St. James began as a society of German immigrants who started a school at Willow and Burling Streets in 1857. At that time, the pastor of First St. Paul Lutheran Church was invited to hold Wednesday evening services at the school. His convincing devotion to soul winning brought the non-Lutheran members of the group into the church. By 1866, the society turned over its school property to First St. Paul’s congregation. Three years later the school became the first property of St. James when First St. Paul released a group of Lutherans and gave the school the working capital for a new investment in God’s Kingdom to be known as the congregation of St. Jacobi.
After its founding in 1869, a cabbage field was purchased on Fremont and Dickens, and the first church was built in 1870. As the Chicago fire of October 1871 ravaged the city, St. James church was used to house, feed and clothe refugees from the fire making this St. James’ first recorded act of mission in the city. For fear of another fire, the congregation decided to tear down the wooden structure and build a fire resistant one in 1916.
The church continued to grow and serve immigrants in the community. However, post WWII saw an exodus to the suburbs. This led to a decline in church membership and school enrollment. Both the church and school faithfully served the neighborhood but struggled as the changing community introduced economic difficulties.
In 2000, St. James embarked on an aggressive strategy to grow and repositioned itself to be a leader in urban ministry in Chicago for the 21st century. Key aspects of this strategy included expanding potential enrollment in the school via a capital campaign and building project in 2002, increasing the opportunity to serve people by expanding our staff, committing to a kingdom vision for our school that served our neighborhood rather than just the congregation and entering the vicarage program as a service to the church at large to carry a passion for urban ministry back to our seminaries. Today, we continue to grow by making the church accessible to all by adding an elevator, finishing our landscaping plan and adding community space. These improvements make it possible to fulfill our ministry of connecting people to Jesus, forming community and extending the kingdom.