Newly renovated St. James in Arlington Heights records highest Mass attendance in decades
A little more than six months after parishioners at St. James Parish in Arlington Heights returned to worship in their newly renovated church, the results are in and they are good.
After counting numbers of worshippers attending Sunday Masses -- done every October throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago -- St. James recorded its highest count in a decade, said the Rev. Matthew Foley, pastor.
Foley says the church now draws 300 more people to its six Masses every weekend, or more than 2,700 worshippers.
"We're thrilled," Foley said. "It shows we're growing and at a time when other parishes are closing."
Specifically, he says the news comes at the same time that the Chicago Archdiocese announced the consolidation of 19 parishes in Chicago, into five groupings as a part of its Renew My Church program.
According to the Archdiocese's website, Renew My Church is a strategic plan for renewal, including clustering parishes together and closing others.
"This spiritual revitalization will reclaim what is most central and sacred to our faith," its mission statement reads, "and breathe new life into our methods of sharing the gospel."
St. James appears to be ahead of the curve. Its increase in attendance goes beyond the bricks and mortar of its $10.5 million, 10-month construction project, which wrapped up in April. Upgrades included making the church handicapped-accessible, increasing seating from 500 to more than 800, and providing a large inside gathering room.
While parishioners -- and passing motorists along Arlington Heights Road -- endured 18 months of construction crews, as well as celebrating Masses in the parish center and having to go to nearby churches for weddings and funerals, they now see the pain was worth it.
Foley described it as an evangelization model to his parishioners last week in the Sunday bulletin and it's a model promoted through Renew My Church.
"It goes beyond the old adage, 'If you build it, they will come,'" Foley says. "It's deeper than that. We've made a conscious effort to reach out to people through our adult formation classes, small groups and just getting people inside the church."
Once they come, he hopes they come back for the Masses, which have been updated to feature a praise and worship style in their music.
"We always called ourselves contemporary, but most of that music was from the '70s and '80s," he adds. "We at least want music that was written in this millennium."
Foley credits Tamaron Conseur, music director at the parish since 2015, with re-energizing the music to a praise and worship style. Conseur has a master's in vocal performance from Northwestern and he has sung with multiple professional ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Lyric Opera Chorus.
Conseur said they went to the upbeat, praise and worship music at the all-school Masses and noticed an immediate increase in participation. They decided to try it with the entire parish.
"The hope is that people are inspired by the music that is played at Mass," Conseur says, "and that we are able to create something beautiful that can pierce the heart so that Christ can enter in."
Parish leaders also streamlined the hospitality process. With their gathering space in the lobby of the new church, greeters make sure to welcome worshippers. Announcements are made before Mass, Foley adds, so that people do not leave with a to-do list.
"We're not asking people to pay for anything or sign up," Foley says. "We just want them to come and pray. It's a pretty lean process. We want people to go home with the good news of the gospel and not with a signup sheet."