A 19th-Century ghost story forms the backdrop to unusual sightings at this 168-year-old Catholic church southwest of Chicago.
St. James of the Sag Church and Cemetery, abbreviated as St. James-Sag, sits on a bluff overlooking the juncture of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Calumet Sag Channel in southwest suburban Chicago, Illinois. Two roads, Archer Avenue (Route 171) and 107th Street also converge at this point. It is the tip of a heavily forested triangle in between Palos Hills to the east and Lemont to the southwest.
The area has a long history. According to Richard T. Crowe, there is evidence that French explorers used the bluff as an observation post as early as the 1690s, and before that, Amerindians camped there and may have lived nearby.
The church and cemetery also have distant origins. One burial can be traced to 1818, but the graveyard began to be heavily used in the 1830s when Father St. Cyr built a log chapel to accommodate the spiritual needs of the Irish canal workers. St. James-Sag was in fact the second Catholic house of worship founded in the Chicagoland area. The limestone building that exists today was built in 1850.
As the geographic focal point of the area, St. James-Sag also happens to be the supernatural focal point, if you believe the stories. In her book Chicago Haunts (1998), Ursula Bielski claims that phantom monks have been seen at the location since at least 1847.
The earliest substantiated encounter at the church involved two musicians, William Looney (no pun intended) and John Kelly, who spent the night at a dance hall located at the base of the bluff along Archer Avenue in September 1897. That night, William awoke to a commotion outside. The sounds of a horse and carriage were clearly audible from the road, but there was none to be seen.
William woke his friend, and this time a woman in white, who looked like she was in a state of despair, appeared in their field of vision. She seemed to be impatiently waiting for something. After a moment, the two men claimed that a carriage materialized on the road. The woman merged with it and disappeared. The scene reoccurred twice before fading completely.
John and William’s story appeared in local newspapers and apparently went forgotten until recently, when it was rediscovered by folklorists.
The phantom monks continued to make appearances over the years. According to Richard T. Crowe, a police officer by the name of Herb Roberts encountered nine of the monks in the early morning hours of the day after Thanksgiving, November 1977. The officer reported that the robed figures ignored him when he ordered them to stop from behind the gates of the cemetery. The figures seemed to disappear as he pursued them inside.
Several sources have also reported that a priest stationed at the church had observed the ground moving up and down as though it were breathing.
There are plenty of theories as to why this location attracts paranormal phenomenon, but none have adequately explained the presence of such a wide and diverse variety. One thing is for sure, we have not heard the last of St. James of the Sag.
- Crowe, Richard T. Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural. Oak Park: Carolando Press, 2000, 2001.
- Bielski, Ursula. Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998.