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Bronzeville, Near South Side

A Bronzeville Church Once Known For Its Handel Concerts May Soon Become A City Landmark

The 103-year-old church still has several steps to gain landmark status, but its leader, pastor Cleophus Lee, is optimistic.

Monumental Baptist Church was recently granted a preliminary landmark designation by the city.
Jamie Nesbitt Golden/ Block Club Chicago
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OAKLAND  —  Monumental Baptist Church is one step closer to receiving landmark status.

The 103-year-old church at 729 E. Oakwood Blvd. received a preliminary recommendation from the landmark commission earlier this month. The church will have to complete several steps before being recognized as as a landmark, but pastor Cleophus Lee said he is optimistic about its chances.

Church leaders hope landmark designation could help them raise money to rehab the building and protect it. The sanctuary ceiling needs repair, and the mural above the choir section needs to be restored. Lee also wants to install a cooling system under the floor and have work done on the roof.

The total cost of repairs would be close to $1.5 million, Lee said.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden
Work still needs to be done on the sanctuary, which had to be closed to parishioners for safety reasons.

The church was built in 1899 by Patton, Fisher and Miller, an architectural firm that designed dozens of institutions across the region, including the Illinois Institute of Technology. Its Romanesque Revival style — identifiable by its masonry construction, round arches and decorative plaque — was popular in the mid-19th century, especially for public buildings and residential mansions.

At its height, Monumental had more than 800 members walking through its doors each week and was known for its extravagant production of Handel’s “Messiah” every December. People from all over would pack the room, so much so that some were turned away, according to a December 1979 Ebony Magazine article.

Monumental’s membership dwindled over the years. When Lee joined in 2018, the church had 30 parishioners. He was able to grow it to 70 people before the pandemic caused it to drop again.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden
Built in Romanesque Revival style, the 103 year-old building has round, dramatic arches and masonry construction.

So the church pivoted. It livestreamed worship services, partnered with the Illinois Department of Public Health to provide COVID-19 testing and held clothing drives to help women-focused organizations. Plans to “adopt” a nearby elementary school to mentor kids are also in the works, Lee said. 

The faithful still come every Sunday, congregating in a multipurpose room off of the sanctuary. In time, the congregation will grow, Lee said.

“We’re resilient. Perserverant. Committed. Our approach is sharing he gospel and extending it with acts of service. For us, it’s real. It’s about living, not just talking,” Lee said.

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