On a recent autumn morning, Deacon Alfonzo Carrington of the Pilgrim Baptist Church and his congregants finished Sunday school and headed downstairs to prepare for service.
Carrington stopped and gazed out the window. “You never know what you have until you lose it,” he said.
A devastating fire destroyed the church in 2006 after roofers accidentally set it on fire and then fled. No one called 911 until the fire too advanced to extinguish.
Now the building on the corner of 33rd Street and South Indiana Avenue in Bronzeville is considered an eyesore. The church is surrounded by steel support beams, stones and bracing bricks.
“We want to preserve the history and by keeping the stones and bricks standing it’s considered a city landmark status,” Carrington said.
The fire was caused by a rehab project that went wrong.
During a church service on Jan. 6, 2006, construction workers used a propane torch for roof repairs and started a blaze. A deacon started smelling smoke and went to see what was going on. The workers quickly got in their cars and left the scene before the roof fell in.
Bonneville’s Pilgrim Baptist Church was designed and built in 1890 by architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. The 10,500-square-foot building was originally a Jewish synagogue but became Pilgrim Baptist church in the 1930s, where Thomas A. Dorsey blended jazz and blues with religious music to create modern gospel music, making it a destination not only for parishioners, but tourists as well.
“There is a lot of history not within Pilgrim Baptist church but for gospel music,” Carrington said.
Joi Pearson, 100, has been a member of the church for 89 years. She recalls being in Bible study when the fire started.
“All I could remember is the deacon jumping off the organ telling people to exit the building because the roof was on fire. I was frightened and couldn’t believe this was happening,” Pearson said.
“They started that fire and didn’t even tell us what was going on. It was really something to see,” Carrington said.
Two years after the fire, architects hired by the Bronzeville church’s board of trustees revealed plans for a $37 million rebuilding project that would include social services and a cultural center.
“We would love to rebuild, but we don’t have $30 million to rebuild,” Carrington said.
Members have raised nearly $250,000 in private donations for the restoration and the Pritzker Family Foundation promised a $500,000 grant.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich promised $1 million in state money but true to form, he never put the promise in writing and the church never saw any of the money.
Members did not want their church to be torn down, so many of them donated money to the building project but they were not seeing progress and eventually demanded their money back.
Joyce Smith, a member of The Gap Community Organization, joined Pilgrim Baptist five years ago but has since left the church because there was no progress on the reconstruction.
“What are they doing with the money I have donated?” Smith asked.
Neighbors and members petitioned Ald.Pat Dowell (3rd) to tear down the building because it takes over the sidewalk and forces pedestrians to walk out in the street, which can be hazardous in heavy traffic.
“Especially in wintertime, when it gets dark very early, it’s scary. It’s very scary,” Smith said. “It’s just not safe.”
Local neighbor Darnell Coleman echoed those sentiments.
“I understand the building has been earmarked a city landmark but presently it’s not aesthetically appealing and should be considered for demolition,” Coleman said.
Noting the petition had gained 450 signatures, Dowell confirmed the church would not be rebuilt, but she said the walls will remain because they are a city landmark.
Architectural preservationists said the only remaining option might be to turn the surviving walls into a park.
“We are looking into preserving the walls and making a park on the inside but we need funders to figure out what we are going to do,” Carrington said.
“I think building a park in this neighborhood for our children and senior citizens would be a great start to turn this community around,” said Darlene Brown, choir president.
Across the street is a two-story storefront church where the congregation meets. The members have dwindled to about 50 people and most are elderly. Sunday school sessions are from 9:30 a.m. until 10:45 a.m. and afterwards the morning service continues from 10:45 a.m. until 1 p.m.
Current member Willie Granderson was raised in the church and said he doesn’t care what they decide to do with the building because he cares more about the service and congregation.
“As long as we stay together as a family we don’t need that building. We make the church wherever we go,” Granderson said.
“The building is not the church. The people are the church, “ Carrington vowed.
“We are still here and doing fine.”