When we–appropriately–think of Juliette (“Daisy”) Gordon Low as a Southerner, we often forget that her mother’s family were founders of Chicago, Illinois. Last week’s blog about the church Daisy attended while she lived in England made me recall the extraordinary beauty of the church begun by her grandparents: St. James Cathedral.

Today St. James is a thriving congregation which serves as the cathedral for the Episcopal diocese of Chicago. It is located at 65 East Huron Street, half way between Navy Pier and Cabrini Green. The Cathedral’s soaring architecture is stunning, and the interior is luminous. Yet this St. James would not be recognizable to Daisy or her family–in anything other than the faith of its communicants and the strength of its community.

In 1834–one year after Chicago was incorporated–Daisy’s grandmother hungered for the Episcopal liturgy she had grown up with. Juliette Magill Kinzie and John Harris Kinzie called to their log cabin likeminded friends. There, Episcopalians initially gathered.

The Kinzie house, across the river from Ft. Dearborn, in 1832.

Outgrowing the Kinzies’ parlor, they borrowed the Presbyterian church. Juliette Kinzie became the driving force for a permanent place of worship. Her efforts culminated in the appearance of the first Episcopal priest in the near-wilderness that was then Chicago. The Rev. Palmer Dyer arrived, stayed with the Kinzies, and on the morning of Sunday, October 12, 1834, celebrated the first Episcopal service in Chicago. That was 177 years ago this month.

Juliette Kinzie’s efforts on behalf of the fledgling congregation were tireless. Within three weeks the Episcopalians were meeting in a barely framed building on North Water Street. In less than a year, the young state of Illinois elected its first Episcopal bishop, Philander Chase, to preside over its three nascent dioceses. This was news to Bishop Chase. He was serving as Bishop of Ohio, but philosophically accepted the call to move further west. Bishop Chase rose to the challenge of creating an infrastructure on the frontier, and in 1839 founded Jubilee College in Brimfield, Illinois, just as he had earlier established Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. The mission of both colleges was to train priests to minister to the vast Midwest as it was rapidly filling with Episcopalians migrating from the East.

Checking on the parishioners at St. James was hazardous. Juliette Kinzie recalled that the roads leading to Chicago were so poor that “the Bishop always had a few accidents, and generally some broken bones.” Once so many ribs were cracked that he could not stand unaided to preach. Considerate parishioners made him a sort of chair from a washstand and placed it on the undersized pulpit. Daisy’s mother, Nellie Kinzie Gordon, remembered the moment that things went wrong: when the Bishop adjusted his skull cap. At that point, the “chair” leg slipped off the pulpit, and the bishop went shooting into the chancel “like a catapult.” Stunned silence ensued and the bishop lay awkwardly on the floor. Eventually someone helped him and, nothing daunted, Bishop Chase climbed back up onto the rickety washboard chair and continued to sermonize for another hour and a half.

In 1835, Juliette and John Kinzie donated two parcels of land for the building of a proper church. Juliette Kinzie and the other women in the St. James Ladies’ Sewing Society raised nearly $6,000 to fund Chicago’s first brick church. By Easter of 1837, Episcopal Chicagoans were worshiping in their own building. Juliette Kinzie taught Sunday school to children in the basement. It was in this unostentatious church on the prairie that Juliette and John’s daughter, Nellie, was baptized and confirmed.

In 1852, the church moved to the corner of Wabash and Huron Streets, very near to its present-day location. John Kinzie was a member of the building committee. The church they erected seated over one thousand people, evidence of the growth of St. James. In this more magnificent edifice, Nellie was married to William W. Gordon of Savannah, Georgia. When Nellie and Willie brought their children north, it was to St. James Church that they all went to worship. Daisy knew it as her home church in Chicago.

St. James in 1871, looking like it did when Daisy worshipped here as a girl.

The Kinzie Church, as it was called in acknowledgement of the time, money, and energy invested by Daisy’s grandparents, has had a long and fascinating history. Its magisterial architecture, particularly the lovely nave, have drawn local residents and famous guests–as diverse as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King–for years. Ogdens, Palmers, Newberrys, Bowens, Ryersons, Leiters, and De Kovens were among the many leading families of Chicago who were members of St. James. The church–now cathedral–has a tradition of extraordinary music, which was true also in Daisy’s time.

Daisy Gordon Low was strong and faithful life-long Episcopalian. Her Christianity mattered deeply to her. With a grandmother like Juliette Kinzie Gordon perhaps this is no surprise.

St. James Cathedral today

For photos of St. James Cathedral and for more on its history, go to www.saintjamescathedral.org. For even more information, read Rima Lunin Schultz’s The Church and the City (Chicago: The Cathedral of St. James, 1986). The quotes in this blog come from Schultz, 24.
Both photos from Wikimedia.