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A Founding Mother

Mrs. Juliet Kinzie

When the first Episcopal service was held in Chicago, this concrete jungle was wild prairie. On a plot of this American wilderness in 1834, one of the city’s most prominent early residents, Juliette Kinzie, organized a small community that would build St. James Cathedral and lay the foundations for one of the world's great cities. By Easter Sunday 1837, a St. James congregation was worshipping in a brick church at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Illinois Street, a few blocks south of the current location.

Growth and the Great Chicago Fire

When you visit St. James, you can pray in the same space as Abraham Lincoln, who worshipped at St. James shortly after elected President in 1860. During the Civil War 10 St. James members lost their lives. To salute their sacrifice, the congregation built a Civil War Memorial in the foyer of the church. After the Civil War, tremendous growth led the leaders of St. James to enlarge and redecorate the church on an even grander scale. A few weeks after the splendidly redesigned church was formally rededicated in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire erupted, leaving nothing but the stone walls, the Civil War Memorial, and the bell tower, whose bells gave warning to the neighborhood of the fire.

St. James founded many other Chicago parishes. The earliest, Trinity Church, was the first Episcopal church on the South Side. By the end of the nineteenth century, St. James' many daughter churches included Ascension and St. Chrysostom.

A Church and City Prosper

Cathedral circa 1880s

As Chicago rebuilt and prospered, so did St. James, which was reflected in a grand church building. In the 1870's, St. James commissioned works by women artists, uncommon at the time. One example is the baptismal font located at the entrance to the church, carved in Rome from Carrara marble the American sculptor, Augusta Freeman. The Arts-and-Crafts Gothic Revival hand-stenciled designs of artist E. J. Neville Stent adorn the walls.

Parish Church to Cathedral

Choir of men and boys, 1890s

By the late 1920s, the St. James congregation was dwindling. A number of the old families stayed, attached to the church in spite of the radically changing neighborhood, but much of the area's former elegance had evolved into low-rent retail buildings, cheap boarding-houses, and transient hotels. The Great Depression saw the near bankruptcy of the Diocese of Chicago, but St. James Church was able to weather the rest of the 1930s through the Second World War relatively unscathed. A small but loyal congregation maintained the parish’s traditions and institutions, albeit on a significantly smaller scale than in years past.

In 1921, fire devastated the Episcopal Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul on Chicago’s west side, which left the Diocese without a cathedral. St. James was pressed into service for a time as the acting cathedral, and the Parish House (since replaced by St. James Commons) became home for the Bishop’s office and staff. Several architects developed designs for a new and grand modern cathedral where the John Hancock building now stands but with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the plans were never carried out. It was not until 1955 that St. James Church was officially made the Cathedral for the Diocese of Chicago. The "cathedra" or bishop's chair has the diocesan coat-of-arms on both the front and back.

Building Hope in the City

Martin Luther King, Jr. leaving the St. James parish house

The St. James Church that became the Cathedral Church of St. James was a smaller congregation than in its past, caught between shifting generations and a dramatically evolving neighborhood. In 1966, Bishop James W. Montgomery offered St. James Cathedral as a “common ground” place for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A blue-ribbon panel of civil rights, business, labor, and other community leaders to come together with Mayor Richard J. Daley for what became known as the Summit Conference. From those discussions, the leaders produced a plan to ensure enforcement of civil rights laws that was ground-breaking for its time.

In the late 1950s and 60s, the choir was moved from its traditional place in the chancel to the north gallery. The reredos behind the altar was put in storage, and a marble checker-board floor and solid marble altar were installed to make the cathedral “modern.” The original stained glass windows above the main entrance were replaced with a contemporary design and, by that time, the intricately stenciled walls had already been painted over in a solid, off-white color. But the congregation was unhappy with the results. In the mid-80s, St. James underwent a massive restoration project to return the cathedral to the visual glory of its 1890s Arts-and-Crafts Gothic Revival design, although the campaign to restore St. James to its former beauty was never completed (the modern window and marble chancel and altar remain). The congregation refocused its mission on worship, music, congregational development, and outreach. 

Today, St. James Cathedral is a vibrant and growing Christian community in the middle of one of Chicago’s fastest-growing neighborhoods and shopping districts, a block from the “Magnificent Mile.”  In 2009, the half-block occupied by the Cathedral and the Diocesan Center at 65 East Huron (which also houses the Cathedral and Episcopal Charities and Community Services offices) was renamed “St. James Commons.” 

Art, music, and furnishings

High alter 1920s

Most of the sanctuary 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 from 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.

Leo Sowerby

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. Other nationally and internationally leading organists/composers who served St. James throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries include Dudley Buck, Peter C. Lutkin, and Clarence Dickinson. 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. In 2015, the Cathedral engaged longtime curators of the instrument JL Weiler, Inc. to undertake work to address ongoing structural issues, resulting in a temporarily reduced size in anticipation of a future full restoration.

St Andrew's Chapel

St. Andrew's Chapel was added to the building in the early twentieth century, a gift of longtime parishioners from the Houghtaling family in memory of James L. Houghteling, founder of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew at St. James in 1883. It was designed by architect Bertram Goodhue and modeled on a medieval Scottish abbey.

Rectors and Deans


  • The Rev. Isaac W. Hallam (1834–43)
  • The Rev. William F. Walker (1843–44)
  • The Rev. Ezra B. Kellogg (1844–49)
  • The Rev. Robert H. Clarkson (1849–65)
  • The Rev. Joseph H. Rylance (1867–71)
  • The Rev. Hugh M. Thompson (1871–72)
  • The Rev. Arthur Brooks (1872–75)
  • The Rev. Samuel S. Harris (1875–79)
  • The Rev. Frederick Courtney (1880–82)
  • The Rev. William H. Vibbert (1883–90)
  • The Rev. Floyd W. Tomkins (1891–94)
  • The Rev. James S. Stone (1895–1922)
  • The Rev. Duncan H. Browne (1924–50)
  • The Rev. Howard S. Kennedy (1950–55)


  • The Very Rev. Howard S. Kennedy (1955–64)
  • The Very Rev. William F. Maxwell, Jr. (1964–71)
  • The Very Rev. James E. Carroll (1972–79)
  • The Very Rev. Charles R. Greene (1979–90)
  • The Very Rev. Todd D. Smelser (1991–2000)
  • The Very Rev. Ralph T. Blackman (2001–05)
  • The Very Rev. Joy E. Rogers (2006–14)
  • The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington (2015–present)