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Bittersweet memories after sale of Chicago church

Posted: December 1 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Another chapter has closed on a significant Chicago church with a rich history dating back to the 1890s.

In October the Northern Illinois Conference finalized the building sale of St. James United Methodist Church located at 4611 South Ellis Avenue, more than six years after its official closing in the spring of 2010.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said the Rev. Harlene Harden who served St. James from 2004-2008. “The congregation loved that church and the building. People still remember its vibrancy as a leader in the community.”

The first service, for what was then St. James Methodist Episcopal Church, was held in November 1896. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1924. A new building, described as a “Gothic structure of massive beauty” on the Illinois State Library’s digital archives website, was built in 1925. Prominent Chicago architects Tallmadge and Watson designed the limestone church with a towering, six-story cathedral which sits on the corner of Ellis and 46th avenue in the Kenwood neighborhood.

NIC Chancellor Sam Witwer remembers being awestruck by the beauty of the building as a young boy in 1945 while attending church with his parents and twin brother.

“I remember when I was four or five years old crawling around under the pews and being filled with wonder admiring the majesty of the place, including the beautiful stained glass windows, organ and altar,” said Witwer.

But as the community changed, both ethnically and socioeconomically, and the building aged, the congregation grew smaller and faced financial challenges just maintaining the mounting upkeep and repairs.

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Rev. Addison Shields (right) baptizes the confirmation class in February 1989.

The Rev. Addison Shields served at St.James in the 1980’s as a young pastor and remembers getting his first tour of the building to find buckets in the hallways catching the leaking water from the floors above.

“When I came the congregation was struggling to keep the building functioning and I did what I had to do to keep it going,” said Shields. “I would personally come in on Saturdays to do hands-on repair work and even clean the organ pipes early Sunday morning before going downstairs to preach.”

Shields said he encouraged the congregation to cast a vision to move from focusing on maintenance to be a congregation in the community and he said many vital ministries took place. As the first racially-integrated church in Illinois in the 1950’s, Shields says St. James played a vital role in the African-American community.

“Several private schools, as well as after-school youth programs and health counseling groups, used our space,” said Shields. “We also hosted community organization meetings during the Mayor Harold Washington era, who even came to speak at the church.”

But fast-forward 25 years and Shields would return to St. James as the Chicago Southern District Superintendent to tell the church it would have to close and merge with Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church.

“It was a sad experience as a former pastor, and I knew the people very well, to come back and deliver this decision,” said Shields. “We just couldn’t come up with the donors to raise the more than million dollars needed to keep the building open. I told them that it’s too much of a strain on their hearts and souls to stay.”

St. James UMCNIC Treasurer Lonnie Chafin said the city of Chicago had issued citations for structural issues and eventually condemned the sanctuary.

“The cabinet voted to stabilize the building but it was too costly to do so in the end,” said Chafin. “We had several offers to buy the church building over the years but they all fell through. So we are happy with the final sale to real estate developer Creative Designs Builders, which thankfully has no plans to tear down the building.”

The developer says it wants to renovate the existing structure through adaptive reuse retaining as many of the existing architectural features as possible. It will be turned into about 43 rental units, mostly in the sanctuary space with some newly constructed on the parking lot across the street.

Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church welcomed St. James’ members with open arms after the closing and the conference also was able to sell the parsonage. Three years ago, St. John Cantius Catholic Church in Chicago bought, moved and restored the renowned 87-year-old organ to its original grandeur.

Chafin says in retrospect St. James gives the conference and our churches insight on how to be better prepared before a crisis hits or repairs become so burdensome.

“That’s why I really hope the Conference’s newly formed Ministry and Building Assessment Team, which passed at Annual Conference, will be able to assist churches with professionals to offer guidance on best uses of their buildings and identify potential issues.” The team is in its preliminary planning stages so stay tuned for more information soon.

Harden says while the congregation was small in numbers towards the end at St. James, their hearts were big.

“It was difficult because they couldn’t do what they wanted to do, which was to preserve the church, grow and keep the church open to share for future generations,” said Harden. “The people will always cherish what used to be and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have served this church with a rich, rich history. It will always stay with me.”

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