St. James Sag Church & Cemetery (Monk's Castle)



St. James Sag Church & Cemetery

10600 S. Archer Avenue

Lemont, IL.  60439

630-257-7000

 

The church at St. James at Sag Bridge is the second oldest Catholic Church in Northern Illinois and dates back to 1856.  It was originally a mission and was the site of a French signal post in the late 1600's.  Father Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) was a missionary born in Loan, France and traveled through the desolate and treacherous Illinois prairie with a twenty-eight year-old cartographer, Louis Jolliet, in a effort to locate a great river that lay somewhere in the west.

They were the first white men to see this area later known as the Sag Ridge.  The intervening high ground on which now stands the church, rectory and cemetery was formed about 10,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.  When the French first discovered this area, in 1673, local Indians had been using this site as a burial ground.  Marquette even offered Mass on the bluff that same year.

The present St. James parish was established not by the French but by Irish Catholic farmers and workers on the Illinois and Michigan Canal.  The founding date of the parish remains uncertain; the capstone over the church door lists 1833 as the founding date while 1837 is recorded on the memorial arch.  A separate parish register for the Sag was begun in 1857.  The first entry being the baptism of Johanna Murphy on March 22, 1857.

As early as 1816 a campaign had begun for the building of a waterway link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.  In 1822, the United States Congress passed an act authorizing Illinois to begin construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal.  Construction began on July 4, 1836 at a spot along the south branch of the Chicago River now known as Bridgeport.  In that same year, Archer Avenue, named after William Beatty Archer, (1793-1870) of Marshall, Clark County, Illinois. He was the first commissioner of the I&M Canal and a member of the Illinois state house of representatives. The road was laid over a pre-existing Indian trail.

The first water traffic began travel on the route from Bridgeport to LaSalle, Illinois on April 16, 1848.  Many of the graves in St. James Sag Cemetery belong to those same Irish canal workers who dug this amazing project by hand!

On April 17, 1833, Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis appointed newly ordained Rev. John Mary Irenaeus St. Cyr “to the mission of Chicago and the adjoining regions with the States of Illinois.”  Father Cyr often visited the Sag Church.  Among the first Catholics in the Sag community were Thomas and Winifred Claffy, who came to America from Ireland in 1834 and settled in the area in 1837.  Their son, Charles, who died at the age of 91, wrote his earliest memories of St. James parish on November 1, 1930 and was witnessed by his son, Thomas J. Claffy.

He described the first church as a simple log cabin, which stood in a field close to the north side of the road leading to the station of the Chicago & Alton Railroad and the Chicago & Joliet Electric Lines.  The cabin had been the home of Michael and Bridget Ford.  They moved from her around 1850 to a farm in Palos Park.  What lends special credence to this account is that Michael Ford was the brother of Winifred Claffy and therefore the uncle of Charles.

Among the earliest priests to serve the Sag community was the Rev. William Brennan, succeeded by others including Rev. Hypolite du Pontavice, Rev. John Ingoldsby and Rev. Denis Ryan who was appointed pastor of St. Dennis Church in 1846.  Until this time Sag Catholics were being cared for from Joliet.

1906 picture of St. James

After Rev. Ryan’s death on September 18, 1852, Rev. Michael O’Donnell was appointed pastor of Lockport and it was under his leadership that construction began on the present day St. James Church.  The cornerstone that was laid on October 19, 1853.  A Mr. Roughnot who owned and operated a quarry donated the stone for the church.  The church was constructed out of pale, yellow Lemont limestone that apparently has some curious qualities.  Other structures built from that same limestone include the Beverly Unitarian Church and the Water Tower.  Both are well-known haunted locations.

The first resident pastor, although only briefly, was Rev. T. D. O’Sullivan.  However it was Rev. Joseph A. Bollman who directed the construction of the first parish rectory, a frame structure, together with a parish hall and barns on two acres of land opposite St. James Church on August 8, 1882.  The present steeple was added to the church in 1890.  In 1912, Rev. Vincent Brummer, then current pastor, directed the construction of Saginaw Hall just down the road from the rectory.

In 1930, John Carroll of Oak Park, Illinois donated a memorial arch at the entrance to St. James parish cemetery.  The Rev. Raymond A. Ploszynski became the pastor on August 21, 1951 and was the first pastor emeritus in December 1969.  He died in the rectory on May 10, 1970, at the age of 70.  Father George F. Aschenbrenner was the next pastor and he inaugurated the Historical Society of St. James at Sag Bridge.  In the summer of 1976, he was successful in obtaining the beautiful and historic wrought iron gates, which stood at the entrance to the Hawthorne Electric plant of Western Electric in Cicero, Illinois.

Today the cemetery is completely filled up or, as the cemetery officials like to say, bought up.  It holds approximately 5,000 to 7,000 graves on approximately eight acres of land.  The oldest grave is that of Michael Dillon, born in 1799 and who died in 1816.  Two years before Illinois became a state! 

A devastating tornado tore through Lemont and St. James Church on March 27, 1991 that took the roof off the church.  Since that dark day, almost $200,000 was raised from individual donors to restore the church and today it’s as beautiful as it once was.

The area has gained a reputation of being quite haunted that the pastors and many do not believe.  The first reported ghost story dates back to September 30, 1897 and was reported in the Chicago Tribune.  Two musicians Professor William Looney and John Kelly had given a performance and after finishing around 1 a.m. decided to stay in the dance hall overnight rather than attempting the long journey back to Chicago.  They slept on cots in the upper hall of the hall.

About an hour later, Looney was awakened by the sounds of hoofs on the gravel road.  He looked out the window and saw a carriage.   It came up the road to the entranceway, stopped and turned around.  He saw what appeared to be a girl in a white robe just appear out of nowhere.  She got into the coach with the driver.  They turned around again and just as they passed the archway, the coach, driver and everything simply vanished!

It was said by old timers that the ghosts were those of a young assistant to the priest and a young housekeeper at the rectory who fell in love in the early 1880's.  They fought against their feelings until they finally decided to elope.  Late one night he hitched up a team of horses and a wagon and told her to wait for him halfway down the hill so they would not be seen.  As he approached she called out “come on”.  The horses bolted as she boarded, turning over the wagon and killing them both.  They were buried together in an unmarked grave in St. James Cemetery and on moonlit nights are said to be doomed to re-enact their attempt to elope.

St. James has acquired the name “Monk’s Castle” because it has been said that if unwanted visitors were caught trespassing out here at night, the monks would apprehend and force them to kneel down on ball bearings all night in prayer.  There were never any monks stationed here.  It’s another of the several folk legends, which has attached itself to St. James.  Other versions of the story tell of a monk who chased children from the cemetery with bellowing shouts and a blazing light.  The “mad monk” was most likely the Rev. George Aschenbrenner who was known to have chased would-be vandals from the grounds using a flashlight and a bullhorn.

One of the first tells the story of a procession of figures dressed in black monk robes roaming the field just east of St. James at night carrying candles and chanting in a language that sounds like Latin. 

Rev. Aschenbrenner was a bit of a skeptic when it came to the many ghost stories associated with St. James, however in an article for the Lemont Centennial book in 1973, he wrote, “Then there are many legends and tales about the Sag which whet the appetite of the historical minded.  Who was the pastor who put a curse on the parish (or did he) because of the wickedness of the people here and then walked away from the parish in complete discouragement...

 “.... And what about the apparitions of ghosts at St. James, some sixty or seventy years ago?  There are a number of such tales we have come across in questioning the old timers.  Many such legends are doubtlessly born from the dearth of authentic historic accounts of the past.  And yet the authentic accounts, if we can unearth them, could well prove more fascinating than the legends.”

A very interesting encounter came from a Cook County Police Officer and a two-page report submitted by him.  The event occurred on the Friday before Thanksgiving in 1977.  The officer was on patrol about 2:30 a.m. when he drove past the cemetery.  As he looked through the opened gates, he observed eight or nine hooded figures dressed in monk-like habits walking slowly up the hill towards the church and rectory.

Knowing there should be no one in there at that hour of the morning, he called out to them to come out and be arrested for trespass.  The figures just continued to walk to the top of the hill.  He then grabbed his shotgun from the car, called for back up and began to pursue these individuals himself.  The figures quickly entered into the pitch-black cemetery and all the while being chased by the police officer that was stumbling over tombstones and unleveled terrain.  The group of strange figures however was not having any difficulty at all.  In fact they appeared to be silently gliding up the hill in unison!

The police officer arrived near the top of the hill within seconds of the others, but no figures could be seen or heard anywhere.  He immediately ran down the other side of the ridge towards 107th Street but still found no one.  After a thorough search of the region with canines, no clues as to the identities of whereabouts could be ascertained.  He later believed that what he pursued that evening were not human beings but some form of ghostly monks or phantom manifestations.  He based his conclusions on the lack of effort used to climb the hill in almost total darkness, his inability to hear a footstep or even a rustle of leaves blanketing the cemetery grounds, their complete and total disappearance and the inability of trained tracker dogs to pick up even the slightest essence of a trail.  He filed these and other findings in his now famous, two-page report.

There are scattered reports by people in the recent past who were actually chased out of the graveyard by dark figures.  One person swore that he talked to these individuals whose faces were covered with scars and were dressed entirely in black!  During that same evening, this same group of people claimed they were being watched by a group of people seen in the rectory windows.

Father Ploszynski confided to friends just before his death that he could often look out his rectory window at night and see the ground raising and falling as if the earth itself was breathing!  On many occasions, he noticed strange hooded figures wandering the graveyard at night.  And perhaps some of these figures were not spirits at all but a nearby group of Satanists!  The cemetery has been plagued by grave robberies and desecration over the years and much of that could be the work of cultists that reside nearby.  Reports of monks seen roaming the area at night carrying books and candles and chanting in a language that resembles Latin was common in the 1970's.

Recent reports include a phantom black stallion seen galloping through the grounds at night and the face of the devil appearing in rectory window.    The large statue located on the top of the hill has been seen to move or change positions from time to time and isolated reports of ghost lights bobbing among the tombstones.

The most current phenomena reported are strange floral scents, which are smelled in the dead of winter when no flora is in bloom.  It is a cross between lilacs and honeysuckle.  There have been a number of unusual photographs taken at St. James throughout the years however if you decide to visit; better go incognito.  I’m not sure the pastor would be too happy if he knew you were looking for ghosts.  They should be easy to find though.


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