Since 1875, St. James Catholic Church has stood watch over this section of the city on the prairie. But the remaining time of its vigil may be measured in mere months.
The towering church stands at 2942 S. Wabash Avenue, housing a congregation founded in 1846. St. James was designed by prolific Catholic architect Patrick Charles Keely, whose designed hundreds of Catholic churches during a time of vast Catholic expansion in America, including Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral downtown. St. James was built for an Irish congregation, replacing an 1853 building lost in the great fire, and was touted as the most expensive religious building in the city to that time. The October 10, 1875 cornerstone laying was preceded by a parade of Irish societies that stretched out over 2 miles and eventually brought an unruly crowd of 20,000 to the site. (Tribune Oct 11, 1875). Services were begun and the building was formally dedicated on May 23, 1880.
Designed in the French Gothic Revival architectural style, the exterior is suffused with beautiful stone carved details:
St. James was badly damaged in a fire on December 21st, 1972. Many of the original stained glass windows were lost due to the firefighting efforts required to save the building itself. After the fire, parishioners rallied and funded the considerable repairs themselves, with no help from the Archdiocese.
The intervening 40 years have taken their toll on the venerable structure; electrical, heating and plumbing systems are outdated, and there is concern over the roof structure and the stone facade. After citations were issued by the city, the parish erected protective scaffolding around the church, closed it off, and began holding services in a secondary building next door. As Lee Bey recently reported, the Archdiocese wants to demolish the church this year. More recently, Gazette Chicago reports that a 90-day reprieve has been granted, as supporters try to rally interest in the building and possibly find a buyer. (With IIT within spitting distance, I can’t help wondering if they could become partners of some kind.)
Lynn Becker puts all of this into a larger context, citing with his usual eloquence and insight the role of churches like St. James on the city landscape and the difficulties they face as congregations change and move away. His post also shares some of the grand churches that Chicago has already lost over the years, in a heartbreaking series of photographs.
The Archdiocese cites a cost of $12 million to get the building back into functional condition, vs. $5-7 million for a new building. But as I often tell people who complain about high costs of living in Chicago – you get what you pay for. Will a $5 million building look like this? Will it even come anywhere close?
$12 million is nothing to sniff at, to be sure. But what will the legacy be if that money is not spent? In ten, twenty, fifty years, what will matter more?