In the late 1800s, the Lower West Side of Chicago was home to many unskilled German and Irish immigrants, who worked long hours nearby doing backbreaking manual labor. On their one day off per week, these employees of slaughterhouses, railroad companies, lumber mills, and garment factories were known to enjoy two simple pleasures: the sanctuary of their local church and a nice cold beer.
The 90-foot-tall bell tower, sturdy wooden doors, worn Chicago brick, and Gothic German script above the entrance to the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church date back to 1880, when it first opened to serve the community. Over the years, German residents gradually left the overcrowded Pilsen neighborhood, replaced by Bohemian, Polish, Eastern European, and eventually Mexican populations.
By 1956, the church had been abandoned by its original congregation. A devastating fire in 1979 destroyed the roof and interior, and a 1998 windstorm toppled many of the remaining walls. Owner John Podmajersky Jr. planned to demolish the building and redevelop the site. That all changed when, after hearing news of the windstorm, descendants from the church’s early congregants came to visit, bringing with them a German-language record of the church’s early history. Podmajersky, a longtime area resident whose family roots in Pilsen go back three generations, was reportedly so moved that he vowed to save the remains of the church.
These days, the bell tower is topped by a modern skylight, the walls are restored and stabilized, and what was once the church’s interior is a now a quiet garden sanctuary. A badly burned crucifix hangs eerily from the inner wall, protected from the elements by a clear plastic shield.
Podmajersky hasn’t moved forward on his supposed plans to convert the tower space into artist studios, but one thing is for sure: this Pilsen landmark is a bewitching testament to the area’s forgotten history.