St. James Church gathers its faithful

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”

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