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A historic Chicago church says good-bye to its bells

St. James Church in Bronzeville has been closed for almost four years. Despite parishioners’ efforts to save the church, it’s starting to be slowly dismantled. (Adriana Cardona/WBEZ)

Workers took down the bells at St. James Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood Wednesday.

The Archdiocese of Chicago plans to demolish the 137-year-old building, despite efforts by the Friends of Historic St. James, a group of parishioners that have been advocating to save the church.

“I think the cold and rainy weather reflects the sadness and tears that many of us have seeing these bells being removed,” said Dave Samber, who’s at the forefront of the advocacy efforts. “This is the beginning of what could very well be an end, but it doesn’t have to be.”

Samber said his group, the Friends of Historic St. James, still has time to reverse the Archdiocese’s decision. Parishioners appealed to the Vatican earlier this month to halt the demolition and to suspend the removal of parochial goods, and are waiting to hear back.

A private real estate developer has said he’s committed to investing $5 million to help restoration efforts.

But the Archdiocese of Chicago said the total cost for restoration is $12 million. In a statement, the Archdiocese said it can’t afford to renovate the building and instead will invest $7 million to build a new church a block away on Michigan Avenue.

“The Archdiocese feels that it would be fiscally irresponsible to renovate the existing building … The new St. James Church will better serve the parish, the parishioners and the community in the future,” the statement said.

According to the Archdiocese, the new St. James Church will seat 500 people. In the meantime, the parish will hold mass in its current parish center, and operate its food pantry, as it’s been doing while the church building has been vacant.

The organ and the bells will be saved for use in other Archdiocesan parishes, a spokeswoman said. Demolition is slated to start May 1.

But Eva Leonard, who’s attended St. James for 30 years, said she won’t let go of her church that easily.

“We are going to move back in there,” Leonard said.  ‘Cause this is what we want to do. It’s my only Catholic church; [I] can’t see it torn down, no way.”

Preservation Chicago Board President Ward Miller said he expected to see more dialogue between the Archdiocese and its congregation.

“The Cardinal should have come out with his people, he should have talked to all of us. There just has been dead silence for all of us,” Miller said.

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