St. James Church Nearer, My God, to Closing

The St. James Church on Federal Street (parish established 1850, current church building opened 1892) was for more than a century the heart of the Irish Catholic community of Gallows Hill. More Irish immigrant children attended St. James School than attended Salem public schools. Thousands were baptized there, confirmed there, married there, lay in memorial there.

But that time is so early 20th century. St. James, like all Catholic churches in Salem, for that matter all Catholic churches in the Boston Diocese, has fallen on hard times. The school closed in the early 70’s, the nunnery soon thereafter, the rectory, once home to as many as eight resident priests, as well. The magnificent church is still open, but the congregation has diminished to almost nothing, a few dozen mostly elderly congregants at Sunday Mass. To reflect the diminished presence the directory sign was recently painted over, but painted so thinly that the former schedule is visible underneath. Almost weekly funeral services reflect the advancing ages of the remaining congregants.

000_0339What happened!? Well a large part is the increasingly secular culture of America, but more significantly it is the ongoing, never-ending priest pedophile scandals. Church leaders promise full disclosure, then another release of records reveals more crimes, more abusive priests, more cover ups. The Catholic Church worldwide has indeed been revealed as a “vast criminal conspiracy“. There seems to be a new report of corruption and criminality in every newscast. Pennsylvania last week, Virginia this week.

The priest pedophile scandals have especial resonance for St James Parish, for it was here that one of the first priest sex scandals came to light. The Rev. Joseph Birmingham molested dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of young boys during his tenure at St James in the late 1960’s. It was one of those molested, Paul Cultrera, who went public in 1992, causing dozens of others to come forward with their stories of molestation at the hands of Rev. Birmingham. The Catholic hierarchy naturally suppressed Cultrera’s disclosures, an effort abetted by Birmingham’s “fortunate” premature demise in 1989.

It was not until the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe revealed the multitude of priestly molestations in 2002 that the Birmingham crimes again came to light. The full shocking story is ably covered in Hand of God, a documentary put out in 2006 by Joe Cultrera, brother of Paul, and a film that should be must viewing for all Salemites. Bonus credit to any viewer who grasps the sexual pun in the title.

One particularly tristful scene in Hand of God is when the film crew passes by the former rectory. “There,” exclaims Paul Cultrera, “top floor, left front corner. That’s where the bastard raped me.”

161 Federal (2)

Third floor corner

Wonder who has that apartment now, or if they know what went down there.


The bygone vibrancy of St James parish is recalled by the washed-out sign behind the former nunnery on Bridge St along Blubber Hollow. Despite the conversion of the former nunnery at 162 Federal St into eight apartments, open just this month and now available for rent, the sign still remains. The parking lot for the “nunnery apartments” is still under construction (you can rent here; you just cannot park here), so the faded sign remains, at least for now.


Restoration of former St James convent

There have been transitions to try to restore St James. For the first church closures 15 years ago a lay committee recommended that St. James, as the least busy church in Salem, be closed. The archdiocese snubbed that recommendation and instead closed St. Joseph, the most busy parish. Go figure. In 2013 St James, St John the Baptist, and Immaculate Conception parishes joined as a collaborative, along with St. Anne atop Castle Hill, saving expenses by sharing one pastor, clergy, staff and other resources. The collaborative did not reverse the decline.

Then in mid-2017 St. John the Baptist parish was dissolved and the church converted into Pope John Paul II Divine Mercy Shrine. Concurrently St. James and Immaculate Conception were joined together into a single parish and renamed Mary, Queen of the Apostles Parish, or more fittingly, Maria, Reina de los Apostoles, since it is predominantly a parroquia hispana now.

According to the archdiocesan representative “the changes are needed to deal with decreased attendance, donations and participation at all three parishes.” A disaffected congregant was not buying the argument, suggesting that “in five years we’ll be here again saying we’re out of money.”

And specious arguments like this one will not reverse the decline either: “[Bishop Mark] O’Connell said church officials prefer trying this plan rather than closing churches … due to the ‘pagan presence’ in the community.” Really!?

There was once an incredible seven parishes in Salem. Considering that the population of Salem was likely never more than half Catholic, that means at most 18,000 (Salem fluctuated in the high thirty thousands for most of the 20th century) split seven ways, or a thin 2500 per parish. Somehow they all once thrived.

  1. St James: serving the Irish community of Gallows Hill.
  2. St Thomas: at the end of North St just over the border with Peabody. Original parish covered North Salem and the northeastern corner of Peabody. Merged with Our Lady of Fatima in Peabody and accordingly no longer a “Salem” parish.
  3. St Joseph: on Lafayette St in The Point, the first French-Canadian parish est. 1884. Parish dissolved in 2004, church razed and eventually apartments built in its place. School and rectory still standing, empty and in disrepair. St. Joseph’s parish joined to St. James parish in 2004.
  4. St Anne: on Castle Hill the second French-Canadian parish est. 1901. Burned down and rebuilt in the 1980’s, and surprisingly the only original parish still extant, though part of the Salem collaborative with St. James and Immaculate Conception.
  5. St. John the Baptist: on St. Peter St. in downtown area to serve the Polish community, est. 1909. Closed as a parish and re-purposed as the Pope John Paul II Divine Mercy Shrine in 2017.
  6. Immaculate Conception: the first Catholic church in Salem est. 1826. Often considered the first Irish-Catholic church, with St. James the second, but as in 1826 there were no Catholics in Salem but Irish Catholics, so calling it the first Irish Catholic parish seems a reach.
  7. St. Mary: Italian Catholic church on Margin St in the Little Italy section, est. 1914, closed 2003. Now the Lifebridge mission providing housing and services for the homeless.

Why St. James church is kept on life support likely comes down to wanting to keep the magnificent building in the herd. The stunning Gothic Revival brick and stone edifice is 178 feet in length, with a fabulous steep-pitched roof nave 98 feet tall. The hulking church is visible from all parts of Gallows Hill, as evident in this photo.St James sunset

Even more spectacular is the church interior. St James Church interior 1

Supreme credit due to the Irish immigrant stonemasons and woodwrights who put the place together a century and a quarter ago.

The pedestrian Immaculate Conception church, where most of the parish action now takes place (it has a bursting schedule of services), just cannot compare. Still, as doubtful congregants attest, it seems likely that St James will close for good “in five years”. Its eventual fate will likely be conversion to luxury apartments / condos. Church conversions are challenging, given the immense interior space that needs to be subdivided, but with all the church closings happening around Boston conversions are being undertaken ever more frequently, and so contractors are getting experienced in church conversions. Note for instance the conversions of Holy Trinity German Catholic church and Immaculate Conception Catholic church, both in Boston’s South End.


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