Updated: April 27, 2013 6:38AM
Born in an era of anti-Catholic sentiment, 132-year-old St. James Catholic Church has survived prejudice, racial change, urban renewal and a destructive fire.
But barring either divine or worldly intervention, this grand old house of worship will soon fall victim to the financial challenges of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the general ambivalence of Americans toward such historic treasures.
That would be a terrible shame.
Even as workmen went about the business Monday of dismantling the church’s rare organ, a group of two dozen parishioners and preservationists gathered in the frigid sanctuary to pray for Cardinal Francis George to reconsider his decision to demolish the limestone structure at 2942 S. Wabash.
“Please be careful because you’re just going to have to put it back in,” Eileen Quigley called out to the crew taking apart the tracker-pneumatic organ that entertained attendees of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
“We can do that,” came the response from the balcony.
Unfortunately, that can-do attitude has its limitations in the real world of church economics.
The archdiocese contends it would cost $12 million to rebuild and restore the church, which has stood vacant for four years because of concerns about its structural integrity.
During that time, parishioners have celebrated Sunday mass in the nearby church hall.
The cardinal countered last summer by informing parishioners that instead of rehabbing the old church it would build a new, smaller one at 29th and Michigan at a cost of about $4 million.
The plan was originally embraced by the church’s lay leadership, which sent a letter to George applauding the idea. But opposition has been building ever since from those both inside and outside the church who want to see it preserved.
Now those opponents say they have an offer from Chicago businessman Joseph Cacciatore to fix up St. James for a guaranteed price of $5 million, which upon completion he would offset with a $500,000 donation back to the church.
“This church could be put back in very good condition,” argued parishioner Dave Samber, who led Monday’s prayer service. “We don’t know why there’s an urgency for this cardinal to take this building down.”
To parishioner Jerry Galipeau, however, the cardinal’s plan makes much more sense, given the current size of the St. James congregation and the future cost of heating and maintaining the old church.
“We were a very small community lost in a very large space,” Galipeau said, referring to the period before services were moved to the church hall. Originally built to seat 800 to 1,000 churchgoers, St. James currently draws closer to 200 to 250 attendees on a Sunday.
“I think it’s a beautiful building that’s falling down. I personally don’t want to be worshipping in a museum,” Galipeau told me. “I love St. James, and I want it to have the kind of future it can have, but it’s not in that building.”
To those who would save the building, the path to the future should honor the past.
The cornerstone for St. James was laid in 1875 by working-class Irish immigrants fighting to make their way in what was still a Protestant city hostile to Catholics.
Some say it was a measure of that hostility that city leaders located its new elevated train line right against the back of the newly built church — the rumbling trains disrupting services to this day.
At the turn of the 20th century, St. James was briefly at the center of South Side affluence — before the money moved north. The city’s first Catholic mayor, John Patrick Hopkins, a member of St. James, was buried from there in 1918.
Throughout most of its history, though, St. James has been notably lacking in clout — a “humble” church community in the words of Quigley, whose grandmother was baptized beneath its 200-foot steeple in 1897.
Blacks were not allowed to attend the church for decades, even after the surrounding neighborhood became known as the Black Belt, forerunner of Bronzeville. Integration came in the 1940s, and since then the diverse congregation has become a progressive model currently most proud of its food pantry.
Almost the entire surrounding neighborhood was leveled by Richard J. Daley’s urban renewal, but St. James was spared. Then a 1972 fire gutted the church. The archdiocese didn’t want to rebuild, so the parishioners did the work themselves.
“To my mind, that really was the beginning of the end,” said Sara Catania, who is writing a history of St. James and the Sisters of Mercy. The nuns ran the since-closed parish school from which Catania graduated before going on to a journalism career.
The churches of Europe have survived for centuries. I often wonder if anyone will ever see a centuries-old church in Chicago.