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Clip: Pilgrim Baptist Church, Chicago gospel landmark, burns down

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  • Carl Z.
    HISTORY LEFT IN RUINS Gospel music loses its
    Message 1 of 2 , Jan 8, 2006

      Gospel music loses its storied birthplace

      By Howard Reich, Tribune arts critic. Tribune staff reporter Gerry
      Doyle contributed to this report
      Published January 8, 2006

      Precious few spots on Earth can be called the birthplace of an entire art form.

      Pilgrim Baptist Church, which burned down Friday afternoon, was one of them.

      In this sacred space--on the South Side of Chicago, at 33rd Street and
      Indiana Avenue--a former blues musician who turned to God invented a
      sound that would enrapture listeners around the world and baptized it
      "gospel music."

      In this massive edifice, gospel visionary Thomas A. Dorsey trained
      generations of singers, starting with the greatest one of all, Mahalia
      Jackson. A galaxy of gospel stars earned their fame at Pilgrim
      Baptist, among them James Cleveland, the Edwin Hawkins Singers,
      Albertina Walker and the Barrett Sisters.

      The fire that broke out at 3 p.m. Friday, possibly while workers were
      making repairs on the roof, according to fire officials, destroyed
      ground zero for an art form indelibly associated with Chicago.

      "It's like a death to the community," said Rev. B. Herbert Martin, of
      Progressive Baptist Church, who has preached at Pilgrim Baptist.

      "We've lost something very great that was a part of our [gospel]
      establishment," said Pam Morris, producer of the Chicago Gospel
      Festival and a gospel broadcaster.

      "All of it is gone. It's gone. We don't have that platform to sing anymore."

      Cultural tourists from several continents routinely made pilgrimages
      to Pilgrim Baptist to behold the place where a rousing, life-affirming
      music first came into its own. Celebrated in feature films such as
      "The Blues Brothers" and in documentaries such as "Say Amen,
      Somebody," gospel has been as deeply stitched into the fabric of the
      South Side as jazz and blues, if not more so.

      The origins of jazz can be traced to 19th Century New Orleans and
      scholars believe that elements of blues have echoed through African
      music since antiquity, but one man and one church are widely
      considered the progenitors of modern gospel music.

      `It had that beat'

      Dorsey may have seemed an unlikely founder of a spiritual art form,
      having made his living touring saloons and honky-tonks as a piano
      player for blues queen Ma Rainey, when he traveled under the name
      Georgia Tom.

      But after attending the National Baptist Convention in Chicago in
      1921, he became intrigued with the gusto of religious music. Even so,
      he rebelled against its foursquare rhythms.

      "I wanted to get the feeling and the moans and the blues into the
      songs," he once told the Tribune.

      "Before that, they would sing `Spiri-tu-al-fellow-ship-of-the-Jor-dan
      land.' Jubilee songs. Wasn't nothing to them.

      "But then I turned those blues moans on, modified some of the stuff
      from way back in the jazz era, bashed it up and smoothed it in. It had
      that beat, that rhythm. And people were wild about it."

      Not everyone. The elders at the South Side churches where Dorsey
      attempted to bring this music vigorously rejected it, calling it
      blasphemous, Dorsey often recalled.

      The setback gave him pause, and he didn't wholly commit himself to the
      music--and find a home for it in Pilgrim Baptist--until he lost his
      wife during childbirth and their baby a couple of days later, in 1932.

      "I had my life's hope in the baby," Dorsey once said. "I lost quite a
      bit of trust. I lost a lot of confidence in the Lord or somebody. It
      was quite a while before I could get myself together.

      "And when I got myself together, then I became more prolific in
      writing than ever before," added Dorsey, son of a Baptist minister and
      grandson of a slave.

      "After the baby died, that's where I got `Precious Lord,'" Dorsey
      said, referring to perhaps the most beloved gospel song of all,
      Dorsey's magisterial "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

      Recognizing a genius

      Pilgrim Baptist's famous pastor, the brilliant orator Rev. J.C.
      Austin, instantly saw the genius of Dorsey's work, as well as its
      potentially galvanizing effects on a congregation, and welcomed him.

      Before long, Pilgrim Baptist--doubly blessed with Austin's fiery
      sermons and Dorsey's blues-laced gospel music--became a focal point
      for black life in Bronzeville.

      "On Sunday, there were people standing alongside the walls,"
      centenarian parishioner Mary Lewis told the Tribune in 1998. "All the
      seats upstairs were filled, and they put chairs down in the aisles.

      "If you weren't in church by 10 o'clock in the morning [for the 11
      a.m. service], you wouldn't get a seat."

      In effect, Pilgrim Baptist emerged as a spiritual home for waves of
      African-Americans pouring into Chicago from the South during the Great
      Migration before, during and after World War II.

      But the church also became the base from which Dorsey popularized
      gospel music. It was at Pilgrim Baptist that he trained singers to
      perform his gospel tunes, including such enduring works as "When I've
      Done My Best," "Search Me, Lord" and "There'll Be Peace in the

      The increasing popularity of his songs, which in some quarters became
      known simply as "Dorseys," attracted to Pilgrim Baptist new
      generations of future stars, including Sallie Martin, Roberta Martin
      (no relation) and Clara Ward.

      This music hardly could have been performed in a more felicitous
      setting, the horseshoe-shaped, wraparound balcony bringing choir and
      congregation unusually close to each other for a sanctuary capable of
      seating thousands.

      End of an era

      The decline of the neighborhood when middle-class blacks and whites
      began to leave in the 1960s did not augur well for the church, and the
      death of Austin in 1968 and the retirement of Dorsey in the 1980s
      brought an era to a close.

      The church rarely was crowded anymore, though the place briefly teemed
      with life once again for Dorsey's funeral service in 1993; he died at

      Now, the building in which Dorsey birthed an art form is gone as well.

      A place such as Pilgrim Baptist, Pastor Martin said, serves as "the
      spiritual nursery for the community and neighborhood.

      "Historically and culturally, it's going to be a tremendous loss."
    • Carl Z.
      An update from the AP on rebuilding efforts.
      Message 2 of 2 , Jan 10, 2006
        An update from the AP on rebuilding efforts.


        Money flowing in to rebuild landmark church destroyed by fire

        The Associated Press
        Published January 10, 2006, 11:46 AM CST

        CHICAGO -- Money is flowing in to rebuild a 115-year-old church just
        days after a fire left it a charred shell, with other churches holding
        collections, Gov. Rod Blagojevich promising state funds and a
        prominent Chicago family vowing to match donations.

        Blagojevich on Monday night pledged $1 million from the state's
        capital fund to help rebuild the landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church. He
        also donated $1,000 of his own money.

        ``This investment is much bigger than just rebuilding a church,'' the
        governor told reporters in Chicago, citing the rich history of the
        church considered the birthplace of gospel music.

        The Pritzker Family Foundation also announced Tuesday it would match
        private donations up to $500,000 to help rebuild the church and
        restore its artifacts.

        Authorities said Monday that torches used by workers putting final
        touches on a new church roof sparked the blaze. Police do not believe
        criminal action contributed to the start of the fire, fire department
        spokesman Larry Langford said.

        The church, designed in the late 1800s by the famous architectural
        firm headed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, had been in the midst
        of a renovation project. An elevator was being installed, and roofers
        were adding copper gutters Friday, said Robert Vaughn, chairman of the
        church's trustees.

        A donation fund was set up at the Amalgamated Bank of Chicago, and
        churches across the city held special collections for the rebuilding
        effort during Sunday services, Vaughn said.

        Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson said Pilgrim, originally
        built as a synagogue where Adler's father was the head rabbi, had
        ``many layers of history,'' much of which was forever lost in the

        ``It was one of the most influential black congregations of Chicago in
        the 1920s and beyond,'' he said. ``It was the creative incubator for
        modern gospel music. ... There are so many layers to this tragedy it's
        hard to even describe them or put in any kind of order of

        Many of the lost artifacts belonged to Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of
        gospel music. He was Pilgrim's music director from 1932 until the late
        1970s, and his all-time greatest hit, ``Take My Hand, Precious Lord,''
        was popularized by the late Mahalia Jackson and became the favorite
        song of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

        Sheet music crafted by Dorsey and colorful robes he wore were stored
        in the church's choir room. Also destroyed were photographs; cassette
        tapes and videotapes documenting church celebrations; large religious
        murals; and a gallery of portraits that included past ministers and

        Illinois Institute of Technology associate professor Glenn Broadhead,
        whose students had been working on several projects with the Pilgrim
        congregation, said one of the greatest losses was a meticulous
        record-keeping book that since the 1920s tracked the church's growth
        and decline in membership.

        Pilgrim had 10,000 members at the height of its popularity in the
        1940s. The congregation numbered a few hundred at the time of the
        fire, church officials said.

        With the church building gone and many artifacts lost forever,
        Broadhead has requested an emergency IIT course this spring to get
        students to help interview longtime Pilgrim members.

        ``Everyone is feeling the pain, and this may be the time to see what
        we can do to collect what we have left,'' he said.

        But for one of Pilgrim's past ministers, the increased attention on
        the church is bittersweet.

        During the Rev. Hycel B. Taylor's four years at Pilgrim beginning in
        2001, he tried to raise money to renovate the ailing church, which was
        designated a Chicago landmark in 1981.

        One of his goals was to create a museum honoring the church and
        Dorsey. But he left before he could raise the funds and move the
        artifacts to a church community center across the street.

        Now, the would-be museum's collection is gone.

        ``The great tragedy is, in my fourth year there, I tried to raise the
        money to preserve the church,'' Taylor said. ``And a fire destroys it,
        and now everyone wants to donate.''

        Taylor hopes other churches take heed and begin preserving their past
        before it's too late.

        ``Let us not wait until they burn to the ground in this dramatic
        way,'' he said. ``Otherwise our history will be left to the memory.''
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