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Saying goodbye to my St. James home

Workers begdemolitiSt. James Catholic Church 2942 S. Wabash Ave. by cutting large hole its roJune 26 2013. |  Chandler

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

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Updated: August 29, 2013 6:03AM

Mother sighed — deep and heavy from the soul — as we stared at the gaping holes.

Wrecking crews moved in on June 26, and slowly, painfully, are demolishing my church home, 133-year-old St. James Church at 29th and Wabash in Chicago.

This was the place that had welcomed a family of Nigerian refugees in 1969.

Anchor of the parish where I attended and graduated elementary school.

The church that planted and nurtured the foundations of my Catholic faith, helping to raise me, before my family fled the city for the southwest suburbs.

Cardinal Francis George had decided this church, St. James, was to be no more.

Mother, 85 — a wisp of a woman when we landed on American soil — walked slowly toward those familiar, five white stone steps before its heavy, brown wooden doors.

The aqua-hued cross atop its 200-foot bell tower still beckoned us from a distance.

Leaning on her cane, mother marveled at the abiding majesty of this neo-Gothic structure that Irish immigrants first began building in 1875. Architect Patrick Keely had designed Holy Name Cathedral a year before. St. James opened in 1880.

We stood before its intact limestone exterior earlier this month, seeing ghosts.

A 7-year-old Maudlyne in Mother’s hand-sewn white dress and veil at First Communion.

A 10-year-old Maudlyne spilling out of the station wagon excited about Confirmation.

The 13-year-old Maudlyne, running out of the church after eighth-grade graduation.

My old parish fought the good fight. Even the gaping holes in the roof the crews bashed in, and the knocked-out rear of the church abutting CTA L tracks, didn’t dampen the determination of its Friends of Historic St. James Church to save it.

I’d stayed away from this story, eyeing developments as Mother, with my siblings, maintained our decades-long involvement as members, alumni, then benefactors of this parish, which long revolved around St. James Elementary School.

But the school went the way of the church — one of 23 shuttered by the Archdiocese in 2005 — during years of Catholic school closings sparked by declining enrollment.

In need of repair — the figures are disputed, the Archdiocese claiming as much as $12 million, the parish, $5 million — St. James was shuttered four years ago, deemed unsafe. Mass is being held within the church hall I ran around in as a child.

Cardinal George insisted on demolition; the parish, on saving a city treasure.

The battle began the way of other fights with the Archdiocese over saving historic churches. But unlike some past battles — e.g. Holy Family and St. Mary of the Angels, where the Archdiocese relented — the Archdiocese dug in.

St. James did too, taking their fight to the Vatican, which denied their appeal.

In the end, the cranes moved in, during a downpour.

To say they were tears from heaven would be too cliche.

On this day, Mother and I walked to the side of the church, peering into the sanctuary through windows stripped of once spectacular Tiffany-style stained glass.

Inside were ghosts from a standing-room-only celebration on May 16, 1976, when we re-dedicated a restored St. James after the disastrous fire of Dec. 22, 1972.

A year later, we moved.

But how many times had we traipsed up those five stone steps — we seven kids and devout Catholic parents? Communions. Confessions. Confirmations. Countless.

Even after fleeing Chicago, only St. James could host a final farewell, four years later, to a beloved husband and father taken early by stroke.

I can still see us kids — by then in high school or college — sitting in a front pew with Mother weeping, as Father Larry McBrady said funeral mass by candle light.

Scattered across the globe, we continued to return as adults.

I was the first sibling married there. I vividly see a twenty-something me kneeling before its altar in a wedding dress, filled with joy, love, hopes and dreams.

My brother Christopher Jr. was married at the same altar, and my sister, Mary Ann.

With successful careers, we sought to give back to the parish, providing 10 scholarships a year in my father’s name at St. James Elementary before it closed.

I used to volunteer in the outreach program for shut-in seniors in the neighborhood.

Mary Ann still volunteers with its food pantry. Her jazz club sponsors its Jazzin’ to Feed annual fund-raiser for the pantry. Siblings continue to make cash donations.

Cardinal George wants to build a smaller church two blocks away.

“The future of the parish is not directly attached to the existence of the old church building,” he wrote to the congregation in a letter sealing St. James’ fate.

But Cardinal, you’re wrong. Heartstring attachments to this old building kept a family vested in its parish’s future.

Mother and I returned to our car. On this day, we said goodbye to a part of us.

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