The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Pilgrim Baptist, Birthplace of Gospel Music, Will Not Rebuild: Alderman

By Sam Cholke | September 3, 2015 2:15pm | Updated on September 3, 2015 2:23pm
 Ald. Pat Dowell announced Thursday that Pilgrim Baptist Church leaders have decided not to rebuild from the 2006 fire.
Ald. Pat Dowell announced Thursday that Pilgrim Baptist Church leaders have decided not to rebuild from the 2006 fire.
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

DOUGLAS — Pilgrim Baptist Church will not rebuild the fire-ravaged shell of its landmark church, according to Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

Dowell said in a statement Thursday that she had met with church leaders, who she said had decided rebuilding the church was now too expensive for the congregation.

Workers doing repairs as part of a $500,000 restoration effort in January 2006 accidentally set the roof on fire, which quickly spread and destroyed all but the exterior masonry walls of the church at 3301 S. Indiana Ave.

“The board is currently considering options for adaptive reuse of the property and particularly techniques in which to preserve the remarkable limestone walls as well as the church's rich tradition in civil rights and history as the birth place of gospel music,” Dowell said in a statement.

Pilgrim Baptist Fire
View Full Caption
Youtube/Ace Henderson

She said a recent feasibility study had determined rebuilding and maintenance of the church was “untenable and prohibitive” for the congregation.

Robert Vaughn and Cynthia Jones, chairman and vice chairman of the church’s board of trustees, were not immediately available to comment on their meeting with Dowell on Aug. 28 when they broke the news.

Employees at the church on Thursday declined to comment.

Dowell declined to comment further on her meeting with the church, but she did meet with the Gap Community Group on Tuesday to explain the church’s decision.

“We like that they’ve come to a conclusion and that their decision is their decision as a church,” said Leonard McGee, president of the group.

He said Dowell told the group at its Tuesday meeting that the church was now considering selling the property if there was a guarantee that the remaining portions of the structure would be somehow preserved.

“It’s taken a long time to come to this point and I’m sure it was a very hard decision,” McGee said.

The church started fundraising efforts shortly after the fire and moved into a neighboring building at 3300 S. Indiana Ave. to continue holding services.

Neighbors said the congregation has dwindled and skewed older since the fire and on most Sundays there are less than 100 people attending services.

“It affects us every day, we see it every day and it’s depressing,” said George Mac, who lives across the street from the burned church. “I’m open to all options, I just want to see it changed.”

Groups around the city rallied around the church after the fire and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation committed to a matching grant of $500,000 in 2007 to rebuild the church.

Dave Lundy, a spokesman for the Pritzker Family Foundation, said the foundation would not attempt to get back the $399,287 that was given to the church through the matching grant in 2007 and 2008.

Imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich pledged $1 million to rebuild the church at the time. But the money ended up going to a private school that rented space in the church at the time of the fire, and only $89,000 of the money was ever recovered, according to a report in the Sun-Times.

It’s unclear now what will happen to the funds raised to rebuild, which some reports estimate to be as much as $4.7 million.

The Pritzker Family Foundation said it was examining how much had been dispersed to the church, but could not immediately say what would now happen to those funds if the church is not rebuilt.

The destruction of the landmark church was considered a tremendous loss for the history of the South Side and the city as a whole.

Adler and Sullivan built the church as a synagogue in 1890-91 for K.A.M. Isaiah Israel, which is now in Kenwood.

The building became a Baptist church in 1922 and by the 1930s was credited as the birthplace of gospel music. Thomas Dorsey, often called the “Father of Gospel Music” was the music director for decades and singers including Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Sallie Martin, James Cleveland, and the Staples Singers all performed at the church.

Bessie Coleman, the first African American pilot, was a member of the church and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered sermons at the church at the height of the civil rights movement.

McGee said the church is now only talking to the alderman about its plans, but the Gap Community Group will support whatever decision the church makes.

“We’re not interested in telling someone how to rebuild or tear down their structure,” McGee said.

The church's attorney, Stephen Pugh, also did not respond to requests for comment.

The church will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016.

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: