St. James Parish today traces its history from the original community of Catholics in North La Crosse. Prior to the formation of our parish, the growing number of faithful in this area were attended by the pastor from St. Mary's, Rev. James Schwebach (later bishop). Masses were held in a former Protestant church that had been purchased by the Hibernians for a hall.
Upon his death in 1884, Arthur Maguire, a Civil War veteran, willed four lots of land to "the Right Rev. Kilian C. Flasch, Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, and to his successors in office forever.' One of the conditions attached to the gift was that English should be spoken "at least part of the time." The congregation was French and Irish. The cornerstone was laid on this property July 18, 1886, and the church was completed for $15,000. Upon its dedication Jan. 9, 1887 by Bishop Flasch, it was named St. James in honor of the patron saint of Rev.
The church was a two story frame building with brick veneer. The school occupied four rooms on the first floor with the church on the second.
Some of the pioneer lay parishioners of St. James include: Peter, Mike, Patricia, and John Keaveney, M. Devine, M. Larkin, Joe Larkin, T. Hurley, J. Driscoll, P. Kennedy, M. Noonan, M. Colgan, G. Johnson, J. Manning, R. O'Gar, A. Conway, M. Downey, M. Rathburn, P. McGinty, Joe Conway, A. Murphy, T. Slattery, J. Smith, Egan, McCarty, Brady, Desmond, J. Finn, Dunlap, McMahan, D. Thayer, H. Byrne, R. Coney, D. McGuire, J. Fitzpatrick, J. McLinden, T. McHugh, Malley, G. Young, Martell, D. Richard, Marco, B. Richmond, Jolivette, Busluy, Snyder, Lee, Hanner, G. Phillips, La Fleur, Willette, LaBree, Bruckette, J. Asselin, W. Vallincourt, Souise, Carroll, McCabe, Conley, B. McHugh, and J. McHugh.
On June 9, 1900, at about 10:00 p.m., St. James Church was struck by lightning during a severe electrical storm that caused several fires in the area. Father Murphy did not notice the extent of the fire as he entered the church, and paused to notice how beautifully the altar had been decorated with plants and flowers for the first communion that was to take place the next morning at 8:00. While securing the Blessed Sacrament and several silver and gold articles from the altar, he heard a crash behind him, and there, in a thousand pieces, lay the huge lamp that had hung before the altar. The day after the fire, Father Murphy made this statement to the press: "You can say in The Chronicle this morning that St. James Church will be rebuilt and that I will hold my first communion services at St. John's Church at 9:00 o'clock this morning, Father Kaluza having kindly offered me his church, and he has accordingly set the hour for his early mass at 8:00. I feel, more deeply than I can tell you, this terrible blow that has descended upon my people."
The following day Father Murphy announced that a new church would be built of solid brick, not veneer, and the school would be separate. The parish had been nearly out of debt when the church burned. After the appeal made by Father Murphy, The Chronicle headlined, "More than $1,000 raised before the ruins are cold."
While the church was being built, some school classes were held in the Hibernian Hall and St. John's Church was used for services. The new church was completed in eight months at a cost of $18,000. Of Romanesque Revival Architecture, the exterior walls are of Winona Brick, with blue Bedford and Merimac white brick trimmings. The roof was covered with galvanized iron. It was dedicated by Bishop Schwebach on March 3, 1901. This is the same structure we enjoy today.
Father Ambrose Murphy was born in Belledune, New Brunswick, Canada, Sept. 2, 1862. When he was four his family moved to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. He attended school there until he entered the Seminary of St. Francis in Milwaukee at the age of fifteen. He continued his studies in Belgium, Austria, and finally at the University of Paris. While in Europe he studied German and French, developing great ability as a linguist.
He was ordained in 1886 and returned to Chippewa Falls in 1887. He came to St. James as assistant pastor in January, 1888, and two months later became pastor, serving in that position for the next fifty-one years. He enlarged St. James spiritually and physically. In addition to our present church, he planned and built a school and rectory. Before his death in 1939, he had saved money and planned a new school to replace the one built in 1900.
The parishioners grew in love and respect for Father Murphy. He was a popular orator with a ready wit and a grand way with words. After twenty-eight years, Bishop Schwebach promoted him to take charge of the large French speaking parish of St. Gabriel in Prairie du Chien; but a deluge of letters, calls and petitions persuaded him to change his mind and let Father Murphy stay at St. James.
Over the years Father Murphy acquired a great collection of relics and left them to the people of St. James. They can be seen on either side of the front altar and in a cabinet on the side of the church.
In spite of pain and suffering, he worked with patience and courage to the end of his life, April 6, 1939. He was buried from St. James Church.
"Father Murphy was admired as a citizen, a clergyman, and as a man. Never yielding an iota from his firmly established beliefs, nor his loyalty to his conscience and to his convictions, he has always been a most liberal and tolerant man, a man of the people, a man always willing to give and take - a man of the very highest ideals." These were the words of a New Richmond editor and personal friend published in the New Richmond News.
In 1900, John S. and Ellen Darling donated six lots to St. James for a school, and in 1901 three more lots were purchased. A long, rectangular, one story building of wood frame construction was built close to the alley facing Windsor Street. The floor plan consisted of a central corridor the entire length of the building with classrooms on each side. The rest rooms were in the south end of the basement, next to a hot air furnace room with a sand floor. The playground is remembered because of a unique slide, a merry-go-round, and a tennis court. The last class to graduate from this building was the Class of 1941. Swanson's Heavy Moving Company in 1939 moved the building to the back of the lot to make room for the construction of the present school.
The organ now in use was installed Jan. 25th, 1940 at a cost of $2680 by the Wicks Organ Co. of Highland, Illinois and the original rectory was replaced by a fire-proof, termite-proof building in 1952.
As a result of Vatican II, changes were made within the church (see photo of pre-1952 church interior) under the direction of Father Robert Hanson. The former main altar was simplified by the removal of the baldachin and decorative niches, which were put back in place in 2003. The side altars were placed back to back to form the altar of sacrifice. A shortened communion rail and the removal of the rood beam made the sanctuary more open to the people. The side table was made of part of the communion rail, and at the present time the components of the rood beam adorn the left front wall.
During September 2006 through February 2007, an extensive renovation and redecorating of the sanctuary and nave of the Church was undertaken. In the sanctuary, the mural of the martyrdom of St. James the Less was cleaned and preserved. On the sides of the mural, the twelve Apostles, pointing toward St. James' martyrdom, were painted in a field of blue. On the dome, the tree of life was painted on the first three panels with the rest being as the "celestial heavens." At the top of the dome, the interlocking-circles symbol for the Holy Trinity was painted. Below the twelve Apostles, light decorations were placed on the panels. The columns/pillars of the church were painted to look like marble and new gold-colored paint with teal-blue accents adorned the ceiling. On the left pillar of the sanctuary, the symbol of the rose was painted in representation of the season of Christmas and on the inner-facing wall, an image of a scroll was placed inscribed with the words of Isaiah 7:14: Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium (Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son) in representation of the season of Advent. On the right pillar of the sanctuary, the symbol of the pomegranate was painted in representation of the season of Easter and on the inner-facing wall, an image of crossed flagella (whips) in representation of the season of Lent. The Crucifix that was a part of St. James for many years was placed on the wall by the ambo (podium) with an symbolic representation of the stabat mater (sorrowful mother) above the Crucifix. On the right side of the church, the large statue of the Sacred Heart was placed on the wall above which was painted an image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Near the baptistery, the statue of St. John the Baptist was placed. The floor of the sanctuary had improvements in its sub-floor along with a covering of Italian tile. The floor of the nave had the carpet removed and the original Birch floor was restored. The pews were removed and refinished. Upgrades to the lighting system, electrical system, and sound system were also undertaken. Finally, the plaster of the church was reinforced with a special mesh to strengthen and preserve it. In thanksgiving to God for the successful renovation, a 40 Hours Devotion was held in the Church, starting with Simple Vespers and a Eucharistic Procession on Sunday, February 11, 2007 and closing the forty hours with Solemn Vespers and a Eucharistic Procession on Tuesday, February 13, 2007.
Special appreciation is extended to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who played an important role in the formation and development of our parish. Prior to the building of St. Clara's Convent in 1893, the sisters walked from St. Rose Convent to the North Side each day to teach the students at St. James and St. John's. Their efforts and dedication to our parish have continued for over one hundred years.
Of major importance in the history of St. James was the assimilation of some of the people from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish and from St. John's Parish upon the closing of those two churches.
In 1876, North Side Catholics purchased a former public school building on St. James and Avon Streets to use as their own school. The English and French speaking people sold their share in that building to the German speaking people when they built St. James Church in 1886. These Germans were members of St. Joseph's Cathedral, but overcrowded conditions there forced them to establish a church of their own. The lower floor of the school was renovated for a temporary church, and the first mass in the new St. John's Parish was held there in October 1887 (see photo at right).
St. John's Parish grew rapidly. A neighboring lot was purchased and the old church/school was placed on it to make room for the building of a new church on the corner site. The cornerstone was laid there in 1892, and the church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist on Passion Sunday, 1893. The first pastor was Rev. F. X. Wilms. In 1928, a new school with four classrooms was built east of the church.
The parishioners were energetic and developed deep spirituality. They celebrated their Golden Jubilee in 1938, and again held a large celebration in 1963 for their 75th Anniversary. In 1960, Bishop John Treacy had begun terminating the national parish status of La Crosse churches in order to establish them as territorial parishes with definite boundaries. The debts at St. John's had become an insurmountable burden, partly because of the loss of parishioners due to the closing of major factories. Since St. James and St. John's served practically the same territory, the schools were combined in 1966, and on the first Sunday of June, 1970, St. John's became part of St. James.
Many years ago a church on Copeland Avenue was dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes (see picture at left). It was a Catholic Church of the Maronite rite/liturgy used by many of the people from Lebanon and Syria. This rite is a very important part of our Catholic heritage because it is a direct link to the time of the original apostles. This parish was also closed and combined with St. James. The faith of the people from both St. John's and Our Lady of Lourdes has been beneficial to St. James, and their talents are sincerely appreciated.