An unforgiving icy wind blew across the three dozen — young and old, black and white, rich and poor — gathered on Palm Sunday in front of the ancient and shuttered St. James Catholic Church in Bronzeville.
It was a cold morning for the arduous chore of salvation. But just as we have become accustomed to March feeling like winter, so have we come to know how hard it is to save old buildings.
Many of the people held handmade signs: “Salvation for St. James” and “Do We Dare Squander Chicago's Great Architectural Heritage,” echoing words spoken by photographer/preservationist Richard Nickel, who died in the wreckage when a portion of Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building, slated for demolition, collapsed in 1972.
Scaffolding rimmed the front of the old church, which has been empty for almost four years and is already in the process of being erased. Asbestos abatement had taken place, and the scheduled dismantling of the organ and the bells were to come.
The archdiocese had received a permit to demolish the church in December but agreed to wait, mostly because of the efforts of Friends of Historic St. James Church.
It is, on one level, all about money. The archdiocese says it would cost something near $12 million to fully restore the church. That being too high a price, Cardinal Francis George has offered to build a new church a couple of block away for half that price.
There are, naturally, some parishioners who wouldn't mind a new church.
“Look,” said one who for obvious reasons requested anonymity. “This place was originally built for, what, 800 parishioners? Now we have about 300, maybe less. A new church would be fine with me.”
But not with others.
One of the most vocal and passionate is Dave Samber, owner and chef at the Polo Cafe in Bridgeport.
“There is really no reason for this,” he says. “There is so much potential.”
Samber got involved in the church five years ago when he started providing food for its food pantry, which serves more than 1,500 families. He has been a steady presence at Sunday services ever since, and it was his fine singing voice that rose above the wind's whistle outside on Palm Sunday, as the crowd sang such familiar songs as “We Shall Overcome,” “Amazing Grace” and an original tune written by Samber, “God Bless St. James”:
“God Bless St. James on Wabash
Her flock and pastor too
Uphold their faith and courage
To serve and worship you.
Give Cardinal George direction
‘Repair and not tear down!'
St. James, the church in Bronzeville
Historic in our town”
Historic is right. The congregation dates back to 1855. The cornerstone of the current building was laid in 1875 and the first services held five years later. It became a thriving parish, growing by the early 1900s to also include a grammar school with hundred of students.
It was first a place for poor and working-class Irish immigrants and much later, as the surrounding neighborhood became home to blacks arriving here in the Great Migration, it was among the first integrated parishes in the city.
“This is not about stone and mortar. This is about affirming faith,” says novelist Mary Pat Kelly, a former nun and the author of the historical, Chicago-based novels “Galway Bay” and the forthcoming “Of Irish Blood.” “This fight is about the character of our city. It is impossible to buy or to build authenticity. If this place were to go, so go the stories. The history vanishes forever.”
St. James, 2942 S. Wabash Ave. is a striking structure, its steeple able to been seen from many blocks, even miles, away.
The building is one of this year's “Chicago 7,” the annual list of the city's most endangered buildings as determined by Preservation Chicago, which describes itself as “an activist organization that advocates for the preservation of historic architecture, neighborhoods and urban spaces.”
A few members were there on Palm Sunday, and the president of its board, architect Ward Miller, told the crowd about his recent encounter at a private party with Cardinal George and the lengthy conversation they had about St.James and the building's architect.
His name was Patrick C. Keely of Brooklyn. He was prolific, designing nearly 600 churches. There are three other churches of his design in Chicago: Holy Name (1875), Nativity of Our Lord (1885) and St. Stanislaus Kostka (1881).
None of those is in danger of demolition.
The struggle to save St. James has gotten a great deal of media attention — TV cameras, reporters, photographers and columnists were there for a Monday prayer vigil — but there were no other media shivering on Palm Sunday morning.
On the sidewalk, there was talk of real estate developer Joseph Cacciatore's recent offer to renovate the church for
$5 million, $500,000 of which he would then donate to the church.
There was talk of other churches — Old St. Pat's in the West Loop, St. Michael's in Old Town and Holy Family in University Village — that had gone from down at the heels to thriving.
“That could happen here,” Samber said.
On Sunday, Samber will be among the few hundred St. James parishioners gathered for Easter services. All of them will pray, and among the prayers of many will surely be that something will forestall for keeps the wrecking ball that is scheduled to start swinging as early as April 22.
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