a similar rise in the city’s building inventory.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the number and size of churches that had sprung up since the economy had started to rebound.

St. James Episcopal Church, on Cass, between Michigan and Illinois, 1836. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

Although Chicago had five buildings located throughout the young town that served as houses of worship prior to the Panic of 1837, only one of these, St. James Episcopal Church, actually looked like a traditional church.  The other four, the Temple (Baptist) Building, the First Presbyterian, the First Methodist, and St. Mary’s, were nondescript, simply-constructed buildings that provided shelter for their congregations to meet.  While the Panic had brought on an initial wave of anger toward and denial of God, as despair and destitution set in during 1838, these spiritual institutions provided the last straw of hope to be grasped by a desperate populace.  The Protestant congregations, with the exception of the Episcopalians, mounted increasingly vigorous “revival” campaigns that ran for months on end and were characterized by overfilled daily meetings for the unemployed.  Conversions occurred en masse, so successful were the ministers.  Untamed Chicago was experiencing a complete reversal under the despair of the depression.  “Gambling tables were ‘almost deserted; the ball-room… as silent as the grave; and the venders of liquid poisons’ complained ‘bitterly of the injury done to their craft.'”

The person usually credited with the turnaround in Chicago’s spiritual climate was Rev. Peter R. Borein, who had been appointed pastor of the First Methodist congregation in the North Division, just as the Panic had reached Chicago.  Borein proved so effective in bringing people to the Faith that he was compared with “Joshua… [who] led them out of the wilderness.”  His unceasing efforts snowballed from a few converts into the wholesale conversion of groups as new members of the congregation, many being residents of the South Division.  Hence, in the summer of 1838 as the size of the congregation soared, it voted, probably at the urging of Rev. Borein to relocate to the south.  The move was made affordable by a gift from a member of the congregation of the lot at the southeast corner of Washington and Clark Streets, diagonally across from the Courthouse and Public Square.  Whereas in 1834, when the congregation had constructed its first building north of the river when the new southern location would have been proclaimed as being too far away from the center of town, by 1838, the South Division had grown in the only direction it had room to, away from the riverbank’s hustle and bustle, so that now the Public Square was almost completely encircled and actually offered the only “open space” on the south side.  Such a space would not only provide a pleasant atmosphere adjacent to the church, one much more appropriate than the noise and filth of the riverfront, but would also be a prominent and prestigious location for the congregation as it was across from the Courthouse.  In addition, the open Public Square would afford an undisturbed vista of the church building from the sidewalks surrounding the Square, a unique condition in the otherwise “street-tunnelled” grid of Chicago’s urban pattern.  Presented with such advantages, the congregation moved their building to the new location during the latter half of 1838.

The other Protestant denomination that had joined in the “revival” fever was the Presbyterians, who under the able leadership of their second pastor, the Rev. John Blatchford, also doubled in numbers, requiring a larger building.  Following the lead of their brethren Methodists, the Presbyterians obtained the southwest corner of Washington and Clark, across the street from the Methodists’ new location, and moved their building from the southwest corner of Lake and Clark two blocks south to the new lot in the summer of 1839, at the same time doubling its length in order to house the expanded congregation.  With this action, what seemed to be a Protestant precinct along Washinton Street across from the Courthouse that would eventually be referred to as “Church Row” began to emerge in Chicago’s urban landscape.

First Unitarian Church, north side of Washington, between Clark and Dearborn, 1840. Illustration modified to remove later steeple. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

Even though the “revival meeting” was not in the tradition of the Unitarians who met regularly at the Lake House, they, too, benefited from the religious fervor.  Membership had so increased that by the fall of 1840, they had begun construction on their first building.  Undoubtedly following the rationale of their Protestant siblings of wanting to be closer to the homes of its members, the Unitarians had bought a site on the north side of Washington a few lots east of the northeast corner of Washington and Clark, near the Public Square and, just across from where the Methodists had chosen to relocate.  On May 3, 1841, they dedicated the First Unitarian Church, a well-designed structure whose Greek Revival Doric facade not only differed markedly from the pseudo-Gothic garb of St. James, but also outclassed its two Protestant neighbors with its 42′ by 60′ dimensions.

The Catholics at this time, however, were distracted from the religious upswing by internal division.  Father St. Cyr, who had built St. Mary’s into Chicago’s largest congregation, had been reassigned to St. Louis in April 1837.  His successor, Rev. Leander Schaffer, who had ministered to the German-speaking inhabitants (primarily having emigrated from southern Germany) under St. Cyr, died shortly after St. Cyr’s departure, leaving a leadership vacuum within the parish.  A power struggle then ensued between the two major factions of the congregation, the original German-speaking charter members of the parish, now led by Rev. Maurice de St. Palais, and the upstart, newly-arrived English-speaking Irish, who supported Father Timothy O’Meara.  Apparently the animosity between the two groups erupted into full divorce after O’Meara claimed personal ownership of all parish property, including the church building, against the advice of his immediate superior, the Bishop of Vincennes.  O’Meara, however, enjoyed widespread popularity among the Irish canal workers whose muscle apparently had goaded him to such an extreme action.  He eventually had the temerity to unilaterally have the church building moved three blocks south from its original location to the southwest corner of Madison and Michigan, to have the church closer to the homes of his supporters.  De St. Palais’ followers refused to go to the new southern location, opting instead to hold Mass in a rented room in a building at the corner of Randolph and Wells.  The split lasted until August 1840 when Father O’Meara was threatened with excommunication by his immediate superiors and finally agreed to back down.  He was consequently reassigned, leaving de St. Palais in charge of the task of reuniting the two groups.

By this time, the Catholics had caught their Protestant brethren’s revival fervor and the growth in the number of Catholics correspondingly had started to revive.  During the spring of 1841, new settlers had once again started to pour into Chicago, supplying even more fuel for the religious fire and swelling the church rolls to the point of bursting at the seams.  Interestingly, even though the Catholics had been the last to jump onto the revival bandwagon, they were the first to respond to the explosion in membership with the construction of a much larger church building.  In May 1843 the country’s Roman Catholic Provincial Council had met in Baltimore to respond to the growth in its membership nationwide by recommending to the Pope the formation of three new dioceses, one of which was Chicago.  Correspondingly, Pope Gregory XVI created the diocese of Chicago on September 30, 1843.  In anticipation of Papal approval, de St. Palais decided in 1843 to begin construction of a cathedral.  The site chosen was not the block of northside property that Ogden and Newberry had donated in 1839 in exchange for a few Council votes in favor of the construction of the Clark Stret bridge, but the southwest corner of Madison and Wabash, one block west of where O’Meara had unilaterally moved St. Mary’s in the first place and had initially divided the parish.  Seemingly in an attempt to regain some of the lost prestige from the relatively parsimonious construction of St. Mary’s, de St. Palais’ ambition far exceeded the parish’s limited resources.  He embarked on the construction of a structure that was more than twice the size of any church in Chicago, being 55′ by 112′ in plan and having 34′ high brick walls.  It was to be the first Chicago church with a real portico, twelve feet deep, and supported by four freestanding, historically accurate Ionic columns.  The portico faced east, opening onto an unbroken view of the “Public Ground” on the lakefront with the full glory of Lake Michigan only a block away in the background.  The pièce de résistance, however, that was to raise the ante between the local denominations to new heights of competition was that St. Mary’s Cathedral was to sport Chicago’s first steeple.  The battle to own the tallest structure in Chicago had been joined.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Bluestone, Daniel. Constructing Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Industrial Chicago-vol. 1: The Building Interests, Chicago: Goodspeed, 1891.

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.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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