175th anniversary: Old St. Mary’s, the archdiocese’s first parish

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, November 8, 2018

The original frame structure of St. Mary’s Church was moved from Lake Street to Madison Street just west of Michigan Avenue, where it was enlarged and given a small open belfry. (Photo from St. Mary’s 100th anniversary book, 1933, courtesy Archives and Records)

Note: This story is part of a special issue marking the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of Chicago in November 1843.

In April 1833, Chicago wasn’t much more than a small frontier settlement, a collection of houses and commercial buildings surrounding Fort Dearborn. It was not yet a town, let alone a city.

But it housed enough Catholics to petition Bishop Joseph Rosati of the Diocese of St. Louis for a priest to start a parish.

“We, the Catholics of Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, lay before you the necessity there exists to have a pastor in the new and flourishing city. We count about 100 Catholics in this town. We will not cease to pray until you have taken our important request into consideration,” their petition said.

St. Mary of the Assumption was born May 5, 1833, when Father John Mary Irenaeus St. Cyr arrived and celebrated the first Mass in a log building near the Sauganash Tavern, where he was staying. Shortly thereafter, a log building was built at State and Lake streets for worship.

Chicago first incorporated as a town, with 350 people, about three months after St. Cyr arrived. By the time Chicago became a city on March 4, 1837, the population had grown to 4,170.

That marked the beginning of the somewhat nomadic history of Chicago’s oldest parish. Today the parish, is housed in one of the newest church buildings in the archdiocese at 1500 S. Michigan Ave.

St. Cyr saw his parish grow to about 2,000 Catholics before he was recalled to St. Louis in 1837. By that time, Chicago was part of the newly formed Diocese of Vincennes, Indiana, and a new pastor, Father Timothy O’Meara, was sent from there.

The building was moved to the northwest corner of Madison Street and Michigan Avenue. By 1843, the third pastor, Father Maurice de St. Palais, built a bigger church on the southwest corner of the intersection.

The next year, the parish — still the only one in the city of Chicago, although a handful had sprung up in surrounding areas — became the cathedral of the newly created Diocese of Chicago, led by Bishop William Quarter.

It served as the cathedral until after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when Holy Name Cathedral was being built. After the fire destroyed its buildings, the parish  moved to the former Plymouth Congregational Church at the corner of Ninth Street and Wabash Avenue. No longer the cathedral, the church became known as Old St. Mary’s.

The parish, which had housed the first Catholic schools in Chicago (for girls and for boys, both opened in 1846) closed its parish school in about 1880. The parish would not have another school until 2004.

But the 1880s saw more changes. Father Augustus Tolton, the first acknowledged African-American priest, began celebrating Mass for black Catholics in the basement, before being given St. Monica Parish on the South Side.

As its South Loop location became more and more commercial, Archbishop James Quigley called it “the church of the stranger,” and of workers and travelers passing through rather than the usual stable base of parishioners.

That fit with the mission of the Paulist Fathers, a New York-based congregation founded in 1858 to evangelize North America. In 1903, Archbishop Quigley invited the Paulists to take charge of Old St. Mary’s.

In 1931, the parish began offering outreach to Filipino Catholics in the archdiocese, and in 1954 opened a chapel at Wabash Avenue and Van Buren Street. 

By 1971, with the old church in poor condition, the parish moved to the chapel and the 9th Street church was demolished, despite its landmark status. The current Old St. Mary’s Church opened in 2002.

This story was published Feb. 17, 2008, and has been updated.



  • old st.marys
  • parishes
  • 175th anniversary

Related Articles