The Rev. Jacques Cote came to the United States in 1859 and took charge of his mission field during the trying period of the Civil War. In 1862, Fr. Cote built a small church on the present site of old Lehigh, northwest corner of the intersection of the south-north road and the New York Central Railroad, Pilot Township, Sec. One. The church was dedicated to Fr. Cote’s patron saint, St. Jacques (St. James). Mass was offered there one Monday a month. In the early years, ten to fifteen burials took place in the small cemetery nearby.
The congregation of the mother parish of St. James comprised members of three nationalities: Irish, German and French-Canadians. Pierre Paul Caron had been the first to settle in the area in 1848, and the French-Canadians predominated.
In 1865, Fr. Cote, promoter of St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, resigned from St. James in order to begin the college. From 1866 to 1871, Rev. A. Marechal took care of the mission of St. James, west of Kankakee, known as the “Barrens”. It had grown so much that Rev. Paradis, who had charge of the mission then, moved the little church two and one-half miles south of its original site. The building was enlarged. For the first time, property was acquired and St. James then owned four acres of land. Fr. Paradis continued to offer mass once a month on Mondays.
In 1877, Rev. Ambrose Goulet, Sr., the first resident pastor, was appointed to St. James. Fr. Goulet, who remained until 1879, offered the mass weekly, on Mondays, in St. James Church.
The care of the people of St. James Parish passed to Rev. George Kerston in 1879. For eleven years, this Scotsman worked with our forefathers. The liturgy was now offered daily.
In July 1890, Rev J.E.B. LeVasseur became the third pastor of St. James. He made a number of improvements to the church and enriched the vestry with new vestments. During his term, a movement was inaugurated to transfer the parish church to the village of Irwin. This idea met with so much opposition that Fr. LeVasseur applied for a transfer to the parish in L’Erable. Fr. LeVasseur left St. James in May 1894.
In July 1894, Rev. Elizear Therien became the fourth pastor of St. James. Soon after taking charge of the parish, he took up a subscription for the erection of the new church at Irwin. The antagonism toward this project was so great that after six months, Fr. Therien left St. James Parish and went to Chicago.
Rev. J.C. Simard arrived at St. James on December 31,1894. The congregation then consisted of one hundred five families. The prospect of moving the church was still unsettled. Realizing the delicate and difficult task which had sent two pastors from St. James, Fr. Simard petitioned the Archbishop for an assistant with experience in pastoral work. Rev. A.L. Bergeron was therefore appointed to assist the new pastor in making the final decision concerning the erection of a new church at Irwin. Criticized and thwarted by his people, Fr. Simard was virtually persecuted because of the proposed change.
The move was inevitable. The population had shifted from Lehigh – people were settling near the railroad stations. The influx of the Irish farmers to the south of Lehigh necessitated a more central location of the parish church. The French farmers who had founded the parish could not understand this and so resisted the change.
Not all the parish members subscribed for the new project. Some who had already subscribed changed their views. In order to safeguard everyone’s rights on the matter, a general parish meeting was held. That same day, February 6, 1895, Fr. Simard took up and completed a subscription with very gratifying results. Many who had withdrawn from the movement now rejoined. On February 16, 1895, Archbishop Feehan of Chicago approved the decision to move the church. Land was purchased on Main Street and the erection of the new church, 45’ by 90’, was begun. The old church was brought from Lehigh and incorporated into the new one as the sacristy. The old rectory also was brought to Irwin. The total cost of the operation amounted to about $14,000. Fr. Simard offered mass for the first time in St. James Church on July 26, 1895, the day after the feast of St. James.
The intra-parish quarreling did not cease with the building of the new church. The people who lived northwest of Irwin built a church of their own in the village of Goodrich, without the approval of the Archbishop. The people there were left with no priest from 1895-1896. On July 5, 1896, one year and three weeks after they broke from St. James, Fr. Simard, whom they had opposed vigorously, offered the first mass. It was not until July 1899 that the church at Goodrich obtained its own pastor, Rev. J. Meyer.
In 1905, Fr. Simard left St. James. He was replaced by Rev. J.E. Bourget, the sixth pastor, on September 28, 1905. In the spring of 1906, the rectory, which had been brought from Lehigh in 1895, was moved to the back of the property and a splendid rectory was built on the front of the land facing Main Street. The cost of the building was $4500. It was completely furnished by the proceeds of the first bazaar. The church was repaired and refurnished. The statue of the Sorrowful Mother, the Baptismal font and the Last Supper on the Altar of Reposition came from this period. On January 20, 1907, the new rectory burned to the ground. Most of the parish records were destroyed. Fr. Bourget, a man of some determiniation, began a new rectory in the summer of 1907. This building, the present rectory with some modification, was more elegant that the one destroyed by the fire. Built and furnished, the building cost $4800. The last entry of Fr. Bourget in the parish books is dated December 10, 1916.
Rev. Peter Dufault became the seventh pastor of St. James in 1917. He immediately began the building of a school. The parishioners displayed great drive and cooperation. Sacred Heart School was dedicated with a Solemn Mass on December 8, 1917. Fr. Dufault remained at St. James for eight years. His last entry in the parish book was August 3, 1924.
In September 1924, Rev. William Granger became the eighth pastor of St. James. He remained for a quarter of a century, longer that any other priest in the history of the parish. Fr. Granger lived and worked in Irwin. St. James was his home and the people were his family. During those frugal years of the Depression, the love and determination of the pastor held the parish of St. James from going under. When Fr. Granger died in Irwin on November 30, 1949, an era had come to an end.
The territory of Kankakee, originally under the administration of the Diocese of Vincennes and later transferred to the Diocese of Chicago, came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Joliet on March 24, 1949. Rev. Raynald Klaes was appointed the ninth pastor of St. James in December 1949. He remained for six months.
With the departure of Fr. Klaes, St. James Parish did not have a pastor assigned to it for four years. Fr. George Bubnick, appointed pastor of Sts. Mary and Joseph Church in Chebanse, lived in Irwin since there was no rectory in Chebanse. He administered the parish of St. James while he was pastor of Sts. Mary and Joseph Church. Many improvements were made at Irwin during this time, especially with regard to the school. In June 1954, the rectory at Chebanse was completed and Fr. Bubnick moved there.
Fr. John Kelly became the tenth pastor of St. James in June 1954. Fr. Kelly’s health was very poor and after two years, he resigned from the pastorate and went to Chicago where he died in 1957.
In June 1956, Rev. Stanislas Gryga became the eleventh pastor of St. James Parish. Despite the language barrier, Fr. Gryga did much to put the parish back on its feet. Fr. Gryga was pastor for five years.
In October 1961, Rev. James Storm became the twelfth pastor of St. James. In March 1964, the renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, called Vatican Council II, became effective for the United States. Part of the reform involved the revamping of the sanctuary. A temporary Altar of Sacrifice was added and the original altar became the Altar of Reposition. The revamping was a difficult task, and Fr. Storm did it well. The sad note during this period of the parish history was the closing of the school in June 1965. After forty-eight years, the Springfield Dominican Sisters had to leave Irwin and Sacred Heart School was no more. In September 1965, Fr. Storm was transferred from Irwin. Rev. John Malzone was appointed pastor of St. James Parish. Father came on September 19, 1965. As the thirteenth pastor, he bagan the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program. In November 1965, the school buildings were reopened as the St. James School of Christian Doctrine, with lay men and women of the parish instructing the twelve grades. Fr. Malzone also began a program of restoring the parish buildings. St. James Day Homecoming and festival was revived to bring back to Irwin (for an annual get together) its main parishioners who had moved away.
Due to ill health, Fr. Malzone requested a leave of absence. On the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6, 1969, Rev. Michael Valente was appointed the Vicar Adjutor of St. James. Fr. Valente arrived on December 11, 1969. He became the fourteenth pastor of St. James Parish. He continued the course of his predecessors; the continual updating of Liturgical functions in the parish, the restoration and upkeep of the church building, the school and the rectory. He is credited with the installation of a new main entrance on the south end of St. James Cemetery and a red marble monument of Christ’s Resurrection at the north end. Fr. Valente left St. James in 1974.
Fr. James Holup, pastor of St. Margaret Mary’s church in Herscher, was appointed to take care of both St. James as well as St. Margaret Mary. Fr. Holup continued to update the CCD program with the help of Sister Sophia Duris and many parishioners. The old school building was demolished in 1978 and a new hall with classrooms for the CCD was built. The church was redecorated in May of 1981 and was destroyed by a tornado on April 2, 1982. On May 9, 1982, Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, notified Fr. Holup that we would rebuild the church. The old church was demolished on June 8th and the new church building was started on November 5, 1982. The stained glass windows, marble altar, Stations of the Cross and statues are a few of the things from the old church that were saved and used in the new church. Bishop Imesch dedicated the new St. James Church on June 26, 1983.
Fr. Holup had the help of three priests who lived in the rectory in Irwin. Monsignor Fredrick Stenger came in 1975 and moved to Florida in 1977. Rev. John Zanoni came in 1977 and left in 1989. Fr. James McDermott, a retired priest, came to St. James in October 1980. Fr. McDermott made a large donation towards stonework in the new church. He resided in Irwin until his death on November 10, 1989.
Fr. John Driscoll was the next pastor from 1988-1997. He also continued the CCD program and made improvements in the church, including a new organ. Fr. Driscoll had the help of four resident priests. Fr. Zanoni helped until he was transferred in 1989. Fr. McDermott helped until his death in November 1989. Fr. Dennis White came in June 1989 and was transferred to Piper City in 1992. Fr. William Sliks came to Irwin in January 1993 and served as associate pastor of the two parishes. He was transferred to Piper City in June of 1995.
On July 25, 1995, the people of St. James celebrated the 100th anniversary of the parish. In August of 1995, Fr. Frank Czerwionka started helping Fr. Drisoll by saying Sunday mass in Irwin. Fr. Driscoll retired in 1997 and moved to Romeoville.
Fr. Ronald Hart became pastor of St. James from 1997-2008. He remodeled the rectory and Matthew Krumdick, a youth minister, stayed in the rectory for a year. A new paved parking lot and driveways were completed in 1998. In 2001, Fr. Hart was also appointed to be pastor for Sacred Heart in Goodrich, as well as at St. Margaret Mary’s in Herscher. Remodeling in the hall and sacristy was started in the fall of 2002. In December 2002, Jim and Pat Dennison moved into the rectory. Jim became a deacon in September 2003 and helped at mass.
Fr. Hart had the help of two retired priests, Fr. Frank Czerwionka and then Fr. Joseph Tremonti. The Dennison’s moved in 2005. Fr. Hart left as pastor in June 2008 but stayed in the Irwin rectory for a short time in the summer of 2008. He was assigned as a Senior Associate for the southern parishes of the Joliet Diocese, helping different parishes as needed. Fr. Hart passed away December 27, 2017.
Rev. Michael Pennock served as our pastor from 2008-2009. He was transferred to Gilman where they were in need of a priest who could speak and understand Spanish.
Rev. Douglas Hauber was appointed pastor of the three parishes of Irwin, Herscher and Goodrich in 2009. He was involved with the decision of the fate of the 103 year old rectory, which was sold and moved to its current location north of the church on Irwin road. Fr. Doug helped to establish a chapter of the Knights of Columbus for the western portion of Kankakee County. He served as our nineteenth pastor.
In June 2017, Fr. Doug was transferred to be the pastor of St. John the Baptist, L’Erable, Sts. Mary and Joseph, Chebanse, St. Peter’s, Clifton and the Assumption of BVM in Ashkum.
The twentieth pastor is Rev. Showreddy Allam who arrived at our parishes in June 2017.