Lutheran school keeps the faith for 150 years

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

St. James Lutheran School is at the corner of Fremont Street and Dickens Avenue.

by Catherine Guiles
March 04, 2008

With 200 students in preschool through eighth grade, St. James Lutheran School in Lincoln Park is small. But at 150 years old, it’s also persistent.

The school, which opened in 1857, served as a mobile hospital during the Chicago Fire and predates the Cubs’ last World Series win by 51 years.

St. James has survived, said Principal Warren Gast, “by being about God’s business, reaching out to those around us.”

But initially, the school was meant for a specific group – and is actually older than the St. James congregation it is affiliated with. German immigrants established the school and turned it over to First Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church closer to downtown Chicago in 1866. (That Gold Coast church was the site of the creation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in 1847.)

In 1869, First Saint Paul’s organized a group to found St. James Church, according to the school’s history brochure. The school was built at Willow and Burling streets and expanded to multiple sites over the years. Today it occupies one building across from the church at Fremont Street and Dickens Avenue.

The original St. James members were concerned “that their kids could still speak in German, sing in German, take their catechism in German,” Gast said.

Over the decades, the school reflected changes in its immediate neighborhood. By the early 1960s, residents with German roots were leaving and low-income Chicagoans were moving into the Cabrini-Green housing projects. In more recent decades, the neighborhood has become gentrified.

“[It’s] gone from being a school struggling to stay alive, working with kids from the projects, to working with an affluent clientele,” Gast said. Still, St. James tries to maintain a diverse student population: “We bend over backward to offer financial assistance.” Tuition ranges from $4,000 a year for part-time preschool to $7,000 for full enrollment in primary grades.

Today, about 25 to 30 percent of St. James students’ families belong to the church, and the school attracts students from a variety of religious traditions. Preschool accounts for approximately 50 percent of the enrollment.

“What’s very common is for couples that have a mixed religious background,” said Gast, “Lutheran feels like something in between for them,” particularly when one parent is Catholic.

At St. James, Bible verses are posted at the front door of classrooms and offices. Students take religion classes and attend weekly chapel services. An after-school program called Faith Weavers – what Gast called “Vacation Bible School during the school year” — is required for older students preparing for confirmation.

Lutheran and other church-affiliated schools can offer something that public schools can’t, he added.

There’s “a religious component to children’s upbringing that you can’t necessarily depend on the family to fulfill,” Gast said. “Christian education helps to make up for the loss of that.”

Also, St. James’ small size allows it to provide more individual attention to students, Gast said.

Third-grade teacher Bethany Grabiel agreed. She taught at a public school in Detroit before coming to St. James four years ago.

“Public schools feel like a business,” Grabiel said. But at St. James, “we’re all very supportive of each other. Everyone knows everyone.”

St. James will hold an anniversary auction April 18 at the Chicago History Museum. Mayor Richard M. Daley is the auction’s honorary chairman.

Parochial schools have been an important part of Chicago’s history, and there are currently 30 Lutheran schools in the city.

“It’s a good alternative for people looking for an intimate education,” said Chuck Eastwood, spokesman for Ald. Vi Daley of the 43rd Ward, which includes St. James.

©2001 – 2013 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University. A publication of the Medill School.