Pilgrim Baptist Church still trying to figure things out after 2006 fire

By Ramsen Shamon

“We ask you and many others to be in prayer for us because we intend to move across the street and we’re having all kinds of problems. Churches are sometimes the last place that the help comes. We have the faith. That’s what it takes,” said Robert Vaughn, Pilgrim trustee chairman.
Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville was destroyed by fire in 2006 and parishioners hope to rebuild. “Churches are sometimes the last place where help comes. We have the faith. That’s what it takes,” said Robert Vaughn, Pilgrim trustee chairman. Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL

What is left of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood stands fenced in, its limestone façade is supported by white bracings. A tattered church sign with bold blue lettering hangs with no upcoming events listed. The peaceful yet eerie nature of the church can be attributed to a fire that happened eight years ago while workers renovated its roof.

On Sundays, Pilgrim parishioners worship across the street from the historic church at 3300 S. Indiana Ave. Services are held on the first floor of a multi-story building owned by the church. The second floor of the building has offices and a spacious room where church members arrange breakfasts and tea parties. Worshippers dress in their Sunday best, sing songs and clap along to hymns. A cross with illustrations of four doves is painted on a wall that faces the flock.

It has been eight years since the fire, but the congregation has not given up on restoring the original Pilgrim Baptist Church.

The main priority for Pilgrim is to rebuild the building. Whether it is used as a church is not of importance, church officials say. Ultimately, Pilgrim wants the building to be used by the public for what the community sees fit.

Robert Vaughn, Pilgrim trustee chairman, outlined the church’s prospects: “This is a hot area right now. We’re on the campus of two colleges,” he said, referring to the Illinois College of Optometry and the Illinois Institute of Technology. “One of the colleges has its commencements at the University of Chicago. We figured we could acquire a space that they could have their commencements here. We started off with a campus in mind.

The Pilgrim Baptist Church congregation at a Sunday morning service. “We were fortunate enough to have this building when it burned down. Without this building I don’t know where we would have been. We owned the building. Then we converted the first floor to a church. It worked out,” said Alfonso Carrington, Pilgrim deacon board chairman.
The Pilgrim Baptist Church congregation at a Sunday morning service. “We were fortunate enough to have this building when [the church] burned down. Without this building I don’t know where we would have been,”  said Alfonso Carrington, Pilgrim deacon board chairman. Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL
“The campus was going to be about between $50 million and $56 million … so that effort we had to put aside. So we’re just concentrating on a multi-purpose building,” he said. “It might be a museum involved; it might be classrooms involved, whatever it would be, also something to provide a service to the community.”

Vaughn emphasized the importance of continual support from the Bronzeville community as they determine how to reconstruct the building. He spoke about the church’s interest working with Chicago’s Jewish community to rebuild the landmark. The building functioned as a synagogue when it was first built.

In 2006, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich pledged $1 million to rebuild the church, money the church never received. Eight years later, as Blagojevich sits in prison, Pilgrim members continue to raise funds while deciding what to convert the torched building into when—and if—it is restored.

The state money Blagojevich promised to allocate to Pilgrim was erroneously given to the Loop Lab School, which school rented space in Pilgrim. The school was later ordered to pay Illinois back the money it received. According to the published reports, the state managed to recoup only $89,687… The school used the million it received to buy space downtown, which was later sold for $750,000. Funds from the sale were used to pay off bank loans, association fees and taxes. The school later was closed for violating building codes, published reports said

“We want to rebuild it exactly the way it was, but financially it’s about $35 million to $40 million” said Alfonso Carrington, Pilgrim deacon board chairman. “We don’t have that kind of money. So at this point it’s still a landmark status because of the bricks. We just don’t have the funds to rebuild it like the way it was at this point,”

Board members were unable to provide an estimate of how much money has been collected or how much more is needed. They said that donations were needed because federal funding was not attainable.

”We can’t get money because we’re a church and because of separation between church and state,” Carrington said.

The bracings that hold up the church’s façade cost more than $1 million., he said.

Pilgrim Baptist was built between 1890 and 1891. Architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan initially designed the building as a synagogue in a Romanesque revival style, according to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Sullivan incorporated ornate decorations when designing buildings, which is evident with the Auditorium Building the two also designed.

A key feature of the building’s façade is two inscriptions, written in Hebrew and English script, of Psalms 118:19. Pilgrim parishioners were thankful that firefighters were able to save the engravings back in 2006.

Pilgrim considers itself to be the birthplace of gospel music. Renowned individuals have walked through Pilgrim’s doors, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave several sermons there.

Faith is not lost, considering how much time has passed since the church’s fate was forever altered. Pilgrim has established an online website to collect money.

One alternative that Pilgrim board members did not express would be to sell the property to a developer, freeing Pilgrim from the obligation to rebuild. The structure could mirror other unused churches by being converted into condominiums. If the building were sold to a developer that sought demolition, the developer would need approval from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

“We’re going to keep our hands in God’s hands,” Vaughn said.