Wednesday, February 21, 2007

(Lost) Black History Month in Lincoln Park: Pilgrim MB Church

I took these photos of the Pilgrim MB Church more than a year ago. It was located on the southeast corner of Willow and Burling and has since been torn down.

This church and its congregation were a joy to me, even if I did take it in from a distance. Every Sunday the street would be loaded with men and women and children of all ages dressed in their royal-colored morning best.

One Sunday, when I was just hanging out with a girlfriend of mine in front of my townhome, a mother and daughter walked by on their way to service. They were dressed in frilly, elegant spring dresses and poised, lacy hats as if they were just about to enter a movie set.

After they passed my girlfriend just shook her head and said, "Man, they put us to shame. Look at us hanging out in these crummy clothes with no intention of going to church."

Another time, I walked by the front doors of the church on a sunny weekday afternoon, and just as I passed, I heard a thunderous "GLORY!" There were 10,000 women in the choir loft. They stopped. Then seconds later, again, "GLORY!" I immediately envisioned the church like it was a cartoon building where the roof and doors would blow off and re-attach with every punch of the word.

According to some of the members I used to chat up on the sidewalk after Sunday services, the church was built in the late 1800's. It was crumbling at its foundation and you could see holes in the roof. The Pilgrim MB congregation had moved there in the late 1960's/early 1970's. Their original church had been at the corner of Blackhawk and Larrabee in 1956. They also had a few other locations in the neighborhood before settling in at Willow and Burling. (This is according to their website here).

"Much Prayed For" Parking

When I asked one of the congregants why they were moving he said it was because the church was beyond repair. That was probably true. To level it and build it again just didn't make sense to them.

Also, a lot of their congregants had moved away from the area. They wanted something closer to them that had ample parking. In fact, their website describes their new parking lot as being "much prayed for."
Chalking up the Losses

I chalk this loss up to the inevitable churn of change. It is no one's "fault." No lack of preservation activism or the overzealousness of a developer. The church was falling apart. The congregants had moved elsewhere. The real estate goldmine embedded in the property represented a new era for the congregation. Who can blame them for the choice they made? They're now located on west 91st Street in Hickory Hills.

New condos (or maybe townhomes, they're not done yet) are going up in the church's place and the rectory that sat just south of it. It looks like they may have arched windows that evoke a church, which is a nice nod to the site's history. The developer didn't have to do that.

But, there are other losses on my mind. One is the erosion of an African-American presence in our community, which I'm just really sorry to see. Another is the loss of a peaceful community of faith in our neighborhood. They had been here for fifty years! Now, they've just moved off, and it was hardly noted by anyone but the congregation themselves.

Another thing we lost is the specific type of life and activity the church brought to our neighborhood. Jane Jacobs, in her stunning insights about what makes city life rich, identified four elements that a vibrant neighborhood or city require.

Number one was this:

The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.

In other words, churches, which are a bustle of activity on Sunday mornings or at random times during the week for weddings and funerals, perform a necessary part of providing a mix of activities to our neighborhoods. When we lose a unique hive of activity in favor of more residences which offer a different pattern of activity, we water down the vibrancy of the area.

We lose afternoons of collective choir practice, the unexpected moments of a funeral passing by, the royal-colored Sundays. All the things that help keep a neighborhood interesting, lively, and, well, like a city.


Josh said...

Very interesting.

FYI: We are trying to make Black History Month bigger in Germany. Here we focus on Afro-German artists.

Jennifer said...


Thanks for stopping by. Your information on Afro-Germans was new to me. Thanks for sharing the link.


Joe said...

I used to walk past Pilgrim on my way to St. Michael's. Their church clothes put mine to shame. I appreciated the presence of this church and its parishoners much more than yet another bland condo building. A little more character has disappeared from this neighborhood.

I haven't lived in Chicago for a while but I stumbled upon your blog. Thanks for the entry, it brought back some memories.

Jennifer said...

Joe, thank you so much for taking the time to share your memories and comments.

I wrote that post because I just really wanted to remember that church. You never know if any one in the universe will care, too. And, I've long ago decided that's okay. But, it sure was nice of you to mention that you noticed the church and appreciated it, too.

Happy trails.