The historic Monumental Baptist Church, an “enduring fortress” in Bronzeville, is now a town landmark
OAKLAND — A century-plus historic church on the South Side, once known for its extravagant depictions of Handel’s “Messiah” in the 1960s, is officially a city landmark.
City Council granted historic status to the Monumental Baptist Church, 729 E. Oakwood Blvd., last week, paving the way for the 123-year-old building to secure $1.5 million in much-needed repairs.
Pastor Cleophus Lee hopes to repair the roof and ceiling of the sanctuary; restore the mural above the chancel; and installing an underfloor cooling system.
In March, Lee shared the church’s struggle to stay afloat, with its membership dropping from 800 to 30 by the time he joined in 2018. He was able to boost it to 70 before the pandemic hit. don’t bring it down again.
When the pandemic hit, he and other church leaders held virtual services to stay in touch with parishioners and provided onsite COVID-19 testing. The church also planned to extend its outreach to neighboring schools.
In its heyday, Monumental hosted one of the city’s most popular holiday spectacles, with its sold-out Handel “Messiah” concerts attracting visitors from across the country and a nod in Ebony/Jet Magazine . Congregation member and choirmaster Hortense Love started the tradition, with support from actor and baritone William Warfield, who starred in the 1951 musical “Showboat,” according to a city report.
The church was built between 1899 and 1901 by architects Patton, Fisher & Miller in the Romanesque Revival style, derived from medieval European architecture – mostly churches – of the 11th and 12th centuries, depending on the city. It cost $60,000 at the time. It is described as one of the best examples of a “central lantern church” in Chicago, a style inspired by HH Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston.
A historic designation report from the City Planning and Development Department describes the church as “a durable, fortress-like structure of brick and terracotta with a picturesque roofline. The design conveys the strength and longevity of religious institutions and their places of worship.
It was originally known as Memorial Baptist Church and linked to the University of Chicago. It was renamed Monumental Baptist Church when it was purchased in 1934 by a black Baptist congregation.
“During the Great Migration, African Americans brought with them a tradition of church attendance, and in Chicago, houses of worship became vital institutions of the African American community that were not just about worship. Monumental was no exception,” according to the city report.
“Guided by capable and energetic pastors, it has become one of the largest and most active African-American congregations in the city. In addition to spirituality, Monumental was a platform for social, intellectual, and political upliftment relevant to the daily lives of African Americans.
To learn more about the history of the Monumental Baptist Church, click here.
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