The Fight to Save Chicago’s St. James Parish

St. James Church on Chicago's South Side.
St. James Church on Chicago's South Side.

By Mary Pat Kelly, Contributor
April / May 2013

Parishioners and friends of historic St. James Parish, founded in 1855 on Chicago’s South Side by Irish immigrants who’d escaped the Great Starvation, spent Easter in a prayer vigil in front of their padlocked church, imploring the Archdiocese (and the Pope, via his Twitter @Pontifex) to stop the wrecking ball, due in only a few days, from destroying their unique church and killing off their parish.

Famed Tipperary-born architect Patrick Keely, who also designed St. Brigid’s, recently saved from destruction in New York, designed this Gothic masterpiece. It was built in 1880 by the congregation as a monument to their survival; an expression of gratitude for hard-won prosperity.

When St. James became the first racially integrated Catholic parish in Chicago, that spirit to achieve and give back found new expression. Today, this vibrant, diverse parish operates a food pantry that serves more than 1,500 families per month. Loss of their church most likely means the end of this parish and of a heritage that includes priests who ministered to both Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners during the Civil War, and the first African American pastor in Chicago.

Preservation Chicago named St. James Church the number one endangered building in the city, the one that must be preserved. The  congregation is willing to undertake needed repairs and has received substantial offers of help, including a proposal from a prominent Chicago firm to restore the church for $5,250,000 million, a much lower figure than the archdiocese’s quoted $12 million for the work, which outside experts consider inflated.

The Cardinal wants the congregation to raise money to build a new church a block away on new land, part of which is not even for sale. The cost of building would be higher than than of restoring the present church, so parish would have to try to pay for a new church it doesn’t even want, a daunting task. Most members of this modest parish, which uses it’s resources to feed the poor, think  a new church will never be built and the parish will disappear. The wrecking ball is still scheduled to destroy the church within the month.

St. James Church carries the prayers and stories of generations of the Irish and African American faithful. The Pope is calling for a more open church that  serves the poor. Does he means what he says? Tweet him(@pontifex) and ask him to save St. James.

Check out friendsofstjamesonwabash.com and consider signing up to express pride in our heritage in this very concrete way.

2 Responses to “The Fight to Save Chicago’s St. James Parish”

  1. Ann Hileman says:

    Hi Mary Pat, Barb has told me so much about St. James, but this article is the first I have read that includes the real facts, struggles and the politics done in a very professional way. St. James represents history and beauty and the vibrant nature of what a true parish should be. Thanks for writing the article, Ann

  2. Dan says:

    Mary Pat – thanks for the article. We, the people, are the church and we shall overcome this disappointing gesture by archdiocese across the USA!

    God Bless You!
    Dan Anderson

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