1600's to 1800's: Our Earliest Catholic Heritage in America
In the Illinois area, the earliest Catholic movements can be traced to 1659, when the Diocese of Quebec was formed. In 1674, Father James Marquette said the first Mass in this area and the first baptism recorded in Illinois was of a dying Indian child. The following year, he established the first mission in an area then known as Kaskaskia, today the LaSalle County area.
The first Catholics to arrive in what is now northern Illinois consisted primarily of fur trappers, explorers and missionaries. The missionaries continued to come, but it was not until after the Revolutionary War that a diocese was officially established in the United States in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1843, the Diocese of Chicago was created, with a Catholic population of 55,000 throughout Illinois. In 1846, as the number of Catholics in the young settlement grew, Saints Peter & Paul Church was established in Naperville
1840's to 1870's: Earliest Catholics Settle in Wheaton Area
The first Catholics in the area now known as Wheaton were of Irish nationality. Around 1846, these Irish settlers sold out to German Catholic farmers. To attend Mass, these Catholics traveled nine miles to the nearest church in Naperville. Families found it increasingly difficult to walk or ride this great distance for weekly Mass. In 1851, residents of the now defunct town of Gretna, which was located north of Wheaton near what is now St. Charles Road, gathered to receive a donation of land from Paul Warner for the construction of a Catholic church and cemetery. This newly established Catholic mission in 1852 was known as St. Stephen, and some of its members would years later start St. Michael Parish. Shortly thereafter, the Village of Wheaton was started by two brothers, Warren and Jesse Wheaton.
The new Galena and Chicago Union Railroad brought the center of a growing population to the area now known as Wheaton. In 1879, a group of families planned the construction of a Wheaton Catholic Church. They included the families of Martin Stark; Jacob Miller Sr.; John Sauer Sr.; Michael Guck; John Sohmer; John P. Sauer Jr.; John Elick; John Knippen; Phillip Lambert; Martin Armbrust Sr.; Casper Schlick Sr.; Mathias Rickert; Conrad Kampp; John Kuhn; and Valentine Kuhn Sr. When the basement of the first Wheaton Catholic church was completed, there was no further construction for nearly two years, while additional funding was sought.
1882: First St. Michael Church is Dedicated
In 1882, Father William De LaPorte was appointed first resident pastor of the new St. Michael Parish, and St. Stephen's Mission at Gretna. The new church was dedicated on May 29, 1882, and was considered one of the finest in the area. The school opened and classrooms were located in the basement, where the School Sisters of St. Francis taught. In 1889, St. Stephen Mission was discontinued.
1892: The First Fire, The First Rebirth
Just ten years after the church was built, a fire erupted one cold winter day. Despite the efforts of the small village fire department, the new church burned to the ground on February 15, 1892. The fire was caused by the accidental ignition from coals in a heating stove. The pastor and parishioners immediately set about rebuilding St. Michael Church. Father De LaPorte personally donated $3,000. Trinity Episcopal Church invited the people of St. Michael to use their new church for Sunday Mass, which would not be the last time the Wheaton faith community would reach out to St. Michael. Five months after the fire, a new church was dedicated on July 24, 1892, at a cost of $20,000.
In 1902, the wooden school addition was erected. Three years later, St. Michael Parish was completely free of debt and in recognition of these accomplishments, Father De LaPorte received the title of Permanent Rector. The parish had grown to 180 families and 100 students. In 1916, Father De LaPorte celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a priest and shortly thereafter resigned his pastorate after decades of faithful service.
1920's to 1940's: Parish Establishes Strong Catholic Presence
With Father Francis J. Epstein serving as the church's second pastor, the church further established its Catholic presence in the community. In his 40-year pastorate, Father Epstein remodeled the old rectory, doubled the capacity of the parish school, enlarged the seating capacity of the church and erected a new convent. In 1921, plans were developed to build a new spacious school to accommodate four hundred children in grammar and high school. Thirty thousand dollars were raised in the first year alone, and the school was dedicated in 1923. With its gothic architecture, St. Michael was one of the most notable schools in the area.
In 1949, with Father Epstein's health deteriorating, Father James Lynch was appointed Administrator of the parish and became its third pastor. Concurrently, the appointment of Father Lunch came with word of the establishment of the new Diocese of Joliet, of which St. Michael was placed under the pastoral care of Joliet's first Bishop, Martin McNamara.
1950's to 1970's: Third St. Michael Church
During his tenure, Father Lynch was dearly loved and remembered for his kind dedication to Father Francis Epstein. Despite his infirmities and advanced age, Father Epstein remained in the rectory, cared for by Father Lynch until Father Epstein's death in 1959. In 1956, the dreams of Father Epstein were fulfilled when St. Francis Catholic High School opened in Wheaton. Work began to build a new church in 1959, as well as a new rectory and a school addition, which would again double its capacity. The new house of worship was dedicated on May 15, 1960.
In 1973, the Sisters of Notre Dame arrived from Toledo, Ohio to replace the School Sisters of Saint Francis, who so unselfishly served the parish for nearly a century. In 1979, tragedy struck the parish twice. During the night, on Easter Sunday, a fire of undetermined origin destroyed a major portion of the third floor in the old school. Smoke and water damage was extensive, yet through the valiant efforts of the Wheaton Fire Department, the fire was contained. the event struck hard at an already ailing Father Lynch and his health declined rapidly. That year he was buried alongside his predecessors in St. Michael Cemetery.
1980's to 2002: Closing out a Century
During this time, the Church was cared for by Father Daniel Leo Ryan for two years, followed by Father John Kloepfer until 1989, and then by the church's sixth pastor, Father Martin Gabel until 2001. With the addition of kindergarten classes in 1975, school enrollment rose from about 300 children to nearly 500 in the 1980's. In 1997, St. Michael's added a preschool program for three and four year olds.
March 18, 2002: A Building Lost: The Second Fire
Just nine months after the arrival of pastor Father Don McLaughlin, the parish's faith was tested.On March 18, 2002, in the pre-dawn hours, the 1960 house of worship was destroyed by a fire set by an arsonist. When the flames were finally extinguished, little remained of the church except for the charred rafters and a crumbling brick exterior. No one was injured in the fire, and the nearby school and rectory experienced only minimal damage. As dawn approached, Father McLaughlin prepared to face his flock and the media. His words of comfort would not be forgotten in the years to come. He told them, "We didn't lose the church, we only lost the building where the church gathers."
2002 to 2006: Rising from the Ashes
Immediately following the fire, the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church offered their sanctuary to be used for Masses. Daily Masses were held at St. Paul's and Sunday Masses in St. Michael School's gymnasium. The parish was able to recover about $4.9 million in insurance costs, but that figure was far short of the initial estimates to build the new church. The old building has seating for 800 worshipers while the new church would need to accommodate at least 1,000 worshipers and meet building codes for individuals with disabilities. In September 2003, the parish kicked off a capital campaign entitled "Uniting in Faith, Building Our Future." Its goal was to raise $3.9 million. By 2004, about $6.2 million had been pledged and ground was broken on October 22, 2004.
Thousands gathered on March 18, 2006 for the dedication of the new St. Michael Church with Bishop Joseph Imesch. The procession into the new church was led by the processional cross with the image of the resurrected Christ, the only item to survive the fire completely intact. It was a reminder that in Christ, all tragedies are conquered and made new.
2010's to Present: New Evangelization
When Father Don McLaughlin was transferred to St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Naperville, Father Daniel Hoehn was appointed St. Michael's eighth pastor in June of 2012. Eventually, talk began about building a perpetual Adoration Chapel at St. Michael and in 2015 private donations from parishioners began to come. The renovation of the side prayer chapel to a secure and closed-off perpetual Adoration Chapel begin in June 2016. The renovation included relocating the tabernacle to the center of the sanctuary, directly behind the altar.