Gospel Fans Mourn Loss of Historic Chicago Church

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) From her 16th-floor Chicago apartment more than a dozen blocks away, gospel singer Albertina Walker watched the historic church burn.

Walker knew that as Pilgrim Baptist Church went up in flames Friday (Jan. 6), so did a landmark where the late Thomas A. Dorsey created the music now known as traditional black gospel.

Walker, 76, a Grammy Award winner who performed at Pilgrim Baptist with such greats as James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar, called the church “the backbone” of gospel music.

Music experts and archivists from across they country are saddened by the loss. The place where Dorsey and other gospel artists performed to standing-room-only crowds is gone. Even as church leaders vow to rebuild for the future, Chicagoans and people across the country are remembering its past.

“The destruction of an historical site causes irretrievable loss, and your site was the home of gospel music,” wrote Chicago Historical Society President Gary T. Johnson in a letter of condolence to Pilgrim’s pastor. “Your building was one of the most important in the city.”

The Chicago Fire Department determined that the fire was caused by a torch or torches used by crews repairing the church roof, said department spokesman Larry Langford. He said arson investigators found no criminal intent in the starting of the blaze.

“I’m told they may have had some original sheet music but they’re still trying to get in to see what may or may not have been damaged,” Langford said, adding that some items may have been salvaged if they were in a safe. “Everything else in that building appears to be burned … just destroyed. If you look at it from the air, all you see is the walls.”

It was inside those walls, starting in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that Dorsey changed Christian music forever.

“He’s the one who gave it that down-home, bluesy traditional feel,” said Bil Carpenter, author of the 2005 book, “Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia.”

His revolutionary music shook up black Baptist churches, whose middle-class members frowned on the musical style.

“When he went into Pilgrim Baptist Church with these new sounds, it was upsetting to a lot of people but a lot of people liked it,” Carpenter said.

In Pilgrim’s heyday, Dorsey attracted singer Mahalia Jackson, founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses and started a publishing house to distribute black gospel music.

“I know he sold his music there,” said Sherry DuPree, archivist for the Detroit-based International Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Five cents for sheet music.”

Glenn Broadhead, director of technical communication at the Illinois Institute of Technology, joined a crowd of congregants, friends and politicians who stood a block away as the building burned. A few years ago, he had helped the church box up some of its range of musical materials, which included classical music and anthems in addition to gospel. But the materials remained in the building, which was a synagogue before it was a church.

“We’ve lost all of the announcements and concert notes and program notes and stuff like that that would help us get a full understanding of the full range of musical offerings at that church,” he said, noting that meticulous notes of Sunday school attendance dating to the church’s opening in 1922 had been kept there.

“It’s not as if every record of Dorsey went up in smoke, but it’s certainly the case that some important stuff may have gone up.”

Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, named Pilgrim among its “Ten Sacred Places to Save in 2001.” At the time, it had a leaking roof and needed $2.8 million in repairs.

Bobby Jones, host of a long-running gospel program on Black Entertainment Television, said he hopes to open an educational center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that will foster the preservation of gospel music history.

“I was going to try to get a collection from there,” Jones said of Pilgrim. “That was a convening place for gospel music in its early development.”

Already, those who know the significance of the church building are planning ways to maintain its history. Jones said he hopes to get some materials from church members to include in his proposed complex. Broadhead, whose Illinois Institute of Technology is a block away from the church site, said a committee has already formed on his campus to find ways to collaborate and “tap into people’s memories” of the building.

Shortly after the fire, Johnson of the Chicago Historical Society created a tribute Web site (accessible through http://www.chicagohs.org) in honor of the congregation. It features photos Johnson took a month before the fire. He offered to provide a large print of his photo of a cherished portrait of Dorsey that had been displayed in the church.

In his letter to the pastor, Johnson said he hoped the congregation would draw comfort from the words of Dorsey’s famous gospel composition, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”: “Precious Lord take may hand, lead me on, let me stand … Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”


Editors: To obtain photos of Pilgrim Baptist Church before and after the fire, as well as Thomas A. Dorsey, go to the RNS Web site at http://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

Also, http://www.chicagohs.org is cq and so is Bil in 9th graf.

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