Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral – Can’t Keep A Good Church Down

Old St. Patrick's is the oldest public building in Chicago, but it hasn't been easy to get that title. Three times in its extended history it's narrowly escaped destruction.

Old St. Patrick’s is the oldest public building in Chicago, but it hasn’t been easy to get that title. Three times in its extended history it’s narrowly escaped destruction.

The building itself was dedicated on Christmas Day, 1856. The parish had begun ten years earlier, founded by Irish immigrants who had escaped political and religious persecution in their homeland. For the first 10 years the church was a wooden structure, but in 1853 the cornerstone was laid for what was to become the best known church in Chicago.

This was partly because, with an English-speaking congregation, Old St. Pat’s was a “regular” or a “territorial” parish, serving Catholics in the general vicinity, instead of “national”, a parish that served Catholics of various non-English speaking ethnic groups. It was never isolated because of a language barrier.

The first major threat to the church’s survival was, ironically enough, caused by Irish immigrants. The Great Chicago Fire was purportedly started in the barn of Patrick & Catherine O’Leary. On its path north and east, it spared the church by a scant two blocks.

Over the next 50 years, the church continued to beautify its exterior. The spires were added in 1885. From 1912 to 1922 Chicago artist Thomas O’Shaughnessey created the gorgeous stained glass windows. Staying true to the church’s Irish heritage, they were modeled after the Celtic art exhibit in the The Columbian Exposition. The Irish Book of Kells provided the inspiration for the side windows.

All that effort was almost destroyed in 1950 with the construction next door of the expressway and a decline in enrollment. Even though its schools closed, it escaped the overall threat.

In 1977, the building itself was saved forever when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The final danger to Old St. Pat’s survival was apathy – by 1983 the congregation consisted of four registered members.

Then came Rev. John J. Wall to the rescue. He realized that the parish’s future rested on young Catholics so he began aggressively reaching out to youths and young working professionals. His coup d’etat was the “World’s Largest Block Party.” In 1985 he enlisted the help of the Young Irish Fellowship Club. They already had a “Forever Green” party, and he asked them to hold it on the street outside the church. 5,000 people attended that inaugural bash.

The party today gets about 25,000 visitors. Local and national acts perform at two different stages. The church is open for visitors, and placards are placed throughout detailing the history of Chicago’s oldest public building. Fully revived, membership as of 2003 was 3,000 households.

By the way, Old St. Pat’s is called “old” to distinguish it from four other parishes of the same name. Two of them are actually older, but they’re outside the city and you know how we Chicagoans are.

Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church
700 W Adams
(312)648-1021

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