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St. James Catholic Church Parishioners Protest Demolition Plans

By Erica Demarest | March 17, 2013 4:47pm | Updated on March 18, 2013 8:18am

BRONZEVILLE — Members of St. James Catholic Church braved gray skies and chilly weather Sunday to protest the demolition of their beloved 132-year-old parish. 

“We’re trying to get the [Chicago] Archdiocese to work with us to stop the demolition because we’d like to renovate the church,” said Eileen Quigley, who lobbies for preservation as co-chair of Friends of Historic St. James Church.

After services Sunday, parishioners gathered in front of the towering neo-gothic church, where they waved homemade signs, sang hymns and chanted “repair and not tear down.”

“We really haven’t been successful in getting [the diocese’s] attention," Quigley said," so this is our last effort. We’re going to do these vigils until the story changes or the church gets torn down.”

Designed by Irish-American architect Patrick Keely, the church has been a Bronzeville staple since 1880.

But it’s in such poor repair, Quigley said, that mass hasn’t been held there for four years. Parishioners gather weekly in the church hall, which many complain isn’t fitting for weddings or funerals.

“We can’t get caskets in there,” Quigley said.

The Chicago Archdiocese announced last year plans to demolish the historic building and erect a new church in its stead. Officials estimated it would cost $12 million to repair St. James, versus $5 million to $7 million to build a new church, the Chicago Tribune reported.

But this February, the archdiocese revealed it had an operating deficit of more than $30 million. 

“The diocese is broke,” said John Picken, 76, a parishioner since 1961. “They can’t afford a new church. We would be in this school hall forever.” 

Quigley said parishioners want the archdiocese to cease demolition so the church can organize a capital campaign. She believes fundraising can cover repair costs, which she estimates are closer to $5 million than $12 million.

Some parishioners argued the church’s history as a haven for Irish- and African-American communities made it too important to destroy.

“This is not stone and mortar,” Mary Pat Kelly said. “This building was built as a monument to survival. This is the answer to slave ships and famine ships. This is the answer to Jim Crow and ‘No Irish need apply.’”

Others cited the church’s pantry and social services.

Nineteen-year parishioner Tynnetta Taylor Muturi, 51, said that over the years, St. James has covered everything from Christmas gifts and pre-school for her seven children to a wedding dress, which she made herself from donated curtains.

“When I first heard [about the demolition], I was like, ‘Somebody ‘ain't in their right bean,’” Muturi said. “I’m quite sure you could raise a few dollars and put some reinforcements in there.”

Picken said he was hopeful.

In 1972, after a fire destroyed much of the church, “we fought the cardinal because he wanted to tear down the church then,” Picken said. “We beat him, and we will beat this time.”

During the fire, the church’s Tiffany windows melted into “tiny globs of glass on the floor,” Picken said. Parishioners carried pieces of glass with them until restoration was complete four years later, when the glass bits were mixed into the building’s foundation.

“You see some of that spirit here today,” Picken said. “It’s going to happen again.”