Parishioners, historians hope to save St. James Catholic Church in Bronzeville
February 1, 2013
St. James Church’s interior needs so much repair that the cost appears prohibitive. (Photo by Troy T Heinzeroth)

By Miriam Cintron

While time may be running down for St. James Catholic Church, many still hold out hope that the more than 130-year-old gothic structure in Bronzeville will be saved from the wrecking ball.

The City had cited the church, located at 2942 S. Wabash Ave., for building violations; it has been in such a poor state of repair that St. James has not held services there for more than two years.

Officials slated the structure for teardown last month after the Archdiocese of Chicago received a demolition permit from the City, but a request from 2nd Ward Alderman Robert Fioretti led the Archdiocese to agree to a 90-day reprieve.

“The 90 days gives everyone some breathing room,” said Fioretti, who is working to attract interest in the historic building before the April deadline. He noted a potential buyer had expressed interest, although that party had not proposed a definitive deal yet.

“Historic churches [in Chicago] are few and far between,” Fioretti added, stressing the importance of saving a part of the city’s history that provides a source of pride in the community. He said that little remains of the work by Patrick Keely, the architect who designed both St. James and Holy Name

“It is an important visual and cultural landmark in the area,” said Jonathan Fine, Preservation Chicago’s executive director. “We need to bring this structure back to good use in the community.”

Fine noted his organization is cautiously optimistic that work to contact entities potentially interested in leasing or buying the structure for alternate uses will pay off.

Any buyer would face a difficult and costly task to restore the site. Previous building protection efforts and engineering and architectural studies, in which the archdiocese invested nearly $1 million, estimated that restoring the church would cost $12 million.

In a statement to the Gazette, the Archdiocese said, “The structure is sufficiently deteriorated to bring us to the point of deciding that demolition is the most appropriate solution to the problem. This decision was made after consultation with several engineering and architectural firms.”

St. James Church is an example of great architecture, but the scaffold around it indicates its need for repairs.
The Rev. Edward Linton, the church’s pastor, said the structure needs improved heating, cooling, electric, and plumbing systems. The integrity of the structure’s façade has raised concerns, too, but the main issue lies with whether the trusses can support the ceiling, he explained. Renovations also would require cosmetic changes to beautify the church, said Fr. Linton, who noted a 1972 fire destroyed the church’s stained glass windows.

The archdiocese said through its press office that it is proceeding with plans to prepare the site and structure for demolition and to acquire the land to construct a new St. James Church.

Despite the current church’s undetermined fate, parishioners are excited about Cardinal Francis George’s proposed new church for Michigan Avenue and 29th Street. The Archdicoese said it is under contract to buy the property from South Commons Stage One Venture LP.

“Cardinal George is very committed to the parish,” Fr. Linton said. Aside from the current building’s poor condition and the large investment required to restore it, another reason cited for the possible move was the need to be more centrally located and accessible.

Surrounded by an expressway, Chicago Transit Authority elevated train tracks, and factories, the current structure had made it difficult to grow the parish and do the work of evangelization, Fr. Linton explained.

Fioretti said he too is committed to keeping the St. James parish in the community, and he endorsed plans for the new church.

Though parishioners may be saddened by the prospect of losing the historic St. James Church, Fr. Linton explained they continue to serve the community — for example, running a food pantry that serves thousands of families every month. “It is not a new phenomenon that people are forced to leave their beloved buildings,” he added, saying the church’s work carries on nevertheless and clergy continue to say Masses in a nearby building.

For more information, call (312) 842-1919.