Location: St. James-Sag Church and Cemetery is located at 10600 South Archer Avenue in Lemont, Illinois, just north of the intersection of Archer Avenue (Route 171) and W. 107th Street.
St. James of the Sag Church and Cemetery is the terminus point of the Archer Avenue “triangle.” The oldest site of Catholic worship in the county, it sits at the convergence of the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Calumet Sag Channel, overlooking the Sag Bridge. Route 171 and Route 83 also meet at this point. The church, with its yellow, limestone edifice and adjacent graveyard that spills down a sloping hill, is an impressive sight. Even without the stories, visitors can imagine something otherworldly about this place. Add some lighting and thunder and it could easily be the setting of an Ambrose Bierce novel.
In fact, St. James-Sag was the setting for the area’s first Victorian Gothic tale—a ghostly encounter two musicians related to the Chicago Daily in 1897 that very well may have been the precursor to two of the most famous of Archer Avenue’s folktales: Resurrection Mary and the phantom hearse. The church and cemetery have more than one story to offer, however. For decades eyewitnesses have reported seeing brown robed monks roaming the parish grounds, although no monks have ever been stationed there by the Archdiocese. That particular story has led some locals to dub the church “Monk’s Castle.”
Although local historians have established some facts about the history of St. James-Sag, most of its past has been obscured by the passage of time, including the origin of the church itself. The church cornerstone reads 1833, but the current building wasn’t constructed until 1852. Before that, services were held in a wooden structure, which was a log cabin formerly owned by the Ford family at the bottom of the hill. A century earlier, the hill was the site of a French fort where Catholic missionaries preached to a village of Saganashkee Indians, named after the nearby marshland. Burials at the location date back to the 1830s, although the presence of the French garrison in the 1700s guaranteed that some interments must have taken place there much earlier. The first recorded burial was of a child named Hannah Ford in 1837.
In 1858 the Murphys and the Sullivans, two Irish families who owned nearby land, gave eight acres to the St. James parish for the expressed purpose of a free graveyard. “A clause was inserted, at the dictation of Mrs. Murphy, that any poor man might bury his dead in it without cost,” the Chicago Daily reported. It was the only cemetery of its kind. The cemetery’s first official gravedigger was a Frenchman named John Markex, who, according to legend, didn’t know how to dig a grave. His wife, whose father had been a sexton in the old country, took a spade and tutored him. “After that John dug all the graves, when the mourners cared to pay, until it came time for someone else to dig a grave for him.” It was understood that only baptised Catholics could be buried in the cemetery proper, and the northwest corner was reserved for non-Catholics and victims of suicide.
St. James-Sag, like the rest of the area, entered a rough period during the 1960s and ‘70s. In the summer of 1965, vandals looted the church and ran off with gold chalices and other valuables. They caused around $1,000 in damage to the building by breaking a window and tearing the altar cloth. “Father Plozynski said it is the first time in the 132 year history of the church that it had been burglarised,” the Tribune reported. Vandals struck again in 1969. They tipped headstones, stole the priest’s robes, and broke windows. The church became such a target that Bedford Park police put together a special six man task force to patrol the grounds. “It’s getting so we can’t afford our popularity,” Father Plozynski lamented.
In the mid-1980s, the Archdiocese of Chicago took over maintenance of the cemetery and decided to modernise its care, which meant that a lot of the character of the graveyard was to be ironed out. For over a hundred years parishioners buried their loved ones as they pleased, therefore the cemetery was laid out in a hap-hazard way that was a nightmare for modern grounds keeping equipment. The Archdiocese’s first act was to remove a Tree of Heaven that grew next to the church, and they planned to sod over sunken monuments and smooth the landscape to ease the passage of mowers. Parishioners begged Cardinal Bernardin to retain the original character of the cemetery, but, he replied, the new administrator “is also responsible for maintaining the cemetery in a proper and dignified manner with modern equipment, which was not envisioned 140 years ago…”
In 1984, St. James-Sag Church and Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. On March 27, 1991, a tornado touched down on the hill and damaged the church’s roof. The immediate damage was repaired, but locals soon organised to preserve the site and renovate the 143 year old building. “Church funds barely kept pace with the upkeep of the drafty old building,” Michele Mohr wrote in a Chicago Tribune special report. “An antiquated boiler system hardly warmed the church, the original pews were worn and pealing, and the outer doors rotted on their hinges.” The St. James at Sag Bridge Preservation Society raised several hundred thousand dollars for the repairs.
Vandalism dogged the cemetery. In 2003, an unknown number of persons climbed the fence and overturned 30 headstones. According to the Tribune, church leaders blamed “vandals from teenagers and Goth-types to Satanic cult members obsessed with the lore of the cemetery.” The vandals were back six months later, tipping dozens more stones, leading the parish to offer a $500 reward for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators. A number of the damaged monuments, made of limestone, were over a hundred years old. Luckily, in recent years there have been no more instances of destruction and defacement.
As alluded to earlier, St. James-Sag was the setting of the area’s first ghost story—a romantic tale that involved the spectre of a woman in a long, white dress. In Chicago Haunts, Ursula Bielski was the first to revive this nearly-forgotten tale, but I went back and read the original 112-year-old article in the Chicago Daily in the hopes that it would yield new details. The story, generally, proceeds like this: Father Bollman, the priest at St. James, had recently held a church fair at a dance hall located at the bottom of the hill, in the shadow of the parish. The priest hired two musicians; Professor William Looney, a violinist, and John Kelly, a harp player. After the conclusion of the fair, Looney and Kelly settled down for the evening on two cots in the upper floor of the dance hall. At around one o’clock in the morning, Professor Looney awoke to hear the sound of horses and the rumbling wheels of a carriage. The noise passed beneath the window without any sign of horses or carriage. Looney woke Kelly, and at that time the two witnessed an incredible scene. A woman, dressed all in white, appeared in the middle of the road, then proceeded to pass through a fence onto the parish grounds. Moments later, a dark carriage appeared, led by a team of driverless, white horses. The mysterious woman and the carriage then vanished but returned a short time later. The scene repeated itself and the musicians—having seen enough—bolted from the dance hall to the nearby police station.
The Chicago Daily reporter described the woman in white as “tall” and added that “her raven black hair hung down her shoulders in tangled confusion… Deep melancholy was reflected from sepulchral eyes which rolled about with that hollow intensity indicative of some soul-eating despair.” Amusingly, the reporter also wrote, “the young woman was agile behind the hopes of the most ardent flying machine enthusiast.” The illustration that accompanied the article depicted the young ghost as possessing blonde, or at least light coloured, hair. The riderless carriage bore an uncanny resemblance to the legendary hearse mentioned in our chapter on Archer Woods Cemetery. “Snow white horses covered with fine netting” drove the carriage described by William Looney and John Kelly. Most similarly, “A light of electric brilliancy shone from the forehead of each.” These two lights resembled the gas lanterns that hung from the phantom hearse, as did the character of the horses, which were “high-strung and came with frantic speed.”
Was that ghostly encounter the long-lost inspiration for the stories of Resurrection Mary and the terrifying phantom hearse? Ken O’Brien of the Chicago Tribune didn’t think so. He claimed the story was rooted in a different tradition. According to “old-timers,” a young man and woman who worked at St. James-Sag church in the 1880s fell in love and decided to elope. “The boy hitched horses to a wagon and told her to wait halfway down the hill,” O’Brien wrote. “When he approached, she yelled, ‘Come on,’ and hopped aboard. But the horses bolted, overturning the wagon and killing them.” Despite the popularity of the story, there are no accounts of the ghosts other than that given by Looney and Kelly, but Ursula Bielski suggested that in the years after the story was lost, the memory of the forlorn woman in white and the black carriage survived, taking form further north along Archer Avenue. “The modernised legend of Resurrection Mary simply accounts for too many of the elements of the elopement legend of St. James-Sag,” she wrote. Along with the previously mentioned similarities, Bielski added, “Some old accounts of Resurrection Mary claim that the dance attended by this young woman was, in fact, a church dance, perhaps the folkloric version of the dance hall church fair where Looney and Kelly were playing.”
The other folktale associated with St. James-Sag concerns phantom monks that have been spotted roaming the hillside, giving rise to the name “Monk’s Castle.” The monks struck terror in the hearts of anyone who dared to violate the sanctuary of the church. There was a rumour among local youth, no doubt brought on by exaggerated stories of discipline at the area’s parochial schools, that the monks would force anyone unlucky enough to be caught inside the cemetery gates after dark to kneel on ball bearings. According to Dale Kaczmarek, Father George Aschenbremer, one of the parish priests during the 1970s, chased trespassers away using a bullhorn and a flashlight. His real-life activities spawned stories that a “mad monk” dwelled in the rectory.
In 1977, a police officer named Roberts had an encounter with the phantom monks. Because of vandalism at the church, police regularly stopped at St. James-Sag to make sure all was well. On that particular evening, Richard Crowe retold, “As Roberts pulled up in front of St. James Sag’s massive front gates that had been locked for the night, he noticed some figures moving about inside.” There were as many as nine, walking in single file. The officer yelled at them to stop, then when they did not, he grabbed his shotgun and gave chase. The hooded figures seemed to vanish, however, when they reached the church. Roberts omitted some of these details from his official report, but he later confided in Mr. Crowe the most hair raising aspects of the incident.
According to Trent Brandon’s Book of Ghosts, the phantom monks of St. James-Sag belong to a type of ghost he calls “The Spiritual Spectre.” These are the ghosts of priests, monks, nuns, and other members of religious orders who haunt their earthly habitats long after they pass away. They are usually benevolent. “Spiritual spectres do not let death stop them from continuing their holy work and from helping people,” Brandon explained. Are the phantom monks of St. James-Sag protecting the parish from harm? After years of vandalism and a tornado strike, that wouldn’t appear to be the case. Additionally, no members of a religious order were ever stationed there. These robed figures appear to be the result of either overactive imaginations, or something more real and sinister. If what officer Roberts saw were not ghosts but living persons, however, what were they doing there? As Dale Kaczmarek speculated, “Perhaps some of these figures were not spirits at all but a nearby group of Satanists.”
Standing in the shadow of St. James-Sag, with all its rich history, it is easy to let your imagination get the better of you. The stories of phantom monks contain a grab bag of Catholic stereotypes and assumptions about the mystical aspects of the faith, and more than likely belong to the realm of folklore and fiction. No one has ever seen the monks in the daylight, and it would be easy to lose several figures along the sloping ground of St. James-Sag in the darkness of night. Furthermore, the hooded sweatshirt of a trespasser might easily be mistaken for a monk’s robe if stories have preconditioned an eyewitness to believe that’s what he or she will encounter.
Never-the-less, there is no mistaking that St. James of the Sag Church and Cemetery is the anchor for the paranormal phenomenon rumoured to lurk along this stretch of Route 171. While plenty of Chicago area churches lay claim to being haunted, St. James-Sag is the only one to inhabit such a prominent position on the landscape, both physical as well as metaphysical. In its nearly two centuries overlooking the Des Plaines and Sag valleys, it has earned a permanent and nefarious place in the folk history of Archer Avenue.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 17 June 1986.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 20 September 1956.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 12 May 1996.
Chicago Daily (Chicago) 12 September 1897.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 5 June 1965.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 12 November 1969.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 7 June 2003.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 6 December 2003.
Chicago Daily (Chicago) 20 September 1897.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 7 March 1999.
Ursula Bielski, Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998), 79-80.
Dale Kaczmarek, Windy City Ghosts: An Essential Guide to the Haunted History of Chicago (Oak Lawn: Ghost Research Society Press, 2005), 130-131.
Richard T. Crowe, Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural (Oak Park: Carolando Press, 2000, 2001), 240.
Trent Brandon, The Book of Ghosts (Galloway: Zerotime Publishing, 2003), 174.