ABOUT St James Commons

St. James Commons embraces the Cathedral Church, the Church Center, and the Plaza.  They have all become venues for the openness this Cathedral congregation seeks as we strive to be the Soul of the Neighborhood, the Mother Church for a Diocese, the Seat of the Bishop.  

We seek to be a welcoming presence to worshipers, to the clergy and people of the Diocese who seek the resources of the Bishop's office, to our neighbors, and to visitors who come among us.  

Our programs like Summer in the City, Music in the Neighborhood, Rush Hour Concerts, and Kyle's Place Art Exhibits raise awareness of Episcopal presence in the city, as do weekday and Sunday feeding ministries.  The hospitality of the Kyle's Place (D. Kyle Beecken Memorial Gallery) environment offers a more engaging entry into our buildings. Programming on the Plaza invites new connectedness to the City. 


St. James is the oldest Episcopal Church in Chicago and one of the oldest in Illinois. In 1833, Chicago was a town of 350 people clustered around Fort Dearborn. In 1834, John and Juliette Kinzie brought the first priest to the area, Isaac William Hallam. Choosing the name of his Connecticut church, St. James, Hallam organized the parish on November 2, 1834, in a North Water Street auction house. The first services were held in a new brick church on land donated by John Kinzie at Cass (currently Wabash) Street and Illinois Street on Easter 1837, the year Chicago incorporated as a city of more than 400 people.

The parish of. St James was the chief source of Anglican outreach in northern Illinois and became the mother church for the area. Even in the beginning, Hallam, a missionary-minded priest, conducted services in then-distant places such as Joliet, Lockport, Peoria, Michigan City, and Waukegan. St, James was responsible for the organization of many other Chicago parishes. The earliest, Trinity (1842), was the first Episcopal church on the South Side. By the end of the 19th century, St James' many missions included Church of the Ascension and St. Chrysostom Church.

The Move to Huron & Wabash

Services began at the present location in 1857. As one of the largest churches in Chicago and home of many business leaders, St. James was a natural choice for visitors to the growing city. That may have been why Abraham Lincoln, neither an Episcopalian nor a regular churchgoer, attended a service at St. James in 1860, the day after his nomination as the Republican candidate for the presidency. A plaque set in the north wall of the narthex notes this event.

Because many St. James parishioners served during the Civil War, the parish erected an elaborate memorial after the war "in honor of those who fell." The ornate mid-Victorian monument at the base of the bell tower at the north end of the narthex was designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, a partner of noted architect Frederick Law Olmstead. To guarantee that it would last for all time, the family of Chicago's first mayor, William B. Ogden, made certain that funds were provided to fireproof the memorial.

The Great Fire

The new church building, designed by Edward Burling, was dedicated in September 1871. On October 9, the second day of the Great Fire, the church was destroyed. The bell tower with its monument and the nearby Water Tower were the structures that survived in this part of Chicago. When the rubble had been cleared away, a temporary chapel was constructed in the narthex, with the Civil War memorial serving as the altar. Architects Clarke and Faulkner were hired to rebuild the structure.

Just four years after the fire, on October 9, 1875, services were held in the rebuilt church, the structure in use today, which seats 500 people. E.J. Neville Stent of New York, known for his English Arts and Crafts-style church interiors added stenciling in 1888-89. Although the decor of the church was modified several times during the twentieth century, the 1985 restoration by Walker Johnson and the firm of Holabird and Root returned the original, hundred-year-old patterns in 26 colors to the interior, recreating a superb example of Victorian stencil work.

The font at the nave entrance, one of Chicago's finest examples of Italian marble sculpture, was carved by Augusta Freeman in 1874.

Notable Windows

Most of the windows date from the end of the nineteenth century and are finely-painted glass. With Biblical subject matter and rich symbols, these Victorian period jewels were gifts of many Chicago leaders who were St. James members. The choir loft rose window shows a Christ-in-Majesty surrounded by angel musicians. The choir's English windows show Biblical events involving St. James, the Transfiguration, and the Garden of Gethsemane. The altar windows, based on the Epiphany, Crucifixion, and Ascension were given in memory of the Rev. James DeKoven. They were lengthened in 1962 when the marble altar and floor were installed.

The carved wood and painted reredos, showing another Christ-in-Majesty. was given in 1884 to honor a longtime rector, the Rt. Rev. Robert H. Clarkson.

Throughout its history, St. James has offered an outstanding ministry of sacred music. Leo Sowerby, a well-regarded mid-twentieth-century composer, led the choir and played the organ from 1927-1962. The present organ was installed in 1920, and a new 4-manual console and the portion in the north transept were installed in 1968. The organ was rebuilt and enlarged in 1999. Today the entire instrument has 99 ranks.

After Chicago's first Episcopal cathedral, Saints Peter and Paul, was lost to a fire, St. James became the Cathedral of the Diocese of Chicago in 1955. The "cathedra" or bishop's chair has the diocesan coat-of-arms on both the front and back.

St Andrew Chapel

St. James Commons includes a small Gothic chapel with a separate entrance on Huron Street, known as St. Andrew Chapel. This marks the site where James L. Houghteling and his Bible class of 12 young men heard a derelict alcoholic tell them of once belonging to a Society of St Andrew and St Philip whose purpose was to seek out men and bring them to the church. While the class was unable to do much for the visitor, they were struck with the idea of the society he had described and founded the Brotherhood of St Andrew in 1893. Now an international organization with hundreds of chapters and thousands of members, its purpose is to bring young men to Christ and His Church. In the gospel, St. Andrew brings a young man with five loaves and two small fish to Jesus, who turns them into food to feed five thousand.

The chapel was completed in 1913 as a gift of the Houghteling family. The design, by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, closely follows that of an abbot's private oratory in an ancient abbey in southern Scotland. Saints prominent in the British Isles are depicted in the painted window glass. With a richly decorated triptych reredos featuring a baldachin or canopy, the Italian altar reproduces the Scottish original. For festival use, silver accessories were designed by Ralph Adams Cram. The sanctuary light, when burning, indicates that the Blessed Sacrament of Christ's Body is reserved in the aumbry on the south wall of the sanctuary waiting to be carried as Holy Communion to the sick.

The Holy Eucharist is celebrated daily, except Saturdays, in the Chapel.

Diocesan Center

Immediately east of the Cathedral on Huron Street is the building housing the offices of the Diocese of Chicago, Episcopal Charities and Community Serviecs and the Cathedral of St. James, completed in 1968. Designed by the architectural firm of Hammond and Roesche, the Diocesan Center and plaza are intended as a contemporary complement to the Victorian cathedral. Its elegant simplicity is emblematic of the style of Mies van der Rohe, the German-born Chicago architect who introduced the international style to Chicago and carried it around the world. Of the many small buildings in Chicago in the Miesian style, this is nearly the best. The building won an award from the American Institute of Architects in 1971 for its openness of design and utilization of space.

St James Commons

During the summer of 2011, the Commons began a significant renovation. The re-imagined city block will be used for a variety of religious and community activities acknowledging the Cathedral's and the Diocese's role in the lives of the city and its mission to the residents of a modern urban environment.