One afternoon in early 2006, I was driving toward the Loop on South Lake Shore Drive when I saw a huge plume of smoke a few blocks in from the lake. Out of curiosity I turned on the radio to get some information and my heart sank when the headline said a historic church on the South Side was in flames. Immediately I assumed it was the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, a historic African American church on 31st and King Drive. When they reported the story in detail, my heart sank even further when I learned that the church on fire was actually the Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd and Indiana, the glorious Adler and Suillivan synagogue building that was converted into a Baptist church in 1921.
Not only was the building architecturally important, but in 1932 the Pilgrim Baptist Church choir was founded by the man who would become known as the father of Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey. It was here that Gospel legends Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and others cut their teeth and naturally the church became hallowed ground in Gospel circles.
One cruel irony is that the fire was ignited by workers repairing the roof during a restoration project. The fire consumed everything except for the exterior limestone walls. Immediately there were plans afoot to reconstruct the church. Then governor Rod Blagojevich pledged millions in state funds to help the cause, until someone pointed out to him that the Constitution prevented him from doing that.
The congregation of Pilgrim Baptist is small and cannot afford on its own to re-build its landmark church. But it looks like it will rise again, at the very least approaching the way it looked back in the 1930s during its heyday, with the help of many sources including possibly, you.
Go to this site to read about the restoration plans and find out how you can help rebuild a landmark.
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