Historical Society

  • St James' incredible history

    In 33 AD the Catholic Church was formed, a few 1800 years later St. James at Sag Bridge was formed. The site of St. James Church is uniquely located on a hill overlooking the valley below and was formed by glacial waters the later became the Des Plaines River and the Sag Channel. This location has been inhabited for centuries because of its importance as a lookout and was first inhabited by Indians and later a French Fort was located at this site. In 1673 Father Jacques Marquette along with Louis Joliet explored and traveled along the Des Plaines River passing the site of St. James on three different occasions. It is believed that Fr. Marquette came to the Sag and said Mass at the French fort located here.

    Louis Joliet himself recognized the importance of linking the river to Lake Michigan. However, it wasn’t until a century and a half later the Illinois & Michigan Canal was constructed to meet the demands of a rapidly growing nation. Construction of the canal plus the prospect of inexpensive land lured foreign settlers to the Sag region and St. James Church was officially formed.

    A rough log cabin first served as the church building and was located directly on the original Indian trail, which later became Archer Avenue. It is recorded in 1833, Fr. Irenaeous St. Cyr the priest assigned to the Chicago-land area, traveled to the Sag area every 3 o 4 months. He came on horseback and his journey took an entire day. He offered Mass in the original log cabin church of St. James.

    The land on which the Church and Cemetery are situated was purchased and later donated by two early settlers John Sullivan & James Murphy. Their direct descendants are still active parishioners today.

    In 1853 the cornerstone of the present day St. James Church was laid and dedicated by Bishop Van De Velde. The church is constructed of limestone (Athens marble) excavated from the nearby quarries. It took area settlers and farmers six long years of back breaking work to haul enough stones to the top of the hill. Those that did the most work were given cemetery plots closest to the church. The original St. James altars installed around 1858 were made of wood and painted with gold trim.

    Originally St. James Church was a mission church and did not have a resident pastor until 1882. The first pastor Father Joseph Bollman had St. James Church remodeled and enlarged. Numerous changes took place in the late 1890s such as: the original clear-glass windows with square tops were redesigned and arched with fully detailed stained-glass windows imported from Germany; the eye of God Window was installed – an excellent example of rose windows; the walls of the church were heightened; the pitch of the roof was radically changed and the magnificent ceiling of Sitca spruce from Alaska was installed along with wood paneling added along the side walls all hand carved by parishioners; a new belfry was added as well as the choir loft, plus the side Sacristies were built at this time.

    Some unique features of St. James are: the urn-topped wrought iron gates which were installed in 1914 and serve as the church entrance; the buttresses that were added to the church building in 1919 when dynamiting the Cal-Sag Channel weakened the foundation; the limestone Stations of the Cross lining the church and cemetery walkway were constructed in the 1920s and donated by parishioners in memory of  deceased family members; and the historic wrought iron entrance gates to the St. James complex that were acquired from the Western Electric Hawthorne Plant in 1976 and originally fabricated on 1905.

     St. James has undergone many changes over the years. In the early 1950s the church interior was ornately painted with gold-leaf and vibrant colors. And again the interior was changed in the late 1970s when the original altars and altar railings were removed in keeping with Vatican II guidelines. St. James Church and Cemetery suffered considerable tornado damage in 1991. Many feared the parish would be closed. However a group of dedicated parishioners banded together and formed the St. James Preservation Society and this did not happen.

    During the 1990s St. James Church was once again restored to reflect its original beauty and heritage. The new front altar and shrines are hand-craved of wood and trimmed in gold and were fashioned after the original St. James altars having similar spires, curves and arches. Among the improvements: refinishing and repairing the ceiling, pews & choir loft: a pipe organ was donated and installed: new carpeting: repainting of interior walls including gold stenciling over the altar and windows: repairing and repainting of the Stations of the Cross: all new lectern stand, altar chairs, and tables: plus air conditioning, improving electrical wiring, security alarm system, TV/video system. All upgrading and restoration was completed in time for the 165th Anniversary of St. James held in May of 1998. Cardinal Francis George rededicated St. James at a special anniversary Mass.