Churches dot the Woodlawn like freckles and underlie it like foundations. Some of them are historically significant, some have architectural merit, and some stand out only for their typicality. This photo essay includes a little of each.
Founded in the second Fort Dearborn in 1833, First Presbyterian Church was a pioneer in the temperance and abolition movements in the mid-nineteenth century. The congregation had moved to its sixth and most lavish building when it was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1871. Several mergers and nearly six decades later, First Church moved into its present home at 6400 South Kimbark Avenue. Its membership grew in numbers and racial diversity throughout the ’40s, and in the late ’50s the church helped establish T.W.O., or The Woodlawn Organization, to fight the encroachment of the University of Chicago campus. Since then, First Church has housed organizations and efforts as diverse as the Blackstone Rangers, Head Start classes, a community garden, and today the Woodlawn Collaborative, which unites Woodlawn residents and UofC students in promoting arts, education, and community empowerment.
Organized in 1928 and located at 6614 South Blackstone Avenue since 1951, Original Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church has seen the Woodlawn community through many changes, gaining members as the neighborhood’s population swelled during the second Great Migration of African-Americans from the South. Many of the new congregants stuck with the church, and today it has many third- and fourth-generation members. Mount Pleasant also delivers weekly radio and TV broadcasts.
When Charles G. Hayes first organized the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer, it had a membership of seven and held services in a basement. As the congregation grew, it began sharing facilities with a church in Bronzeville, and moved five more times to locations including a former telephone building and Post Office before ending up in its present location at 842 East 65th Street in 1991. A pioneer in church broadcasting over FM radio, in 1960 Cosmopolitan organized a choir known as the Warriors, which has since recorded thirty albums, one of them certified Gold.
The Family Prayer Band Holiness C.O.G.I.C., located at 6533 South Cottage Grove Avenue, is one of the South Side’s many storefront churches. The first of these churches appeared around the turn of the 20th century when poor Northern blacks, many of whom had recently arrived from the rural South, set up religious congregations in defunct shops. Today storefront churches are increasingly diverse, no longer just black but also Hispanic and Asian-American, and farther south than Woodlawn there are a number of storefront mosques.
The church now occupied by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, located at 6401 South Woodlawn Avenue, was known as St. Gelasius when it suffered a devastating fire in 1976. The main body of the Renaissance Revival church, built in 1923, and the 120-foot-high bell tower survived with some damage, but the parish dwindled away and the Archdiocese of Chicago attempted to demolish the building in 2003. The historic structure was saved by local activists with the support of the alderman and Mayor, and the archdiocese handed it off to its current occupant, a group of priests previously based in Wisconsin who are still in the process of renovating the church. The Institute is also trying to make connections in the neighborhood, sponsoring events including a Baroque concert series on the third Sunday of every month.
The Apostolic Church of God at 6320 South Dorchester Avenue is one of America’s largest black megachurches. As of 2008, it had about 24,000 parishioners, according to Bishop Arthur Brazier, who built the church up from a 100-member congregation in 1960. His son Byron Brazier took over the pastorship last year. The Brazier family has been known to wield some clout in Chicago politics; Arthur Brazier was one of the founders of The Woodlawn Organization, a legendary community organization, and the Tribune reported last week that his daughter Janice Dortch appears to be helping Governor Pat Quinn keep opponents off the gubernatorial ballot.
Photos by Sam Bowman (except Apostolic Church of God, by Ellis Calvin)
Text by Sam Feldman and Robin Peterson