Although the demolition of St. James Church appears to some to be the political will of the Archdiocese of Chicago, a coalition of St. James parishioners, preservationists and the faithful of many area Roman Catholic churches have formed “Friends of Historic St. James” and this new coalition is determined to save it from the wrecker’s ball. With services moved into the adjoining church hall for the past few years because of deferred maintenance and the ongoing repairs to address code violations, coalition members have been reaching out to city officials to save the building, envisioning that preservation presents a new opportunity to reoccupy the church and grow the parish.
Construction of St. James Catholic Church was completed in 1880. The church had such a strong following at that time, and having received so many donations, that it was debt-free by 1895, leading St. James Parish to be the first Catholic edifice in Chicago to be consecrated. As the wealthy Irish families of Michigan, Wabash, and Indiana Avenues moved away in the 1910s, the African American population grew to become a cornerstone of the Bronzeville community. It was not until the 1960s, after the parish’s 100th Anniversary, that Reverend Rollins E. Lambert, the first African-American priest to be ordained by the Archdiocese of Chicago would be appointed pastor, signifying the church’s acceptance of the mostly African American neighborhood and the racial diversity of St. James Parish. The revitalization of the area in the late 1960s and 70s saw an increase in hospital staff from nearby Mercy and Michael Reese Hospitals, students from the Illinois Institute of Technology and the elderly from local senior citizen housing projects. These parishioners organized themselves and repaired the building in 1972, when a fire ravaged the western apse, bringing a sense of rejuvenation to the parish and the church. Today, a food pantry serves 1,800 families a week and the loss of the church and the potential loss of the parish could jeopardize the good works it provides to some of Chicago’s most needy families.
Architect Patrick C. Keely crafted a fine example of the Gothic Revival style for St. James, enhancing his reputation for masterful ecclesiastic structures and, for years to come, his colleagues would refer to St. James as Keely’s “achievement in art.” The exterior included spire turrets and was created from local Joliet limestone. At one time, according to the parish history, a tower of twenty bells was brought from the east coast and hung in the tall tower and spire. The largest bell weighed 5,000 pounds and could be heard from eight miles away. The vast interior of the church could seat 1,100 people and contained marble columns with light green marble banding. However, some of the original Tiffany windows and other art glass were destroyed in the fire as firemen broke them to extinguish the fire and thus save the church from further devastation.
The fire took place on December 22, 1972 just three days before Christmas and damaged the apse, or front of the sanctuary, and the original altar. There was a great response from the community, who rallied to raise the funds needed for reconstruction, despite a luke-warm reception from Cardinal Cody and the Archdiocese of Chicago. According to parishioners, Cardinal Cody, OMI signed his name on the check to pay the restoration contractors, and below his signature wrote “I still do not agree that this church building should be standing.” The interior was repainted white and where art glass windows were missing, they were replaced with translucent panels and new lighting, giving the space a contemporary feel, not unlike that of the 1969 remodeling of its sister church, also by Keely, Holy Name Cathedral.
Patrick C. Keely (1816-1896) was an Irish-American architect based in Brooklyn, New York and Providence, Rhode Island. He was the in-house architect of the Roman Catholic Church and designed nearly six hundred churches and hundreds of other institutional buildings. The vernacular and often monumental buildings are found in America’s landscape from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward’s Island to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.
In Chicago he is best known as the original architect of Holy Name Cathedral in 1874. A gifted artist, expert wood carver and draftsman, Patrick Keely left a great mark on the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities for whom he built some of the most noted churches and cathedrals in the United States. He was also the second man to receive the gold medal annually awarded by the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, to prominent Catholics of the country.
The congregation was promised a new church in August of 2012, to be located two blocks east, near Michigan Avenue. However, that site has not yet been purchased and recent news of deep financial troubles within the Archdiocese will most likely prevent these plans from moving forward. The Archdiocese of Chicago obtained a demolition permit in December 2012, on Christmas Eve. The estimates to repair the structure provided by the Archdiocese have been vigorously challenged by the coalition, which contends that repairs can be done for far less, freeing more resources which would allow them to worship in their sanctuary once more. Although the demolition permit remains valid, the Archdiocese has agreed not to begin demolition until April. Grounded in their faith and with unwavering resolve, the coalition is more determined than ever to preserve their “Mother Church of the South Side,” as it was noted in Father George Lane’s book, “Chicago Churches and Synagogues.”
Little time remains to save St. James Church. Friends of Historic St. James have organized a petition and have developed a website. They are asking for help in appealing to Cardinal Francis George to rescind the demolition permit and to restore the church in the vibrant multi-racial community. A vigil is planned for Sunday, March 17, 2013 in front of the church at 10:30am and is part of their ongoing campaign called Save St. James in 40 days, the 40 days of Lent. They urge everyone to please write or call Cardinal George and ask him to say yes to the preservation of historic St. James Church and to follow their website SaveHistoricStJamesChurch.com.