St. Martin de Tours
1895, Henry J. Schlacks, 5848 S. Princeton Ave.
For nearly 130 years, St. Martin Church, a striking Gothic structure with a soaring steeple, has been a visual landmark on the South Side of Chicago. Designed by renowned ecclesial architect Henry J. Schlacks for a fledgling German Catholic parish in Englewood, the church first served German immigrants and ultimately became a thriving Black parish before being closed in 1989.
In later years of use, deferred maintenance led to deterioration of the structure, whose former glory diminished despite subsequent operation as Chicago Embassy Church. While its current status is uncertain, the need is urgent to find a preservation solution to save St. Martin’s. Restoration of this magnificent edifice to its former prominence would add to the spiritual and social life of the community, and creative reuse could spark renewal of this corner of Englewood.
St. Martin parish was organized in 1886 for German Catholics in then-suburban Englewood. The German-speaking community had experienced dramatic growth from 1872 onward from people fleeing Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. However, the closest German churches to Englewood were St. Augustine at 51st and Laflin, and St. George at 39th and Wentworth (both of which were demolished in the second half of the 20th century).
Ground was broken in 1886 for a combination church-school building at 59th and Princeton; the brick structure designed by Adolphus Druiding opened by Christmas of that year, and the parish school opened in January 1887. Additional property was purchased and a frame building was constructed north of the church for a parish hall. By 1894, a rectory was also added north of the church at 5842 S. Princeton, and a parish residence had been remodeled as a convent.
Plans for a larger church were sketched by Louis A. Becker of Mainz, Germany, and the design was executed by Henry J. Schlacks of Chicago. The cornerstone was laid in September 1894 and the church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day 1895 by Archbishop Patrick Feehan.
The magnificence of the edifice was apparent, as it was deemed “one of the finest examples of German Gothic architecture in the country.” Its 228-foot steeple had 4 bronze bells weighing from 2,500 to 5,000 pounds each. The immense weight of the tower due to its height resulted in a novel, separate foundation for the tower consisting of 120 oak piles. The church features extraordinary quality cut stonework on its exterior Indiana limestone elevations; there are Gothic spires, gargoyles, and “blind arcades, crockets, [and] fine tracery.”
Schlacks’s interior was no less impressive, with a hand-carved oak altar rail, confessionals, and altars decorated with “a small forest of spires.” There were numerous statues and wooden carved Stations of the Cross by Westphalian craftsmen. Although those features are lost, the high-quality stained glass windows manufactured by Munich and Innsbruck studios are still extant. The apse windows depict scenes from the life of Christ, with the transept windows depicting the lives of St. Martin and St. Boniface, while other saints are depicted in the nave. A massive, 72-register, 3,000-pipe organ built by Johnson & Son that had been in use at the Central Music Hall (the predecessor of Orchestra Hall) was donated to St. Martin’s by Mrs. Marshall Field, Jr.
An original wooden statuary group of St. Martin and the Beggar carved by Sebastian Buscher was replaced in 1939 by a statue designed by Hermann J. Gaul, which was made of lead-coated copper. It depicted St. Martin on horseback and was mounted on a roof peak. In 1949, the statue was covered in gold leaf, making it even more visible: it was reportedly used as a landmark by pilots approaching Midway Airport and Meigs Field. The gold leaf was restored in 1960, and with the opening of the neighboring Dan Ryan Expressway two year later, the statue became a marker for tens of thousands of commuters daily. In 2006, the statue was damaged when it was blown off its peak by high winds and was never repaired.
The statue was especially meaningful for all generations of parishioners. St. Martin de Tours, for whom the church was originally named, was a 4th century Roman soldier who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar on a cold night. The parish was renamed in the decade before its closing for St. Martin de Porres, a Black Dominican from Lima, Peru, who comforted the sick and provided for the poor.
Care of the poor and dispossessed has been a constant throughout St. Martin’s history. In its early decades, as the German immigrant population grew, the parish continued expansion of its campus and services. After the frame parish hall north of church was destroyed by fire in June 1908, it was replaced with the old combination brick building that had been enlarged in 1902 and moved to the back of the lot. Additionally, a 3-story school building designed by Hermann J. Gaul, another noted ecclesial architect, was built at 5830-38 S. Princeton. A 2-year high school was added, with school enrollment and parishioners increasing.
By the 1920s, the parish was free of debt, the church was redecorated with new altars installed, and the organ was rebuilt and enlarged. Additional property was purchased for a convent and even in the Depression years of the 1930s, improvements continued with the windows re-leaded and tower slating replaced by the parish’s golden jubilee in 1936.
By 1941, the parish was no longer a “thoroughly German” parish; English replaced German in sermons, announcements, and publications. By the post-war years, the parish had become multi-ethnic with Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Mexican, and Black families, as well as German ones. After a temporary decline in school enrollment, non-Catholic students began to enroll in the school in 1951.
Throughout the 1950s, the percentage of Black students greatly increased, with enrollment reaching nearly the same level as the earlier peak in the 1920s. By the 75th anniversary of the parish, it had become majority Black. Some parishioners were displaced by the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway and financial difficulties continued through the decade. Yet parish operations expanded, with kindergarten and day care services added. The parish remained active through its later decades, operating a food pantry, lunch program for seniors, and a scouting program, among other things. In 1978, four bells were blessed and rung daily, after many decades of silence.
After years of deferred maintenance and closure, St. Martin has suffered deterioration. Sections of the roof appear to be compromised, likely causing interior exposure to elements. The roof of the adjacent mansion-like rectory also appears to have deteriorated. Some of the windows appear to have been damaged and occasional graffiti damage to the church facade has been noted. The interior condition is unknown. Without intervention, this church will continue on a steady path of deterioration due to weather, deferred maintenance, and its unheated interior.
St. Martin’s entire existence has combined the highest level of structural craftsmanship with service and attention to its community’s many needs. The awareness that beauty is a need and a benefit to the poor as much as to the wealthy has lifted the spiritual and emotional well-being of its parishioners of every background.
The present day needs of the community, like most disinvested communities, are many: education and job training, economic investment, accessible mental health, and a clean, litter-free environment, among many others. As pressing as these needs are, there is also the need for intangible goods, like a sense of security, safety, and peace of mind.
Thus, restoration of St. Martin’s Church as a beautiful, luminous space can provide a spiritual and emotional benefit even if it is not used for religious services. It could be used for smaller-scale musical performances or occasional art exhibits, possibly of the immersive experience type. This reuse could be coupled with, for example, arts and other classes in the renovated rectory-parish hall building north of the church. Perhaps this could be done in collaboration with faculty of the nearby Kennedy-King College. This space could also house a small gallery featuring goods produced by local craftspeople and artists. The parking lot on the site of the demolished St. Martin school building could be turned into green space with beekeeping and a native-plant garden, as well as community plots for growing fresh produce. In this way, the entire St. Martin campus could become something of a creative incubator space.
If restored and repurposed, the irreplaceable structure of St. Martin’s can anchor an oasis of creativity and nature, offering music performance, arts training, and peace for present-day and future generations. In commenting on the damaged statue of St. Martin, one of the clergy of the Chicago Embassy Church commented that: “The statue can tell the story of the Englewood community and where it was, and where it is. And […]where it is going. We believe that Englewood is one of the hidden treasures in our city.” A renovated St. Martin Church can be a beacon of pride and hope for the entire community, making this corner of Englewood a treasure that is no longer hidden.