Those riding the Union Pacific through Clybourn Station on Chicago’s West Side would be hard-pressed not to notice a truly massive church soaring above its neighboring buildings. But the building has more than just a physical presence—it looms large in literature, too.
This impressive construct, located in the neighborhood of Bucktown, is St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church. Built in the early 1900s at a cost of more than $7 million in today’s dollars, it sprawls across a full city block, dominating the skyline in its section of the city.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the United States witnessed a massive influx of Polish immigrants fleeing persecution and political unrest in their home country. Many of these immigrants ultimately settled in Chicago, in neighborhoods like Bucktown, Pulaski Park, Noble Square, and East Village. Around this time, St. Mary’s Bucktown parish grew out of the highly crowded St. Stanislaus Parish, its congregation swelling far beyond its intended capacity by the influx of refugees.
By 1912, Saint Mary’s parish was one of the largest in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and the more than 1,200 families that made up its congregation began making plans for a new and greater home. In September of 1911, construction commenced on the monumental Renaissance-Style Polish Cathedral. The church, modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by architects Henry Worthmann and J.G. Steinbach, would feature a 17-story-tall dome as well as two bell towers—a significant undertaking at a time when even one tower was considered ambitious. More than eight years later, in May of 1920, Chicago Archbishop George Mundelein delivered the dedication and the church opened its doors to the public for the first time.
In addition to being a center of community and an impressive historical and religious landmark, the church plays a prominent role in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, a series of urban fantasy novels set in Chicago and starring the cult-favorite wizard detective Harry Dresden. Throughout the series’ more than 15 books and short stories, St. Mary’s serves frequently as a staging ground, refuge of last resort, and place of quiet contemplation for the book’s eponymous hero.
“Saint Mary of the Angels is more than just a church. It’s a monument,” recalls Dresden in book six of the series. “You could get a lot of people arguing over exactly what it’s a monument to, I suppose, but one cannot see the church without being impressed by its size, by its artistry, by its beauty. In a city of architectural mastery, Saint Mary of the Angels need bow its head to no one.”
Know Before You Go
The church is located at 1850 North Hermitage Avenue, walking distance from the Clybourn Metra station. Visit its website for a full schedule of services and events. To spot it from afar, look out for the blue "Guiding Light" in the cupola, donated to the church by the Holy Name Society in 1973, when driving on the Kennedy Expressway after dark.