Sunday, June 30, 2013

St. James

St. James Roman Catholic Church, July 2, 2013
As someone interested in preservation and keeping this city's architectural legacy intact, I'm deeply saddened by the demolition of one of Chicago's oldest churches, St. James, a neo-Gothic house of worship on the south side at 2942 S. Wabash, just north of the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. The building is the work of Patrick Keely, one of this country's most prolific ecclesiastical architects. Keely was adept at many architectural styles; examples of his work in Chicago include the neo-Romanesque Nativity of Our Lord Church in the neighborhood of Bridgeport, about one mile away, and the neo-Baroque St. Stanislaus Kostka Church on the north side. Gothic however was his bread and butter and Keely is responsible for over 600 churches in the United States, most of them Gothic in style and Roman Catholic in denomination.

Keely designed what would become the most important Catholic church in Chicago, Holy Name Cathedral, which was built in 1874 to replace its predecessor which was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. From its soaring tower and Joliet limestone cladding, to its plan and interior details, St. James, built one year later, is essentially the cathedral in miniature. The big difference is that St. James strikes a more dramatic profile than its larger cousin as it dominates the vista of its near south side community. St. James has a proud history, the church was built by well heeled, "lace curtain" Irish Catholics in 1855. Despite building a lavish church with rich appointments, the parish was in the black by 1895. St. James spawned several mission churches and was at one time considered the mother church of all south side Catholic parishes.

The community of Douglas in which St. James resides, once the domain of Victorian era mansions, was named after Senator Stephen A. Douglas who owned a large tract of land along the lake shore. The community's 19th century prosperity was bolstered by nearby meat packing and other industries, excellent transportation, and the establishment of institutions such as Michael Reese Hospital and the Armour Institute which later became IIT. Things began to change during the 1890s, when apartment buildings began to appear. In 1892, the South Side Elevated, Chicago's first such line was constructed above the alley directly behind St. James. From that point on, priests at St. James had to pause during mass while noisy trains rumbled by just feet away from the altar. Gradually, light industry began popping up around the church further altering the residential character of the neighborhood. Along the New York Central tracks a couple of blocks to the west, an Italian working class neighborhood became the Federal Street slum, mentioned in a previous post. During the period of the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern states to the north in the first decades of the 20th century, Douglas became the heart of Bronzeville, the center of Chicago's black community, with the nearby intersection of 35th and State Streets its heart. Important African American institutions developed in the community such as the Douglas National Bank, the Chicago Defender newspaper, and the Mount Olivet and Pilgrim Baptist churches.

The church rectory on the left is a good example of the style
of architecture common to the community of Douglas at the time
St. James was built in 1875
During the Great Depression, most of the single family homes around St. James were converted to multiple family units and the economic climate of the community declined. After World War II, St. James was directly in the center of a transformation that can only be described as breathtaking. Roughly 700 acres of densely populated city land were cleared for massive urban renewal projects that took on many forms. The neighborhood directly to the south of St. James was cleared and taken over by the expanding Illinois Institute of Technology. Further south, the Federal Street slum was cleared to make way for the Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor housing projects. To the north were the Dearborn and Harold Ickes Homes. To the east, Prairie Shores and South Commons, two middle income high rises were built. And the area to the west of the NYCRR tracks, formerly part of the neighborhood of Armour Square, was cleared to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Somehow through all that St. James survived. It even survived a devastating fire in December of 1972. The fire burned for hours in the basement but eventually worked its way up into the sanctuary. Firemen gained access into the church by breaking through the Tiffany stained glass windows that had graced the church for almost 100 years. The marble altar crumbled in the heat of the fire but amazingly the rest of the interior including the walnut and white oak pews survived.

Signs of change: In 1892, less than twenty years after the building of St. James, the South Side Elevated
was constructed and ran directly behind the church. From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same.
The Dearborn Homes public housing project which opened in 1950, can be seen behind the green fence.
Immediately, parishioners raised funds to restore the church. Just as its cousin the cathedral downtown, conforming to the new liturgical decrees of Vatican II, the interior of St. James was stripped of most of its ornament and a simple table replaced the old marble altar in the sanctuary. The number of pews was reduced and a large, informal greeting area with a baptismal font was created in the back of the church. Some of the treasures of the pre-fire St. James made it back into the newly created church including a scaled down replica of Michelangelo's Pieta, the Roosevelt tracker-pneumatic organ which won first prize at the Columbian Exhibition of 1893, and a twenty bell carillon housed inside the tower.

The small parish community of about one hundred members continued to worship in old St. James until about four years ago. At that time, an assessment of the structural integrity of the building was conducted after a fire at Holy Name revealed dangerous flaws in the cathedral. The assessment determined that St. James had similar problems and was unsafe. The structural problems were cleared up at the financially secure cathedral, but the costs to repair St, James were more than the congregation could bare and the old church has been closed to the public ever since.

The community has since been worshipping in the parish hall, the auditorium of the parish's long closed school. In August of last year, the Archdiocese of Chicago purchased land to build a new, smaller church and announced the old building would be demolished.

Ancient symbols of the Christian faith and the
saint for whom the church was named,
contrast with more banal, contemporary symbols.

This got the attention of Preservation Chicago and other preservation groups who have since waged a campaign to save the church.

I won't go into the details of the ensuing struggle to save St. James, much of which have been detailed in Lynn Becker's blog, on the site of Preservation Chicago, and elsewhere.

I have great respect for Preservation Chicago and their work, and am devastated by the apparent fate of this beautiful, historic building. But there is another side to the story. Here I'm going to let an articulate response to one of Becker's posts from an anonymous member of Chicago's preservation community on the subject speak for itself:
I am very, very sympathetic to the cause of saving this building. It truly is a beautiful piece of architecture that represents the collective identity of the neighborhood and Chicago Catholicism.
However, this building is also home to a real community of real people. A very small, poor community that tries to minister effectively to those in the area.
I recently read this "inside story" from a parishioner of St. James with great dismay.
It makes me very sad to hear of the division and infighting that this issue has caused. 
It's instances like this that make those of us in the historic preservation community look bad. If we really want to save historic church buildings like this, we need to come alongside the folks that worship and minister there. We need to truly help them - not lead protests and write scathing editorials. 
It's clear that no one in the parish really wants to demolish the church, but at the same time they don't have the resources to maintain it either. They see the Archdiocese's sponsorship of a new church building as their only alternative to straight-up closure. And they're right.
Why weren't we in the preservation community there back in August when this was first announced? Or really, why weren't we there four years ago when the church was condemned in the first place? Just think of how this situation could have been different if we had stepped forward to HELP right away. What if we would have said something like: "We know you don't want to see your church demolished, and neither do we. Maybe with our contacts, resources, and expertise we can work with you to help restore this building and make it more suitable to your needs." We could have helped St. James Parish re-imagine their built environment to better serve the entire neighborhood. But we weren't there. We didn't decide to show up until the wrecking ball was looming on the horizon. 
The real work of historic preservation means far more than simply saving a building from demolition and then walking away. We have to let those involved in these decisions know that we have their best interests at hear. That means walking with other people on their own journeys and seeing the situation through their eyes.
Four years ago, if we could have only had the eyes to see St. James as a small, poor congregation that needed help, we wouldn't be in this situation today.
This very well stated response references a blog post from Jerry Galipeau, a member of the St. James community who articulates what he feels is the untenable position of preserving old St. James. It is well worth reading and in case you missed it above, here is another link.

In a nutshell, Mr. Galipeau claims that despite its history and beauty, not even considering the expense to bring the old building up to code, the parish community would be better served by a much smaller building built in a place "where people actually live." While it's true that there are parishioners who support saving the old church, Galipeau questions their sincerity and conviction, saying those folks never spoke their minds four years ago, back at a time when their opinions could have had an impact on the building's fate. They only came to the forefront after the preservationists got into the act and started to make some noise.

This is precisely what makes architectural preservation a such difficult issue.  Buildings do not exist as works of art in a museum, they are a living part of the fabric of a city. Churches pose an especially difficult problem when it comes to preservation. We can't landmark them, the first amendment to our constitution which mandates the separation of church and state explicitly prohibits that, as well as government money earmarked toward their rehabilitation. Then there are the ethical and practical issues. Simply put, the mission of the Church is saving people, not buildings. It is certainly true that church buildings themselves, especially in the Catholic faith, play a very important role in the liturgy; to the faithful they are considered houses of God. Beyond that, a church building represents the continuity of a neighborhood to both believers and non-believers. I can think of few more gut wrenching sights than the demolition of a church.

In the many articles concerning St. James, the current archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George and the Archdiocese of Chicago are singled out as the prime antagonists in the story. Cardinal George and the organization he leads are painted as little more than a bureaucrat and a faceless institution concerned not with the feelings and needs of those most closely affiliated with the church, but interested only in the bottom line. Amazingly George is even compared unfavorably to his predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, who presided over the greatest number of church closings and parish consolidations in the history of the city. During Bernadin's tenure, many churches, some more architecturally significant that St. James were demolished.  One particularly jingoistic comment I keep hearing is this: "If St. James were on the north side, you can bet it would be saved." Well, St. Boniface is on the north side and although it has yet to be demolished, it has stood vacant, allowed to face the elements and deteriorate for almost thirty years. I think in many ways, quick demolition is a much kinder fate for a beloved building than a slow, painful death.

Workers begin the somber task of dismantling St. James.
A "church", at least as described in the Catholic faith, is defined as the community of people gathered together in the Lord's name, not a building. In a transient city like Chicago, parishes and church buildings come and go as a community's ethnic and religious makeup changes. As we saw with St. Boniface, a neighborhood once saturated with immigrants belonging to the Catholic faith built far more churches than could reasonably be sustained after those new arrivals moved on to bigger and better things. The situation with St. James in Douglas is only slightly different as the community that built and supported that church vanished decades ago and was replaced with a community belonging for the most part to different faith traditions.

It has been proposed that the community of Douglas has the potential of another great wave of change. They say that demolishing old St. James is shortsighted, that one day it may be at the center of a newly vibrant community as happened to Old St. Pat's, Holy Family Church, and St. Mary of the Angels, three old churches once slated for closure and demolition that are now thriving. The problem in Lynn Becker's words is this:
For the Chicago archdiocese, gazing into eternity - no problem. Looking a few decades down the road, not so much.
Perhaps. But the Roman Catholic Church is not in the speculative real estate business. If it were, it would be an unmitigated failure and would have been forced out of business years ago. While I am at odds on a number of issues with Cardinal George, on this particular issue I have a great deal of sympathy with the position he is forced into. I have no doubt that the last thing he wants is to drive people out of the church in which they have worshipped, were baptized, received their sacraments, married, and buried their loved ones. Yet even an institution that specializes in the eternity has to exist in the real world, and the here and now must be taken into account. The faith community must ultimately be the one to determine the fate of its house of worship.

As a city is not just about buildings, those of us who are concerned with preservation, must endeavor to preserve communities as well as buildings. Personally I hope against hope that an eleventh hour compromise satisfactory to all parties can be drawn up to save St. James from the wrecker's ball, even as at the time of this writing, crews have already poked a hole through the building's roof.*  Frankly it's looking quite bleak.

The loss of Patrick Keely's St. James will be sad and felt within the sound of its bells and the sight of its magnificent tower. But the community of St. James parish is still very much alive, if not particularly well at the moment, and they are the ones we should concern ourselves with.

One block away, the message on the sign of a church built in a much different time says it all: "God Bless St. James Parish."
If it is within you, please keep them in your prayers. If it is not but you care about them just the same, feel free to send them your well wishes and better still, a check.

*The photographs above were made after this post was written and as you can see, the demolition crew is well on its way to sealing the fate of this beautiful church.

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