photo by Haley Johnson

photo by Haley Johnson

After 137 years, St. James Church is scheduled for demolition this April. The structure is too weak–its buttresses are no longer strong enough to support the now crumbling vaulted ceiling, which has resulted in irreparable, deep cracks and widespread structural damage. With renovations estimated by the Archdiocese of Chicago to cost $12 million dollars, it seems the nave of St. James is without a prayer.

The archdiocese has decided to rebuild the church near its original location, and plans to purchase property on 29th and Michigan. The new church building, it estimates, will cost around $4 million; however, the blueprints for this building have not yet been drawn, nor have sufficient funds been raised. More importantly, the question still lingers about whether, now that St. James is to be demolished, the vibrancy of its church community will be maintained.

Beyond its structural wear, St. James’ presence in Bronzeville seems caught within a web of modernity. Its worn, limestone bricks contain a wealth of history; St. James church, along with its congregation, has survived the Great Depression, heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and given witness to five Bridgeport mayors. Its walls have even lasted a fire in 1972 which destroyed the church’s original stained glass windows. However, despite its history, it can’t be denied that St. James’ walls are tired, and their beauty obscured by the scaffolding and signs currently preventing entry.

In spite of St. James’ barred gates, one can still hear music on Sundays. This music is not coming from the sanctuary proper but the church’s neighboring auditorium, their parish hall, where the congregation has been worshipping for the past two years. Sunlight pours heavily into this room, drenching its mint-green walls and intermingling with the sound of the congregation, whose raised hands and joyous voices dance with the light. This light is nothing compared to the gleam found in the joyous faces, faces which seem to range in a never ending varying spectrum, from smooth to wrinkled, brown to white, and serene to ecstatic. These are the enduring faithful of St. James.

Father Edward Linton, the church’s pastor, says that while the structural damages may have harmed St. James proper, they haven’t harmed its congregation. According to him, “We’re not only here for old buildings. We’re here to preach the Good News.” He noted that viewed through the context of Catholic church history, the building’s demolition is not something that is uncommon–“This is not the first time in Christian history when Christians have had to leave their beloved, holy places,” he explains. “It’s not about holding on to a holy place, it’s leaving a holy place to create another holy place to do what we should be doing, which is proclaiming Christ.”

Proclaiming Christ, for St. James Church, has been about demonstrating a commitment to service within the Bronzeville community. With a relatively small community of faith, St. James has incurred a vibrant social ministry. They are most known for their food pantry, which feeds over 1,500 people every month and delivers to the homebound. They also make personal visits to the sick, or nursing homes, and host events for nearby students living at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Illinois College of Optometry, Vander Cook College of Music, or Shimer College.

However, when asked about what made the culture of St. James unique, Father Edward answered quickly: “Diversity, without a doubt. If you come here you can’t define it as a black church, a white church, an Asian church. Many people say that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week; well here, it is the most desegregated day.” Part of this diversity is due to St. James’ being a campus ministry and drawing in neighboring youth; however, St. James doesn’t really seem to have a set age group. In fact, Father Edward says that at St. James there is not only racial, but “age, economic, and [even] educational diversity.”

photo by Haley Johnson

photo by Haley Johnson

This diversity is something St. James is truly proud of. In fact, they’ve recently adapted their mission statement to specifically include diversity within it. For Catholic churches, mission statements represent not just the goal of the church, but also the core of what they believe. “Diversity doesn’t just happen by accident; it takes work,” explained Father Edward. The only way to ensure this work would happen was by mandating it through the mission statement.

This insistence on diversity, according to Father Edward, is in part due to the history of racism on the South Side. As early as 1918, Chicago neighborhoods were divided by the use of racially restrictive covenants which bound new owners to prohibit certain racial groups from becoming tenants. These covenants were banned in 1948; yet in some ways this specter of segregation maintains its translucent grip.

St. James was founded as an Irish parish located in what would become, a half a century later, the heart of the city’s Black Belt. During the Great Migration of the 1920s, African Americans displaced the Irish who were living in this shanty and the racial covenants served to clearly divide Bridgeport from Bronzeville. Though these covenants were outlawed, many of its resulting structures, such as the Dan Ryan, still affect congregation members that commute to the church in present day.

Even with demolition on the horizon, Father Edward remains optimistic: “Hopefully what this will bring is attention to a very unique church in our city. People are already sticking their heads in and are becoming interested in seeing what it is we’re doing.” And what St. James is doing will likely continue for many years. The church plans to continue worshipping in their parish hall until sufficient funds for the new building have been raised.

According to Father Edward, “[St. James] is sad about leaving its church, but not sad enough to stop being church.” It seems then, that St. James is to be buried at last but only to be reborn, eager to breathe new life into its beloved South Side.

This story has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

Corrections: April 10, 2013

An earlier version of this story overstated the involvement of Father Edward Linton in the archdiocese’s decision to relocate the church. That decision was made independently of Father Linton.

In addition, the $12 million estimated cost of renovations to the church was not given attribution. That estimate was made by the archdiocese; another estimate, made by the Friends of Historic St. James, puts the cost of renovations at $5.25 million.

The estimated $4 million construction costs for a new church building do not, as this story originally implied, take into account the cost of furnishing the new church. The $4 million estimate refers only to the construction of the building itself.

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