By Dermot Connolly
St. Peter’s Church in the Loop is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, with special events planned over the next several months.
The historic Roman Catholic church, which survived the Great Chicago Fire, serves as a Franciscan mission center at 110 W. Madison St.
“I am blessed to be pastor of this church, especially during this time of COVID,” said the Rev. Michael Fowler, OFM.
Cardinal Blase Cupich appointed Fr. Fowler as pastor in July 2020. He grew up in northern Michigan and previously was based in St. Louis, but he was a frequent visitor to Chicago and so was familiar with the city before coming here.
Chief among the stories associated with St. Peter’s is how the church holds devotions to St. Anthony of Padua after the 11:40 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Masses every Tuesday to honor a promise a pastor made in 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire spared the church (then located on the corner of Polk and Clark streets).
“You don’t go back on a promise like that,” said Fr. Fowler.
Roman Catholic officials dedicated the church’s original building, on the south side of Washington Street between Wells and Franklin Streets. on Aug. 2, 1846. Built with $1,000 in donations collected by the Rev. John Jung, the 40- by 60-foot frame structure had seating for 700 people.
In 1853, archdiocesan and church officials decided to move the building in two parts to a lot on the southwest corner of Polk and Clark Streets bought for $2,500. They deemed the move necessary because congestion from businesses and railroads was pushing parishioners south and west. Some, however, initially were unhappy with the church’s new, swampy site (many parts of Chicago still were swampland at the time).
The Rev. John Baptist Mager took over the growing parish in 1860 and won trustees’ approval in 1863 to build a larger church at the site. Completed at a cost of $32,359, church officials dedicated it in 1865.
Great Chicago Fire
By 1870, Chicago’s population exceeded 500,000, and St. Peter’s Parish included 1,200 families and two schools. On Oct. 8, 1871, however, the Great Chicago Fire nearly wiped it out. That Sunday night, the fire that started on the Near West Side was headed toward Lake Michigan, aided by high winds and burning everything in its path.
Terrified parishioners rushed into St. Peter’s to pray and found the pastor, the Rev. Peter Fischer, there, praying aloud. They reported hearing his vow to erect a church in honor of St. Anthony of Padua if God spared his church and school.
“It is amazing that people ran to the church for safety,” said Fr. Fowler. “I would have probably run to the lake.”
Two blocks from the church, the fire did change course, veering north and sparing St. Peter’s Church and its school facilities. The pastor fulfilled his promise by building St. Anthony’s Church in Bridgeport in 1873.
St. Peter’s built its current church in 1953, designed by architects Vitzthum & Burns.
Franciscan Friars of the Sacred Heart Province have staffed St. Peter’s since 1875, when priests and friars (brothers) in the religious order came to the United States and Chicago fleeing religious persecution in Germany. Currently, about 26 priests and friars are based at St. Peter’s.
Variety of events and programs
Because St. Francis of Assisi founded the order, his Oct. 4 feast day remains a big occasion for the church, which celebrates “Francis Week” annually. This year, the church will hold a festive Mass at 11:40 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 4, when the traditional blessing of animals will take place outside, Fr. Fowler said. The church will show videos from 12:15 to 1 p.m. on the following two days highlighting the lives of Sts. Francis, Clare, Anthony, and Padre Pio; it also will present a lecture on St. Francis’s life.
The Annual Friars and Friends Christmas Concert, the church’s biggest fundraiser, is set for noon to 1 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, in the lower level auditorium. Jo Ann Bednar, communications and events director, said the church had to hold this event featuring musical performances by friars and others virtually last year but will offer it in person this year, barring any more resurgence of COVID-19.
To honor its anniversary, the church will present special events at least once a month. See the website at www.stpetersloop.org for details about all activities planned.
“St. Peter’s is a mission church, serving tourists and people who work downtown as well as area residents,” Bednar explained. “So we don’t have traditional parishioners.”
Being a mission church means parishioners are not registered or counted, and the church does not offer programs such as religious instruction for children like most neighborhood parishes. With its high number of resident priests, however, the church can offer more Masses and confession times to accommodate local residents and workers, as well as tourists seeking church services. Just like the churchgoers, the priests and friars are ethnically diverse, with many coming from Latin America and elsewhere throughout the world.
“Everyone is invited to come,” she said, noting the church offers weekday Masses at 11:40 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. and confessions from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and noon to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays (more hours for confession than most neighborhood parishes).
“We’re known as good confessors,” said Fr. Fowler about the Franciscans. “It is an important role, and we are kept busy with a lot of people coming for confession and Mass.”
“We also have outreach programs such as Catholic Charities helping people find housing and other services,” said Bednar.
Bednar noted that, before the COVID-19 pandemic put most activities on hold last year, the church served as a gathering place for Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups. Those types of activities are returning slowly after everything went online for most of 2020.
The church still holds some programs via Zoom, including Repair My House, which promotes physical, emotional, and mental health from 12:10 to 12:55 p.m. Mondays. Participants learn to increase self-confidence, navigate through loss and depression, and improve relationships using practical psychology and St. Francis’s teachings. More information may be obtained by emailing email@example.com.
“I like coming to St. Peter’s because it has always been so welcoming,” said Mary Ellen Castroverde, an active parishioner since 1996.
“I volunteer a lot,” she added. “I started coming when I worked downtown, and then I moved downtown from the Little Italy neighborhood.”
St. Peter’s mission church status means “We are there for people who have to leave their homes early and come home late from work, so they can come here for work during the day,” Castroverde explained. “There are so many travelers staying downtown, too.”
Castroverde has served as a greeter at Masses and a Eucharistic minister, distributing holy communion. She continues to help wherever needed.
“I will always be here at St. Peter’s,” she said. “It’s a beautiful church. I think it is wonderful that the church is still alive and vibrant and people are coming back.
“Sure, Masses have been available online. But it is not the same, and people want to receive communion, the body of Christ,” she said.
To reach St. Peter’s, call (312) 372-5111, or log on to www.stpetersloop.org/.