Demolition begins at St. James Church on South Side
BY MONIFA THOMAS Staff Reporter June 26, 2013 11:38AM
Workers begin the demolition of St. James Catholic Church, 2942 S. Wabash Ave., by cutting a large hole in its roof on June 26, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 30, 2013 7:35AM
Despite a vigorous fight by parishioners, they were forced to watch their beloved 133-year-old St. James Catholic Church in Bronzeville start to be demolished Wednesday.
Instead of a wrecking ball, demolition crews used a fireman’s ax and sledgehammer to start removing slate from one of the roofs at 11 a.m. By 3 p.m., they had sawed through some of the roof framing and decking below the slate, so that a hole about 5-by-6 feet could be seen. But they appeared to be winding up for the day after that.
A handful of St. James parishioners watching outside the church at 2942 S. Wabash started saying “shame on you” when the demolition started.
“It’s sad to see this church go,” said Regina Wright, 45, who had grown up in the area and had started going to St. James 34 years ago. She glanced at the church as she spoke. “It’s been a pillar in this community for so long, and they’ve helped so many people through the years. . . . It’s heartbreaking.”
Last weekend, the parishioners were read a letter from Cardinal Francis George, letting them know that the “canonical requirements have been met to take [St. James] down.”
George, in the letter, wrote that “the future of St. James Parish has been under much discussion since the City of Chicago decided four years ago that the church building that you used for worship is unsafe.”
The archdiocese in the letter said it intends to build a new church along Michigan Avenue. But for now, the parishioners will continue worshipping where they are now.
The Archdiocese of Chicago had no comment beyond what was in the letter.
Many parishioners had been fighting to stop the demolition from happening since January with prayers, petitions and an appeal to the Vatican for help.
When the archdiocese had asked for a demolition permit last fall, it was deferred because the 1880 building is on the city’s list of historically significant structures. That deferral expired Dec. 23, allowing demolition to proceed.
But Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) had gotten the archdiocese to agree not send in wrecking crews for 90 more days. Demolition was again threatened in May.
This time, Fioretti had tried to delay the demolition on Wednesday, but it went ahead. Fioretti could not be reached for comment.
Built for an original congregation of upwardly mobile South Side Irish immigrants, the Gothic-style St. James was designed by the same architect as the one who created Holy Name Cathedral. It went on to become a diverse congregation of all races and all backgrounds.
Parishioners said feel they feel as though the decision to demolish the church was made without much transparency from the archdiocese. They disagreed that the cost of restoring the old one would be prohibitive, as the letter argues.
“We feel that all of this is very premature,” said Preservation Chicago president and interim executive director Ward Miller, who has been going to St. James for 25 years. “To move the parish to a site a block away . . . that’s beyond reason in my mind. So obviously, there’s something else that we don’t know about.”
He added that it was disappointing for the parishioners at St. James to not be heard by the archdiocese.
Miller said they intend to keep fighting to keep St. James open, regardless of the start of demolition.
Sherri Seyfried — who says she recently became Catholic because of the emphasis on social justice and compassion but feels none of that now – agreed with Miller, saying, “It’s not over til it’s over.”