The collapsed south wall of the landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church after a storm in August 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

BRONZEVILLE — Plans to revive a historic Bronzeville church and transform it into a 45,000-square-foot epicenter for the history of gospel music got a major boost this week.

Leaders at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 3301 S. Indiana Ave., received $2.1 million in funding Thursday to restore the church’s historic grounds and build the long-awaited National Museum of Gospel Music. Sen. Mattie Hunter, who attended the church as a child, helped leaders secure the funding, according to the Sun-Times.

“We’re working on trying to find some more dollars down in Springfield. So I’m turning over couches and tables and chairs and rugs — and anything else that I can find,” Hunter told the Sun-Times.

The Pilgrim Baptist Church in its glory.

Pilgrim Baptist Church dates back to 1891. 

Originally built as a synagogue by famed architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, a baptist congregation acquired the building in 1922.

It became known as a birthplace for gospel thanks to longtime choir director, Thomas A. Dorsey, donned the “Father of Gospel Music” and the pen behind notable staples like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

In 1973, the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1981, it became a Chicago landmark.

But the building has been brought to brink of ruin in the last two decades.

A devastating fire swept through the church in 2006, destroying the infrastructure and leaving all but a limestone facade facing Indiana Avenue intact. Then a storm in summer 2020 crumbled the south wall of the historic church, leaving rubble in its tracks. 

The city approved a $216,000 grant in 2021 to help stabilize the building.

The south wall of the landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church collapsed in the storm that hit Chicago on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. Credit: Bob Chiarito/Block Club Chicago

Despite pitfalls, dreams of bringing a gospel music museum to the site of the former church have long been in the works.

Church leaders envision exhibits, an auditorium, video archives, a cafe, retail, rental spaces, and a listening research library inside the museum, according to the website.

In 2020, Cynthia Jones, chairman of the church’s board of trustees, said the museum was scheduled to open sometime in 2022. Then the pandemic hit, delaying progress. 

Financing also has been an uphill battle.

Project organizers told the Sun-Times the first phase of building the museum will cost around $10 million, which will cover repairing exterior walls and adding a roof. The state grant brings organizers closer to realizing their goals.

Congressman Bobby Rush also has requested $500,000 from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations to support the establishment of the museum.

“The National Museum of Gospel Music seeks to create a permanent presence to inspire people of all ages to learn about the rich history and impact of gospel music and its contributions to the foundation of American music culture through exhibitions and programs,” Rush said in his proposal.

An opening date has yet to be determined, organizers told the Sun-Times. For now, collecting artifacts and hiring staff are at the top of the list. 

You can donate to support the National Museum of Gospel Music here.

Help Block Club Get
500 More Subscribers!

Subscribe to Block Club now and you’ll get a free 16-by-20-inch Chicago neighborhood print of your choice, helping us reach our goal of getting 500 more subscribers before 2024. Click here to subscribe or click here to gift a subscription.

Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast:

Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis