St. James Church gathers its faithful

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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