St. Peter’s in the Loop celebrates 175th anniversary

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2021

St. Peter’s in the Loop celebrates 175th anniversary

St. Peter's in the Loop is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic, St. Peter's in the Loop)
A drawing of the first St. Peter church in 1846. (Photo provided)
St. Peter's at Clark and Polk in 1865. (Photo provided)
Interior construction of present-day church. (Photo provided)
Construction of the crucifix on the exterior or the church. (Photo provided)
The crucifix in present day. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The interior of St. Peter’s during Advent 2017. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Catholics flooded St. Peter's Church in the Loop to get ashes to mark the beginning of Lent on Feb. 16, 2010. The downtown parish gets from 25,000 -30,000 faithful each year on Ash Wednesday. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ash Wednesday 2010. St. Peter’s began in 1846 the way many Chicago parishes did: members of an ethnic group, in this case, Germans, petitioned the bishop for a parish or parishes of their own. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Laypeople and priests distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday 2010. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Then-Archbishop Cupich celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Peter’s on Feb. 18, 2015. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Kurt Hartrich distributes ashes in the chapel at St. Peter’s in the Loop on Dec. 11, 2017. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

As St. Peter’s in the Loop celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, it looks back on a history in which it transitioned from being a German national parish staffed by diocesan priests to what is essentially an urban mission led by the Franciscans, serving mostly downtown workers during the week and tourists on the weekends.

But the church, at 110 W. Madison St., also provides a community for people who call downtown home and make themselves available to help the friars in their ministry.

The anniversary celebrations will last all year and include concerts, art exhibitions and presentations, in addition to the anniversary Mass celebrated Aug. 1.

St. Peter’s began in 1846 the way many Chicago parishes did: Members of an ethnic group, in this case, Germans, petitioned the bishop for a parish or parishes of their own. Two German parishes were dedicated in August of that year: St. Peter, located in a wooden frame building at Washington and Wells streets, and St. Joseph on Orleans Street. They became the third and fourth parishes in the city of Chicago, and for a few years, they shared a pastor.

Less then a decade later, as the area around St. Peter became more commercial, the original church moved to Clark and Polk streets. The parish grew, and a new church was dedicated on that site in 1865, the year it also opened a parish school.

The parish was in the path of the flames of the Great Chicago Fire when the pastor, Father Peter Fischer, prayed that the church — already sheltering parishioners whose homes had been engulfed in flames — would be spared, and promised to start a devotion to St. Anthony of Padua.

The wind changed, the flames turned north after coming within two blocks of the church, and Fisher in 1873 was transferred to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Bridgeport.

St. Peter’s maintains a St. Anthony devotion as well, with prayers to him after Masses on Tuesdays.

“People come especially for that,” said Kathy Childs, who has attended services at St. Peter’s since the 1980s and became more active after her husband died in 1999.

Childs serves as a lector and acolyte — since the church reopened following the COVID-19 closure of 2020, only one lay minister assists the priest at each Mass — and also has volunteered in the bookstore.

“With St. Peter’s, since it isn’t a traditional parish, we have a hard time finding laypeople to read and serve as acolytes and whatever we need,” she said. “During the week, it’s a little easier, because you can tap into the businesspeople who come in.”

For her, the main attraction of the parish is not so much the services as the atmosphere of peace and welcome, and the people who foster that.

“The friars are just a wonderful group of men, very caring,” Childs said. “The priests will always be at the door for each Mass. And there is a group of laypeople who volunteer on a pretty consistent basis. We do have a little bit of a community and it’s really quite nice.”

When the friars first arrived at the parish, still at Polk and Clark streets, they were not actually welcomed.

Chicago Bishop Thomas Foley had written to the Franciscans in Germany in 1872, in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire, to ask them to supply priests to staff the parish, but was turned down.

Three years later, as a result of Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf in Germany, the Franciscans there found their friaries suppressed and they were looking for a home when they arrived in Chicago, according to “A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago,” which was published in 1980.

“For some reason, the members of St. Peter’s Church had been frightened into believing that the ‘monks’ were coming to take over the church property for themselves and that the parishioners would be forced to support five friars instead of one priest,” the history says. “The slogan, ‘If Bismarck didn’t want them, neither do we’ made the rounds of the parish.”

The newly appointed pastor, Franciscan Father Liborius Schaefermeyer, celebrated his first Mass a month after arriving in 1875 and gave a homily based on the parable of the Good Samaritan and, apparently, won his parishioners over.

“The Franciscan gave a remarkable homily,” said Franciscan Father Michael Fowler, who was appointed pastor of St. Peter’s in July 2020. “If I’d been the provincial, I’d have probably said, ‘Then fine, we’ll go somewhere else.’”

As the congregation at St. Peter’s begins to grow again in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fowler is hoping to add a third daily Mass — one early in the morning, probably, for commuters who want to worship before work.

The church already has Mass on the weekends at 5 p.m. Saturdays and 9 and 11 a.m. Sundays, and on weekdays at 11:40 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. for the lunch-hour.

Those lunchtime Masses started in 1918 when then-Archbishop George Mundelein asked the Franciscans at St. Peter, still near the train station at Clark and Polk, to offer Masses at midday for people who wanted to pray for their sons, brothers and husbands going off to fight in World War I and for victims of the influenza pandemic. The archbishop, according to the parish history, requested that homilies at the midday Masses be kept to 5 minutes.

“I still have to remind some of the guys to keep it short,” Fowler said. “A lot of our people have to go back to work.”

By 1925, the area around the parish had become so commercial that it had only 20 registered families, but the friars there heard 200,000 confessions.

“There’s a lot of sinning that goes on in Chicago,” Fowler quipped.

Confessions are still one of the primary ministries at St. Peter’s, which moved to its current site when the new church was dedicated in 1953. It has priests available for the sacrament of reconciliation on weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. Before the pandemic, confessions were offered from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The availability of confession makes St. Peter’s special, said Jim Ciarlette, who lives and works downtown and has made St. Peter’s his church home for more than 10 years.

“Before the pandemic, we had 72 hours a week of availability of priests,” Ciarlette said. “It’s less now, but it’s still there. That’s something I very much respect because that’s something Catholics should take more advantage of.”

Ciarlette also enjoys the opportunity to make short visits to the church, if, for example, he’s having a rough day at work, or just needs some quiet.

“It’s the comfort of knowing that you can come to St. Peter’s knowing that it’s an oasis in downtown,” he said.

Childs concurred.

“It’s on a busy street, and you walk into the sanctuary and it’s quiet and peaceful, and you can sit and pray,” she said. A lot of people come in there, just to do that.”

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