Chicago has plenty of paranormal history, and nobody knows this better than Dale Kaczmarek of Oak Lawn, president of the Ghost Research Society.
The author of six books, including two volumes of “Windy City Ghosts” and “Field Guide to Ghost Hunting Techniques,” Kaczmarek has been investigating hauntings for 46 years, as well as leading tours for Excursions into the Unknown, the longest-running ghost tour service in the Chicago area.
“There are over 350 publicly accessible locations in the Chicago area that have reported paranormal activity, and there are likely many more,” said Kaczmarek, who became interested in the topic at an early age from ghost stories related by family members and decided to check into whether they were myth or had any basis in reality.
The south suburbs are home to some of Chicagoland’s most famous hauntings, including the hitchhiking ghost Resurrection Mary in Justice and the forlorn souls of Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, which have reached international fame.
But, Kaczmarek said, other South Side locations are just as interesting, including St. James at Sag Bridge Catholic Church and Cemetery, founded in the 1830s in Lemont.
Built on a high bluff along Archer Avenue at 106th Street, an old Native American trail considered the most haunted road in Chicagoland, the land was a lookout point for centuries, and was visited by explorer Jacques Marquette several times in 1673 when a French fort was located there. The current church structure was built in the 1850s using local limestone, which appears to be a good conductor of paranormal energy.
“The earliest ghost story I came across for St. James dates to 1897 when musicians John Kelly and William Looney stayed on the grounds overnight after providing entertainment for an event. They were awakened by the sound of a carriage and watched the apparition of a woman in white on the road outside their window,” Kaczmarek said.
Indeed, a look in newspaper archives turned up a Chicago Tribune article dated Sept. 20, 1897, titled, “Spooks at Sag Bridge — Two Chicago Men Assert They Saw Veritable Ghosts.” The Tribune even ran an illustration of the phantom coach and woman.
According to the article, Kelly, a harpist, and Looney, a violinist, described as “fine, sober young fellows” by the police, recounted seeing a carriage pulled by snow-white horses with lights shining from their heads summoned by a young woman in white with long, raven black hair, who had “deep melancholy reflected from sepulchral eyes.” The carriage flew past the woman, she sank into the ground, and the carriage disappeared. This played out over and over during the night. The next day, Kelly and Looney reported their experience to the police, but no plausible explanation was to be had.
Kaczmarek considers this type of apparition as likely a “ghostly reenactment of something embedded in the fabric of time and space — some tragic, emotional event replaying itself on occasion so vividly, people think they are seeing the real thing.”
This apparition has been reported by other people since then, but the real story of the coach and woman appears to be lost to time. There have been conjectures, including an indiscretion between a priest and the woman that led to tragedy and eternal penance to repeat the incident in ghostly fashion, but Kaczmarek said, although this is an interesting folk tale, it’s probably not true.
The phantom carriage is not the only manifestation of spirits at St James. There are also hooded figures that roam the grounds at night. Kaczmarek shared one of the more credible stories about a sighting.
“In 1977, Cook County sheriff’s police officers chased shadowy monk-like figures through the grounds of St. James, even searching with a canine patrol, but found nothing. In a two-page report, they stated they didn’t think they were real people at all but some kind of phantom manifestation,” Kaczmarek said.
The police came to this conclusion because of the way the hooded beings looked and moved. They glided up the hill in the cemetery in unison and complete silence while the police stumbled in the darkness tripping over tombstones, and the figures had disappeared by the time the police reached the top of the hill. Even the trained dogs could not pick up a scent.
Other experiences involved priests living at St. James, according to Kaczmarek.
“Father Raymond Ploszynski, who died in the rectory on May 10, 1970, confided to friends and loved ones on his deathbed that he often looked out the windows of the rectory at night and saw the ground of the cemetery rising and falling as if the earth was breathing. He actually claimed he saw shadowy monk-like figures or people dressed in robes in the area,” Kaczmarek said.
“Father George Aschenbrenner, his successor, would go out on the grounds at night around Halloween time to chase away the kids going in there. He was dressed in his black cassock and would shine a flashlight under his chin and yell, ‘Get out of here!’ All the kids saw was a screaming, disembodied floating head in the dark, starting the idea of a screaming skull. It was just a way to keep people out of the cemetery at night,” said Kaczmarek.
In Aschenbrenner’s obituary upon his death in 1999, his friends remembered seeing him chasing trespassers, running down the hill shouting through a bullhorn, waving his flashlight. This earned him the nickname “The Mad Monk.”
Of course, there are skeptics who don’t believe in ghosts and scoff at these stories. That’s all right with Kaczmarek.
“Skeptics want some kind of proof. I present the evidence I have gathered for over forty years, and I invite them along on investigations. They will always have an explanation — until something happens to them,” Kaczmarek said.
Aschenbrenner wrote in 1973 at the time of the Lemont Centennial, as quoted in Kaczmarek’s book Windy City Ghosts, “And what about the apparitions of ghosts at St. James …? There are a number of such tales we have come across in questioning the old-timers. Many such legends are doubtlessly born from the dearth of authentic accounts of the past. And yet the authentic accounts, if we can unearth them, could well prove more fascinating than the legends.”
In other words, the true historical account of, say, the woman and the carriage, could be more interesting than any of the legends surrounding the ghostly apparition. That would be a great story.
Carol Flynn is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.