St. Patrick’s Church a Beacon of Irish Resilience

CHICAGO — Old St. Patrick’s Church was built by Irish hands and sustained by Irish souls. Their stories and traditions are sewn into every detail of the place, in the intricate, looping Celtic knots that arc over the altar and the Irish saints that look down on the pews.
When the church was constructed in 1846, Chicago was just a river town. Already, a fifth of Chicago’s population was Irish, but the only church in town was French. So the Irish poured their pennies into carving out a space for themselves, creating the first English-speaking parish in the city.  As people fled the famine and brutality of Ireland in the mid-1800s, more and more were drawn to the fledgling city of Chicago — and ultimately found a beacon of community in St. Patrick’s.

St. Patrick’s survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to become the oldest public building in Chicago. As such, it’s undergone extensive renovation, including the addition of pews designed to look like a human rib cage and meant convey the idea that the church represents the body of Christ. Photo by Sara Miller

Jim McLaughlan found the same sense of community 23 years ago, while watching his 22-year-old son battle cancer. At his church in the suburbs, the sermons seemed to focus on the darkness in life. His faith had been faltering when he happened in on a homily at St. Patrick’s.

“I went back to my wife and said, ‘I can’t keep going to a church where all they talk about is death and dying,’” McLaughlan said. “We’ve been coming here ever since.”

In his speech on the story of the church, McLaughlan described its unique role in the city — it experienced whatever Chicago did. It struggled and decayed and found strength again in the power of its own history, sometimes when a single person believed it could again become what it once was.

Irish American designer Thomas O’Shaughnessy created all 15 of St. Patrick’s stained glass windows. Ireland’s Book of Kells and other examples of Celtic art inspired several of O’Shaughnessy designs for the church. Photo by Sara Miller

It makes sense that we would start our journey here. Our class is setting out to report uniquely Irish stories, which is a daunting task. We found stories from an ocean away, and now we’ll fly across it and try to make sense of problems that aren’t our own in a foreign place. But all semester we’ve heard about the unique endurance of the Irish spirit and the power of its communities. We’ve heard from many outsiders like us, academics and politicians and reporters, who’ve found themselves similarly fascinated with the country, its history and its people.

We’ve seen how the tangles of the Troubles continue to play out to this day. But we’ve also seen how old scars were healed and gaps were bridged. Now we’re off to tell stories about the tensions that have risen since, and the people caught in the middle or trying to fix them.

Docent Jim McLaughlan explains to IU Media School students St. Patrick’s strong Irish ties. Established by Irish immigrants on Easter morning in 1846, the church became the first English-speaking parish in Chicago. Photo by Sara Miller

St. Patrick’s tells a similar story — of a place that has known sorrow and trouble. It was burnt in the Great Chicago Fire. It saw its walls fade and its congregation dwindle. But it was reborn, through years of dogged labor and faith in the possibility of something better.