Parish Ablaze With Hope One Year After Fire
By Penny Wiegert, Editor
August 3, 2023
ROCKFORD—For   170 years, St. James Parish here has celebrated the feast of its special patron with prayer and thanksgiving. This year’s celebration had the added ingredients of hope and confidence that comes with the knowledge that the parish has turned a tragic day into a new future.
In fact, the responsorial psalm for the early evening Mass celebrated July 25 at St. James makeshift sanctuary,  pretty much summed it up … “the Lord has done great things for us, we are filled with joy.”
And the parishioners at the historic downtown church have much to be joyful for.
As pastor Father Jhonatan Sarmiento said in his homily, the parish has as its patron saint and intercessor, an apostle, a martyr, a friend of Jesus and someone who was with Jesus in those most special moments — “a patron chosen by the people” 170 years ago.
Father Sarmiento asked his people, “even though we don’t know the real reason why the people chose St. James,” to be “grateful for our saint who watches over us in moments of suffering and joy.”
And the last year in the life of the parish gives truth to the pastor’s words. It was just one year ago, in the early morning of Aug. 8, when heavy thunderstorms rolled through the Rockford area. After a particularly loud crack of thunder reported by a neighbor at about 5:30 a.m., later at about 7 a.m. a passerby reported smelling smoke coming from the 136 year-old church building.
Father Sarmiento and others preparing for Mass that day, were able to save important religious items from the altar while fire crews arrived to battle the blaze caused by lightning. 
Since the heartbreak of that day, the parish has looked to their patron saint for the strength and resolve to  move on to the next chapter. Committees were formed, experts were gathered, plans were made to respect the past and prepare for the future.  The rebuilding from the fire damage continues so St. James Parish can look forward to more anniversaries for generations to come. Work on the repairs and renovations is estimated to take at least two years. 
“During this time, we need to transform ourselves too… a saint is a friend for us. St. James is our patron, our friend,” Father Sarmiento said and advised the parish to pray to St. James for his help and continued friendship and to be grateful to God for St. James.
Just before the anniversary Mass, Father Sarmiento told The Observer that the final portion of the new roof on the Church was completed. So, the anniversary Mass celebration was a way to move on from the suffering and into the joy under the guidance of their patron St. James.
Parishioners along with former pastor Father David Beauvais and occasional helper at the parish Msgr. Michael Tierney gathered to celebrate with beautiful music provided by the bell choir and the Burmese choir.  The parish also celebrated its journey to physical renewal by refurburshing a chalice which was given as a gift to the parish in 1909 by Mrs. Mary Cudahy in memory of her husband James.  
After the Mass and before the dismissal, the parish announced its Man of the Year and its Lifetime Achievement Award. Dave Cash, a parishioner at St. James for 60 years, received the Man of the Year award while Jay Pick was recognized for a long list of service to the parish and diocese and given a plaque for Lifetime Achievement. (Pick has been a longtime lector for the weekly diocesan TV Mass broadcast on WREX-Channel 13)
Father David Beauvais, for whom the parish fellowship hall is named and where Mass has been celebrated for the past year, spoke briefly about the celebration. 
“I say to myself, how blessed I have been to begin my ministry here at St. James in 1962 and to end it as pastor in 2006. There were a lot of things in between but I got off to a good start with the people of St. James and a good ending at St. James as well. And I am grateful for that.” Father Beauvais said the most important part of the history of a parish is “the quality of the community. The strength of any parish is the community that surrounds the pastor and all of the people and the good work they do.” Therefore, Father Beauvais’s anniversary advice to the parish was “stick together” even in times of disagreement. “We are all united in Christ,” he said. 
After Mass, parishioners mingled to admire and photograph the refurbished chalice and move to the gymnasium to share refreshments.


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