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Historic Church Burns
Photo: Tom Def
Mother Church of Gospel Music Burns

Pilgrim Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side was destroyed by fire on January 7, 2006. It is a heart-rending loss in the African American community and among lovers of gospel music. This where Thomas A. Dorsey was minister of music for more than six decades, starting in the 1920s. He was the first to combine Christian lyrics with blues and jazz and create what has come to be known as "gospel" music.

Mahalia Jackson was a member of this church, as were James Cleveland, Sallie Martin and many other well-known gospel singers. The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses started at this church. It is known among urban churches across America as the mother church of gospel music.

The first came late on a Friday afternoon, after roofers had left an unfinished project to be completed in the coming week. This was the final phase of a renovation program that has been underway over the last three years. It appears that something went wrong about the construction work and caused the fire.

The building was also an historic landmark to urban historians and neighborhood preservation activists. It was designed by Louis Sullivan, a famous American architect, in 1890 and originally constructed as a Jewish synagogue. Pilgrim Baptist Church bought the building in 1922.

The loss is mourned by gospel music lovers, urban preservationists and African American religious leaders. It is considered an incalcuable loss and points to the need for many historic churches in urban neighborhoods to be given adequate protection.

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By Monte Sahlin. Copyright © 2006 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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