About a dozen parishioners stood outside in the rain Wednesday and watched as crews with sledgehammers started tearing down the roof of St. James Catholic Church in Chicago.
Parishioners have been trying for months to save the historic Bronzeville church designed by architect Patrick Keely in 1875.
At one point during the demolition, the small group of parishioners and preservationists broke out in a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”
As pieces of the roof crashed down, author Mary Pat Kelly could be heard repeatedly crying, “No.”
Kelly wrote a book based on the life of her great-great-grandmother, who worshipped at St. James. The church is significant to the city’s Irish history, Kelly said.
“For the Irish community, this is an icon, this is a shrine. To knock it down is beyond belief, especially because since then, the African-American community has maintained it, and it has become a symbol of their triumph over adversity.”
Another spectator, 10-year-old Evelyn Wright, was there with her mom, who went to school there. Evelyn said she was sad because her mom was sad.
“Everybody’s heartbroken,” the girl said. “You would never think that a place like this would - it would be tore down.”
Preservationists said the church didn’t need to be demolished. Ward Miller, board president of Preservation Chicago, said some developers were interested in restoring or reusing it.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Chicago declined to comment.
Katie Kather is an Arts and Culture reporting intern at WBEZ. Follow her @ktkather.