Leav­ing a void

De­mo­li­tion of St. James Hos­pi­tal will cre­ate a hole in the heart of Chicago Heights

Daily Southtown - - FRONT PAGE - Ts­[email protected] Twit­ter @TedSlowik1

Mshar­ing any peo­ple are

sto­ries on­line about their per­sonal and fam­ily con­nec­tions to the former St. James Hos­pi­tal in Chicago Heights.

Fran­cis­can Health shut­tered the cen­tury-old hos­pi­tal in early Sep­tem­ber. Since then, peo­ple have reg­u­larly com­mented on so­cial me­dia posts about their links to the fa­cil­ity.

“I had six births there,” a woman wrote last week. “Four surger(ies) from a car ac­ci­dent and three other surger(ies) plus fam­ily and friends that passed away and peo­ple I vis­ited so, yeah, lots of mem­o­ries.”

The 11-acre site of the 312-bed hos­pi­tal at 1423 Chicago Road is in the heart of Chicago Heights. The Chicago Heights Pub­lic Li­brary, Chicago Heights Park District head­quar­ters and St. Agnes Catholic Church are lo­cated right across the street.

Such in­sti­tu­tions as City Hall, Wash­ing­ton-McKin­ley Ele­men­tary School and the Chicago Heights School District 170 ad­min­is­tra­tion cen­ter are lo­cated just down the block along Chicago Road.

The hos­pi­tal was at the in­ter­sec­tion of U.S. Route 30 and Illi­nois High­way 1,

bet­ter known as Lin­coln and Dixie high­ways, which led to Chicago Heights claim­ing it­self as “The Cross­roads of the Na­tion.”

“(The clos­ing) was a big and very dis­ap­point­ing loss to Chicago Heights and the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties,” a man wrote in a so­cial me­dia dis­cus­sion.

Com­mu­nity mem­bers have had more than three years to di­gest news of plans to close the fa­cil­ity. Fran­cis­can Health, which owns the prop­erty, said in 2016 it planned to in­vest $115 mil­lion to ex­pand its hos­pi­tal in Olympia Fields. State reg­u­la­tors ap­proved a re­struc­tur­ing plan in early 2016.

Now, a chain-link fence sur­rounds the St. James build­ing and de­mo­li­tion of the sprawl­ing, seven-story struc­ture is im­mi­nent. Peo­ple shar­ing their mem­o­ries of St. James often do so with a bit­ter­sweet mix of nos­tal­gia and com­mu­nal loss.

It seems many of Chicago Heights’ nearly 30,000 res­i­dents share a con­nec­tion to St. James, as do many peo­ple in such sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties as Glen­wood, Ford Heights, South Chicago Heights, Ste­ger, Park For­est, Rich­ton Park, Sauk Vil­lage, Lyn­wood, Thorn­ton and other towns.

“Is this where Grandma was a nurse?” a woman wrote on Face­book, tag­ging an ap­par­ent rel­a­tive in the con­ver­sa­tion.

“Di­eti­cian’s aide,” the rel­a­tive re­sponded.

In a re­cent group dis­cus­sion, sev­eral peo­ple ex­pressed a de­sire to ob­tain one or more bricks from the hos­pi­tal build­ing as de­mo­li­tion pro­ceeds.

“How many thou­sands of peo­ple would pay to have one of those bricks? I would,” a man wrote in the dis­cus­sion.

I reached out to Fran­cis­can Health to ask about the bricks.

“Fran­cis­can Health is fully aware of the close re­la­tion­ship it has nur­tured with the com­mu­nity for more than 100 years,” spokes­woman Maria Ramos said. “That’s why we’ve planned to set aside sev­eral hun­dred bricks dur­ing the de­mo­li­tion process. We are cur­rently work­ing on the best way to make those bricks avail­able to mem­bers of the com­mu­nity.”

Last week, an area res­i­dent started a thread on­line about a tat­tered Amer­i­can flag fly­ing from a pole on the prop­erty, near a park­ing garage. The man ex­pressed a de­sire to see the flag re­tired with dig­nity, per­haps by some­one af­fil­i­ated with the lo­cal Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars post or other vet­er­ans’ group.

“It is no longer in a dis­playable sta­tus. I’m cer­tain soon power will be off at night not al­low­ing a proper light­ing at night,” the res­i­dent wrote, adding that he was a mem­ber of a vet­er­ans’ or­ga­ni­za­tion in a dif­fer­ent town.

When I vis­ited the site on Tues­day, the flag had been re­moved from the pole.

“When we re­cently be­came aware of this con­cern, Fran­cis­can Health took im­me­di­ate ac­tion to have the flag re­moved and con­tacted the lo­cal VFW to help us re­tire the flag prop­erly,” Ramos said.

Some peo­ple in­quired about re­moval of as­bestos from the build­ing.

“The de­mo­li­tion is be­ing per­formed with an em­pha­sis on safety,” Ramos said. Fran­cis­can Health has con­tracted with Chicagob­ased Heneghan Wreck­ing Co., whose ex­ten­sive de­mo­li­tion ex­pe­ri­ence in­cludes work on Rush Med­i­cal Cen­ter and the former Michael Reese Hos­pi­tal.

“The pro­ject will dili­gently fol­low all of the ap­pro­pri­ate work prac­tice stan­dards de­signed to min­i­mize the re­lease of con­tam­i­nants,” Ramos said.

The city of Chicago Heights re­sponded to my re­quests for in­for­ma­tion about the de­mo­li­tion with a state­ment at­trib­uted to Mayor David Gon­za­lez.

“The city’s Code En­force­ment, En­gi­neer­ing and Pub­lic Works De­part­ment have per­son­nel on site on a daily ba­sis to mon­i­tor con­struc­tion traf­fic, site se­cu­rity, de­bris and storm sewer util­ity pro­tec­tion,” the state­ment read.

Fran­cis­can Health and its con­trac­tors ob­tained all nec­es­sary city, county and state per­mits for de­mo­li­tion, as­bestos abate­ment, un­der­ground stor­age tank re­moval and traf­fic con­trol along state routes, the city said.

“We look for­ward to con­tinue our pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ship with the pro­ject man­agers through­out the de­mo­li­tion process, which we en­vi­sion be­ing com­pleted on or around Novem­ber 2019,” the city said.

When de­mo­li­tion is com­plete, an 11-acre va­cant site will be left in the cen­ter of Chicago Heights. Fran­cis­can Health op­er­ates an ur­gent care fa­cil­ity at 30 E. 15th St., just east of the St. James site. I asked about fu­ture plans for the hos­pi­tal prop­erty.

“Through­out the con­sol­i­da­tion ini­tia­tive, we have worked with Chicago Heights city of­fi­cials and have given se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to pos­si­ble sale and lease op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Ramos said. “It has al­ways been our in­ten­tion to pro­vide for the best pos­si­ble re-use of this prop­erty for the bet­ter­ment of the com­mu­nity.”

The state­ment at­trib­uted to Gon­za­lez did not ad­dress my in­quiry about how the city would like to see the prop­erty re­de­vel­oped or what po­ten­tial re­de­vel­op­ment op­tions would be con­sid­ered.

On so­cial me­dia, a woman re­marked that the de­mo­li­tion sym­bol­ized de­cay through­out the re­gion.

“My brother and I were born in this hos­pi­tal, my pa­ter­nal granny was a prac­ti­cal nurse there and I was a candy striper,” she wrote. “This bodes badly for the fu­ture of our dy­ing com­mu­nity and south Chicago in gen­eral.”

An­other woman who said she worked as a nurse at St. James wrote about how many fam­i­lies ex­pe­ri­enced piv­otal mo­ments in their lives within the hos­pi­tal’s walls.

“St. James, you will be missed but will have a spe­cial part in the hearts of those you healed and com­forted, helped bring new life to the world, and pre­pared those for their heav­enly re­ward,” she wrote.


A chain-link fence sur­rounds the main en­trance to the shut­tered former St. James Hos­pi­tal in Chicago Heights on Tues­day. The de­mo­li­tion process is ex­pected to take up to a year to com­plete.

Ted Slowik


The seven-story former St. James Hos­pi­tal casts an im­pos­ing pres­ence along Chicago Av­enue in down­town Chicago Heights on Tues­day. De­mo­li­tion of the shut­tered hos­pi­tal is ex­pected to get un­der­way and take up to a year to com­plete.

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