History of St. Peter's

This history was first written in 1995 by Richard Seidel, historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, in celebration of the centennial of the St. Peter's church building. It was amended and edited in 2012 by St. Peter's parishioner and webmaster Jacob W. Trimble.            

The history of St. Peter’s Church is closely intertwined with the life of the Lakeview community. The extension of the street car lines along the principal avenues of Lakeview and the construction of the elevated train system brought rapid growth to the area. What had been a sleepy village in the 1870s became a thriving suburb by the 1880s. In 1889 the village of Lakeview (then styled as “Lake View”) was annexed by the City of Chicago.

Lakeview was a diverse community from its inception. The wealthy had their large homes stretching from Evanston Avenue -- now Broadway -- to the lakefront, while those of the working class, the majority of whom were foreign-born, reached to the west from Clark Street.  The area from Evanston Avenue to Clark Street was solidly middle class.

The impetus to form an Episcopal parish in Lakeview was provided by a large group of local women. Their efforts to form a new parish were initially rebuffed by William E. McLaren, third bishop of Chicago, who felt the proximity to Church of Our Saviour in Lincoln Park, with its commodious new church building, vitiated the need for yet another North Side parish. Furthermore, diocesan financial resources were limited, and the diocese felt that the Board of Missions would be hard pressed to provide adequate funding. The women, however, were persistent, and St. Peter’s first service, Evening Prayer, was read in the front parlor of the home of Mrs. Charlotte Givens, 1734 Fletcher Street -- now 624 West Briar Place -- on Whitsunday, May 29, 1887 by two young lay readers, Samuel Cook Edsall and Frederic W. Keator. St. Peter’s mission was organized was organized immediately following that service, and one month later, on St. Peter’s Day, arrangements were made for services to be held in a store front on Clark Street.

St. Peter’s membership quickly expanded, and it soon became evident that more substantial quarters were needed for the fledgling congregation. That challenge was met in 1888, when a small wood frame chapel, designed by parishioner R. D. Gallagher, was built on Fletcher Street, west of Clark Street.  However, continued growth soon stretched the Fletcher Street facilities to their outer limits, and the parish began to search for a more permanent location. At the same time, several other important milestones occurred in the life of the parish. Samuel Cook Edsall, who had enrolled at the Western Theological Seminary, was ordained deacon on December 22, 1888. He was then ordained to the priesthood six months later. Both ordination ceremonies took place in the Fletcher Street chapel. A little over a year later, St. Peter’s graduated from mission status to full-fledged parish status, and Samuel Cook Edsall was installed as the first rector of St. Peter’s on May 18, 1890 by Bishop McLaren.

In August 1890, the present property on Belmont Avenue was purchased, and shortly thereafter the frame chapel was moved to that location, enlarged, and veneered with brick to serve as a temporary location while funds for a permanent structure were raised. Sunday services were held in the chapel even while it was still on rollers in November 1890. Congregational growth during this period was phenomenal. Beginning with a mere handful of worshippers in Mrs. Givens parlor in May 1887, St. Peter’s had 198 members one year later, numbered 583 members in 1890, and by 1894 it boasted 1,369 members.  With this dramatic growth, it had become quite evident that expanded facilities were needed to meet the demand, and plans were soon laid out for the new building.

Henry Ives Cobb, a distinguished Chicago architect who had designed the recently completed Newberry Library and the former Chicago Historical Society building on Dearborn Street, was approached as the possible architect. Plans in a Romanesque style were executed, but never implemented.  The financial panic of 1893, which extended well into the 20th century, intervened; furthermore, the Romanesque style, in which Cobb had distinguished himself, was no longer fashionable, nor could the parish afford what was a relatively expensive building. The result was that the building committee approached William A. Otis, a young but promising architect, whose family were longtime parishioners of St. James Church, Chicago. Otis, who had studied at the University of Michigan and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, designed a building in the Gothic style, a more traditional idiom for 19th century Anglican churches.

The cornerstone for the new building was laid on Sunday afternoon, October 21, 1894. The Rev. Theodore N. Morrison, rector of the Church of the Epiphany, Chicago, and acting Dean of the Northeastern Deanery, presided, substituting for Bishop McLaren, who was in New York attending a meeting in the House of Bishops.  Addresses were offered by Morrison and Edsall, as well as by Stephen G. Clarke, Senior Warden of the Vestry, who spoke on behalf of the laity. Construction, which was well-advanced at the time of the cornerstone ceremony, continued through the winter of 1894-95, and the building was completed and opened for worship on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1895.

Described by its architect as an English parish church designed in the 15th century style, it was a commodious structure with two low side aisles and a center nave with clerestory. Its exterior was dominated by a low peaked square tower, with battlements, while its Bedford stone façade, with dressed moldings and string courses, provided a look of stability. The interior, finished in Georgia Pine, with open timber construction and ornamental truss work, had a seating capacity of 700. The cost was $25,000 ($676,000 in 2012), not an inconsiderable amount in the hard financial times of the 1890s. The interior was not only ample, but included many of the amenities associated with a modern church building, which included a sacristy (now flower sacristy) in the southeast corner, a rector’s study (now sacristy) in the southwest corner, and a baptistery (now the Mary Altar) at the south end of the west aisle. Other improvements, soon to be implemented, included the construction of a cloister to connect the chancel to the former chapel next door. Upon completion of the new building, the old chapel was converted into a Parish Hall, with space for a choir room, guild room, and Sunday school rooms.  Plans were also laid out for the construction a new three story Parish House in front of the Parish Hall in order to provide a chapel for weekday services and additional meeting rooms.

The long awaited Easter morning dawned bright and glorious. There were over 200 persons present at the celebration of the 9 a.m. Eucharist that festal day, at which time the rector said a prayer of blessing upon the new altar and other chancel furniture. At the 11 a.m. service, the new building was so crowded that chairs had to be placed in the aisles for overflow. Many others remained standing.  The pipe organ was only partially completed and the aisles as yet uncarpeted, but the structure was otherwise complete.

Promptly at 11 a.m. the choir entered the church to the strains of “The Day of Resurrection,” while at the front door, the clergy were received by the wardens and vestry, together with Messrs. Otis and Thomas, the architect and the superintendent, and were escorted up the center aisle to the chancel, thus symbolizing the formal taking possession of the church by the congregation. Near the end of the Easter sermon, Bishop McLaren entered the building, having driven by carriage from the old Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on the West Side where he had presided at its Easter liturgy, and addressed the congregation and gave his episcopal blessing. That evening, the building was again filled for a choral service, which was marked by addresses by Samuel Cook Edsall, the rector, and Frederic W. Keator, rector of the Church of the Atonement.

The culmination of the weeklong celebratory events that marked the opening of the new building took place on Wednesday evening, April 24, at which time the completed Kimball organ was dedicated with a recital by Peter C. Lutkin, distinguished church musician and organ professor at Northwestern University. The recital was predeeded by a short service, in which the choir sang Walter Henry Hall’s Magnificat.

St. Peter’s Church building has served its congregation for 117 years, and its appearance remains very similar to how it looked that first Easter morning.  Rapid growth during the early 20th century, at which time the parish attained over 3,500 baptized members and was the largest Episcopal church west of the Allegheny Mountains,  led some to consider the possibility of modifications to the building to allow for more seating.  One proposal was to demolish the current structure and erect a new one that would stretch the length of the block from Belmont Avenue to Briar Place. However, that plan evaporated as growth stabilized and other improvements were decided to be more cost effective.  In 1910 the original wooden altar was replaced with the present marble altar, a modification in keeping with the liturgical taste of the parish during that era.  For many years, a sample dossal curtain hung behind the altar, but in the late 1930s, and elaborate dossal curtain with tester was erected. Much of the woodwork that remains behind the altar dates from this time.

Under the leadership of John H. Scambler, rector, 1945-1970, a program of renovation was undertaken. Notable improvements, largely effected 1949-1950, included the removal of the dossal curtain, the modification of the reredos, and the installation of new stained glass windows to replace to the former painted glass windows.  Other improvements included the rebuilding of the Kimball organ, the installation of asphalt flooring, the acquisition of the current communion rail, and refinishing of the woodwork in order to brighten the Victorian interior.

Despite the improvements to the church building in the early years of Fr. Scambler’s tenure, St. Peter’s, like the neighborhood around it, fell into decline.  After the end of World War II, the Lakeview neighborhood saw a mass exodus to the suburbs. The decline in attendance at St. Peter’s was so great that the church nearly closed its doors for good.  Prominent families even floated the idea of dismantling the church, brick by brick, and shipping it out to the suburbs to rebuild for their use.  Thankfully that never happened, due in part to objections from newly founded suburban parishes who did not want to compete with another church for attendance.  At the end of Fr. Scambler’s tenure, St. Peter’s was conducting only Morning Prayer services on Sunday, and Holy Eucharist was celebrated monthly.  Despite his best evangelism efforts, Fr. Scambler left St. Peter’s in 1970 believing it was only a matter of time before the parish would cease to exist.

Under the leadership of James H. Dunkerley, rector, 1970-2007, the situation for St. Peter’s brightened considerably. The neighborhood stabilized, then started seeing an influx of middle class couples and families.  Fr. Dunkerley brought back daily Holy Eucharist services and saw a sizable increase in weekly attendance.  During his tenure, the church also enjoyed multiple structural  improvements, including the installation of the free-standing altar; the purchase of a new McManis organ in 1982 which is located on the east side of the chancel, as well as the purchase of a new organ from the Jean-Paul Buzard Company in 2007 located in a floor-level case at the rear of the church;  the removal of the choir stalls from the chancel; new choir stalls constructed at the rear of the church;  the installation of oak flooring and new carpeting in the church and terra cotta tiles in the Narthex;  the installation of air-conditioning,; and the building of a handicapped-accessible ramp into the church. Fr. Dunkerley’s time at St. Peter’s came to close in 2007 as he retired from active ministry, but he is still a beloved figure in the church and visits often.

During the time of Sarah K. Fisher, rector, 2007-2012, St. Peter’s has seen even more improvements to the physical plant. Under her guidance, St. Peter’s completely renovated its Guild Room and added in a new kitchen; replaced the aging sound system; and replaced the original 117 year old doors with exact replicas.  In her tenure at St. Peter’s, Rev. Sarah managed to reinvigorate many parish ministries, including stewardship, which saw an increase of 41% in financial giving during the last four years of her leadership.

In June 2012 St. Peter’s celebrated the 125 year anniversary of the founding of the parish with a festive Eucharist service that included the dedication of new doors by former bishop of Chicago James Montgomery; the conferring of the title of rector emeritus on Fr. Dunkerley; and a unique opportunity for the laity of the parish to bring up to the altar for blessing some tokens of their lives outside the four walls of the church.  Video footage of that special day is available here.




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