In the mid-1850s, Chicago was a growing city with a population of approximately 80,000. Near the city’s lakefront at 26th and Calumet, a small community known as Carville housed the families of employees of the nearby Illinois Central Railroad workshops. With no church in the area to serve the 25 English-speaking Catholic families of Carville, Bishop Anthony O’Regan founded St. James, the ninth Catholic church in the city. The first entry in the parish register, the baptism of infant William Patrick Whelan, was recorded on May 27, 1855, by Reverend Thomas F. Kelly, the first resident pastor of St. James.
Originally, the parish held its services at St. Agatha Academy, a shelter and school for orphans run by the Sisters of Mercy and located on the future site of Mercy Hospital. There, each Sunday in a small room with the school benches cleared away, about 60 adults and children celebrated Mass. In 1858, a frame church was built at 27th and Prairie Avenue. In the 1860’s, the parish also ministered to Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas at 35th and Cottage Grove.
By 1879, the growing congregation needed a larger place of worship, and the decision was made to build at 29th and Wabash Avenue. Architect Patrick C. Kelly was chosen. He designed 600 churches in the United States, including Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago and St. Patrick Cathedral in New York. The church was dedicated on May 24, 1880. On May 26, 1895, it was solemnly consecrated by Archbishop Patrick A. Feehan, the third church consecrated in the United States.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the population of the church became predominantly African-American. Urban renewal brought new people to the neighborhood, and the parish school was expanded. In 1972, Sr. Carlotta Oberzut, RSM, began the parish food pantry. Also in the 1970s, the parish began campus ministry outreach to IIT and area colleges.
Three days before Christmas 1972, the neighborhood awoke to shouts that the church was on fire. The damage of the fire was devastating, but the community came together to restore the church. On May 17, 1976, the church was rededicated.
The church building continued to serve the parish community for decades until it finally lived out its usefulness and fell into a state of dangerous instability. In 2013, the old church building was demolished under the supervision of Francis Cardinal George.
Today, the parish community celebrates liturgy in the Parish Hall on Sundays and holy days. On weekdays, Mass is celebrated in the Father Tolton Chapel in the rectory. The parishes offices and food pantry are located at 2907 S. Wabash thanks to the generosity of Catholic Charities. The parish looks forward to a new church building as she continues to serve the spiritual, social, and material needs of the local community.