Chicago’s Lost Cathedral

Old Saint Mary's Cathedral from the Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1896

Old Saint Mary's Cathedral from the Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1896

The Great Chicago Fire erased many landmarks from the face of the Earth.  One so thoroughly that even the venerable Encyclopedia of Chicago has nothing on it.

Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral exists today only as a plaque, bolted to the grimy northeast corner of the Heyworth Building (29 East Madison Street) under the Wabash Avenue L tracks.  It reads:

Here stood Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, church of the first five Catholic bishops of Chicago – Quarter, Van de Velde, O’Regan, Duggan, Foley.  Opened for divine service December 25, 1843
Destroyed in the Great Fire of October 8-9, 1871
A.D. 1932 – Illinois Catholic Historical Society

With the destruction of the cathedral, it was decided that a new cathedral should be built north of the Chicago River.  We know it today as the magnificent-looking, but structurally troubled Holy Name Cathedral (735 North State Street).

The roots of the church go back to Father John Mary Irennaeus Saint Cyr, who came to Chicago from Saint Louis with some Indian assistants.  After two weeks on a stagecoach (and you thought Amtrak was slow from Saint Louis) he held his first mass in Chicago at Mark Beaubien’s log cabin on May 5, 1883.

Father Cyr’s first formal church was built on land bought from the Illinois Canal Commissioners at Lake and Dearborn.  It cost $400 to build, and opened in October, 1883.  It is where first white child born in Chicago was baptized.

There have been several “Saint Mary’s” in downtown Chicago.  A noted above, the first one was at Lake and Dearborn in 1833.  In 1836 it moved to Madison and Michigan.  Work on the new cathedral a block away began in 1843 and finished in 1844.  It cost $4,000 to build.  After being destroyed in The Great Fire in the 1871, Plymouth Congregational Church at Wabash and Eldredge Court (now 9th Street) was renamed Old Saint Mary’s.  It was torn down in 1971.  Somewhere along the way a Saint Mary’s Chapel was established at Van Buren and Wabash, and with the demolition of the church at Wabash and Ninth was renamed Old Saint Mary’s Church.  That church moved down to a new building in the South Loop in 2002.

In spite of what some of the more carelessly boastful members of Old Saint Pat’s (180 South Desplaines Street) claim, it is Old Saint Mary’s (1500 South Michigan Avenue) that is officially the oldest parish in Chicago.  There is even a plaque inside the new church with Cardinal Francis George’s name on it declaring it such.  Although a case could be made that Holy Name is the legitimate continuation of Saint Mary’s Cathedral simply by virtue of it being the home parish of the city’s head Bishop as Saint Mary’s was. But after the Great Fire, it was the newly purchased Plymouth Congregational/Saint Mary’s Church that got the old parish records.

When the “Old” part of the name became common is hard to say.  Newspaper articles from the mid- and late-1800’s just call the cathedral “St. Mary’s.”  But it’s clear from the plaque on the wall at Madison and Wabash that “Old” was in common usage just a few decades later.  A Chicago Tribune article from May 3, 1896 refers to it as “Saint Mary’s the Pioneer,” but that may simply be an acknowledgement of its position as the first church in the city.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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