The Spirit has been moving over our community as we gathered to be Church. Being Church meant praying together, learning together, working together and sticking together despite differences of race, background, gender, socio-economic status or political leanings. Being Church meant gathering for the Breaking of the Bread, both of the Word and the Eucharist. Being Church meant living in the awareness of the risen Christ and offering the joy of that same awareness to others.
The history of St. James and Rockford is fascinating. Here is some historical focus to appreciate the sacrifices of so many who used their gifts to form St. James Parish. The History of the Diocese of Rockford, by Cornelius J. Kirkfleet, was written in 1924, and has lots of interesting information.
The settlers to lay claims on the site of Rockford were Germanicus Kent and Thatcher Blake, who in 1834, left Galena in search of a more desirable locality. Before the end of 1835, some 27 people came to the new settlement. This location was at a point equidistant from Chicago and Galena and was given the name Midway. In 1837, the name was changed to Rockford. In 1839, when the population had increased to 237, Rockford was incorporated as a village. A train on the Galena and Chicago Union railroad arrived in East Rockford on August 2, 1852. The following year a bridge was built over the Rock River. Now comes St. James on the local scene.
The priests of St. Patrick, Hartland, began to serve the communities of Belvidere, Rockford and Marengo in the 1840s. The Rev. John Hampston was ordained in Chicago July 12, 1851, and sent to Hartland to assist the pastor in ministering to these three missions. Father Hampston was sent to live in Belvidere since it was midway between his two out-missions of Rockford and Marengo. In the race for pre-eminence, Rockford soon outstripped his sister missions. The first marriage recorded is dated Nov. 29, 1851. The first baptismal record was the same day.
The Diary of Bishop Vandervelde: “1853, June 7th: Blessing of new Church of St. James, and Confirmation of thirty-one persons at Rockford. Pastor, Rev. John Hampston.” The first Catholic Church in the city of Rockford was an aframe church on the conrner of North Second and Prairie streets, where St. James Rectory now stands. Father John Hapston died in Belvidere in February 1854, from the effects of a cold contracted while officiating at a funeral in the Belvidere Cemetery. The Rev. George Hamilton was sent to Rockford. His residence was in the rear of the church.
It is interesting to note that during the pastorate of the Rev. William Lambert in 1855, “the first St. James’ Parochial School was founded in a one room frame building used both as church and school. This parish school was taught by lay teachers, the first of whom was Professor McHugh, who, it is claimed, ruled with a hickory rod.”
The Rev. John B. Donelan was pastor from 1860-1866, and was famous for his eloquence and patriotism. “The Catholic congregation greatly increased in size and prestige during the pasotrate of the Rev. Donelan and before long it was found necessary to build a new and larger church.” In 1861 the foundation was laid for the present St. James Church. The Civil War interrupted the project and Father Donelan died and was buried in the church in 1866. The next pastor was the Rev. Jeremiah S. O’Neill, whose first work was to complete the new church in 1867. The rectory was built during the pastorate of the Rev. Thaddeus J. Butler from 1876-1885.
Rev. James J. Flaherty was pastor from 1885 to 1907. “Fr. Flaherty accomplished great things for the cause of religion during his many years of zealous labor in Rockford. His first care was the parish school which had been closed during the time of his predecessor.” When the school opened in the old priesthouse in the fall of 1886 there were 3 teachers and 85 pupils. The school moved into the new building on St. Patrick's Day 1892. The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic arrived on March 17, 1892, to teach in the new school. The Sisters had a marvelous presence in St. James.
The Diocese of Rockford separated from Chicago in 1908. Anticipating that St. James would be chosen as the Cathedral, Father Thomas Finn worked hard to renovate the building. Bishop Peter Muldoon was appointed first bishop of Rockford and St. James was made the pro-catheral. Father Finn was chosen to be the first chancellor of the new diocese. The bishop, with his secretarty, Father John Flanagan lived in St. James Rectory, until the end of 1917.
We fast forward to 1963, when a new convent was built for the Sinsinawa Dominicans who staffed the school. Five years later in 1968 the current St. James School was built under the leadership of the Rev. Norbert Richter. The school continues to be an integral part of the life of St. James Parish.
Today we thank God for gifts of people, sisters and priests who have served this community. Being Church has meant belonging to a life-sharing community moved by the Spirit. As St. Paul reminds us, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same God.” The gifts are given for the common good to benefit the whole community.