The legacy of Brother James Court
Eighty years of ministry to men in Springfield
Brother Anthony Joseph came to the St. James Trade School from Syracuse, N.Y., in 1967 to join the Franciscan Brothers in running the school. The Springfield school on the northeast side closed in 1972 following a 42-year run, after which the Brothers opened Brother James Court in 1975 to house and care for developmentally disabled men. Despite his 43 years on the grounds, Brother Anthony often uncovers new stories of how the missions of the Brothers have touched the lives of many local men.
Last year, a group of trade school alumni met at Brother James Court and toured the grounds with Brother Anthony. One alumnus asked to see the garage where auto tech was taught from the 1940s to 1972. There, a camera-ready member of the 1959 basketball team marched to a brick wall and pointed high above their heads. Looking up, Brother Anthony saw recorded in chalk the scores from the little school’s lone district championship season 50 years prior. “I discovered a footnote that shows how much something can mean to a person many years later,” Brother Anthony says.
The story is included in a new book that celebrates the 35th anniversary of Brother James Court and the 80th anniversary of St. James Trade School. The book, compiled by Brother Anthony, author, and Phil Shadid, co-author, was released by Arcadia Publishing last week as part of its Images of America series and will enjoy a public unveiling at the 16th annual BJC Benefit Auction and Dinner on Saturday, April 10.
The St. James Trade School traces its origins to Germany, where the Motherhouse of the Franciscan Brothers of the Holy Cross stands on a hillside. Ten German brothers arrived in Springfield in 1928 to operate the Hospital Sisters’ farm and dairy operations. When Springfield’s bishop donated lumber, a monastery and other buildings were built on the 200-acre property and the brothers were ready to open their trade school in 1930, welcoming 10 orphans from Alton Children’s Home as their first students. The brothers taught trades like shoemaking, metals, woodworking, baking, dairy farming, and meat cutting for high school age boys, offering a trade certificate. They supplemented the program with a complete high school curriculum starting in 1944. Graduating classes ranged in size from four to the mid-twenties. Brother Anthony estimates 1,200 young men came through the school’s doors.
In the 1960s, the Franciscan brothers saw the writing on the wall — the small school with dwindling enrollment simply could not afford to stay open. “We looked at the needs of the community and decided to go back to our roots of caring for the poorest of the poor,” Brother Anthony says. The group borrowed money and started to repurpose themselves from operating a trade school to Brother James Court, a facility designed to serve developmentally disabled men.
Today, Brother James Court has 98 beds and is home to 95 men with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy to autism. Development Director Jay Landers says each resident has a specific program designed to meet physical, emotional and psychological needs. Some work a few hours per day at the Springfield Developmental Center, while others enjoy leisure activities such as exercise and music. One resident, Tim Kiesow, turned to music after realizing rhythm helped soothe him. An avid Beatles fan and singer, Kiesow recorded an album with the help of BJC staff and volunteers last year. Although doctors expected him to die by his teenage years, Kiesow received a kidney transplant that has helped him make it to age 31. After 11 years at Brother James Court, he is still doing well and will perform an original gospel song at the April 10 event, where Secretary of State Jesse White will commemorate National Donor Life Month and his Life Goes On program.
Kiesow is one of many who are thankful for Brother James Court. Families of Trade School students used to remark that the brothers took boys and made them into men. Brother Anthony hopes that nurturing spirit has carried over into their work at BJC. “This place has been our entire lives, and that’s what the book represents. Our founders started working with orphans doing what they could, and then transitioned to custodial care, where we continue their work,” he explains.
Brother Anthony and Shadid spent more than six months compiling the book, for which they relied on old cabinets full of archival pictures. “The pictures sat in piles on the table for months and months while we combed through them, looking for all the stories,” says Shadid, a retired postal worker who serves on Brother James Court’s Development Advisory Council. Shadid started by researching the Tradesmen, the Trade School’s baseball, basketball and football teams. “They had to use employees when there weren’t enough kids to play,” he remarks. The book’s creators had some serendipitous help when tasked with identifying the subjects of each picture — another Franciscan, Brother Michael, made handwritten notations on several photographs when he retired at age 75. Many of the pictures came from Pete Bono, a freelance photographer who attended the school from 1933 to 1936.
Looking back, Brother Anthony says, has made him realize what an important family he has been a part of for the past 43 years. “It shows that we’ve spanned generations and that we have a lot of ties from one generation to the next,” he explains. Sammy Caruso was the first recipient of a St. James Trade School certificate. Upon graduation, he returned to the Alton Children’s Home and spent 30 years repairing shoes for nuns and 300 students with the knowledge he acquired from the Franciscans. Most recently, a beloved resident passed away after spending nearly 31 years at Brother James Court.
Landers says the book will be available in local retail outlets, but those interested in supporting Brother James Court can purchase it directly from the organization because direct sales provide more profits under BJC’s contractual agreement. BJC’s 16th Annual Benefit Auction and Dinner is Saturday, April 10 at 5:30 p.m. in the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel. Tickets are $75 and are available at 747-5905 or via brotherjamescourt.com. Thirty residents will join the Franciscan Brothers and BJC staff to greet the public.
The book, St. James Trade School and Brother James Court, is by Br. Anthony Joseph, FFSC, author, and Phil Shadid, co-author, and edited by Br. Christian and Jay Landers. Photographs from the book are reprinted by permission. It is published by Arcadia Publishing and available for $21.99 from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.