What kind of God allows a church to burn down on Good Friday?
That’s the question that came to mind when the 130-year-old Antioch Missionary Baptist Church at Stewart and 63rd Street went up in flames earlier this month, followed by a familiar answer: the same god that has allowed slavery, Holocaust, plague, war, and the whole human history of disaster.
Antioch’s pastor, the Reverend Gerald Dew, had a different, more positive take on it. Faced with an inferno, he saw opportunity.
On Easter Sunday, according to news reports, Dew told his flock (meeting in a nearby funeral home) that, just as Jesus rose from the dead, resurrection will be possible for Antioch Baptist. He vowed that the congregation will raise money to rebuild on the same Englewood site.
Turned out that this fire, like the one that took down Adler and Sullivan’s Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville in 2006 (and, possibly, the conflagration that engulfed Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2019), was caused by maintenance work. In this case, a roofer’s torch gone awry. The damage to Antioch’s imposing Romanesque building, designed by Bell & Swift for a previous Baptist congregation and home to the current one since 1958, was so severe that the city ordered that the massive structure be taken down immediately.
Not an easy task: the place was built for the ages. Anyone who happened by toward the end of last week isn’t likely to forget the sight of the roofless but still fortress-like shell, open to the elements.
The fire led me to tune in on Easter Sunday, when WTTW aired a one-hour documentary, Secrets of Sacred Architecture (still available for streaming with station membership). A primer on the design of religious institutions, mostly churches, it surveyed the origins and reasons for such staples as pointed arches, stained glass windows, towering steeples, organs, and gargoyles (and included this piece of trivia: when the Chicago Customs House and Post Office was to be razed in 1896, it was, essentially, dismantled and shipped to Milwaukee, where its stones were used to construct that city’s landmark Basilica of St. Josaphat).
A couple of Chicagoans are featured in the documentary: architect RaMona Westbrook, talking briefly about the Black history depicted in stained glass windows at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, and Illinois Tech College of Architecture dean Reed Kroloff, who notes, among many other things, that the idea of a single national church representing everyone—as in the Washington National Cathedral, a Gothic Revival masterpiece that took 83 years to complete—is an irony in a country founded on plural religious expression.
In an interview after the broadcast, Kroloff said the thing that sets religious architecture of any kind apart is that, “When done well, it’s a physical expression of our search for meaning.”
Kroloff, a relative newcomer to Chicago (he moved here in 2018), says we’re unusually blessed with religious buildings, “so many that are worth a visit.” I wondered which he thinks shouldn’t be missed; his off-the-cuff list included Bahá’í House of Worship, Unity Temple, First Church of Deliverance, Fourth Presbyterian, and the only one I hadn’t seen, the Church of the Holy Family on Roosevelt Road. I’ve seen it since we spoke: the second oldest Catholic church in Chicago and a survivor of the Great Fire, it’s a stunner that narrowly escaped demolition as recently as 1990.
Preservation Chicago’s 2022 list of the city’s seven “Most Endangered” buildings includes just one church, the former St. Martin du Tours (more recently Chicago Embassy Church). Perched just west of the Dan Ryan at 59th Street, it’s a delicate German Gothic completed in 1895 and closed for most of the last 30 years.
But in 2019 and 2021, alarmed by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s euphemistically titled “Renew My Church” program, Preservation Chicago included Roman Catholic churches throughout the city on the endangered list, spotlighting “the consolidation, deconsecrating, combining, closure and sale of many of our city’s finest religious structures.”
“These immensely beautiful structures were constructed at great cost, and often at significant sacrifice, with pennies, nickels, and dimes, by the faithful of the community. They are often the very cornerstones of our communities and neighborhoods . . . [and] are also community centers, providing everything from food pantries [and] shelter services to counseling and child care,” is what they wrote then.
“It’s heartbreaking,” to lose them, especially when they could be repurposed if necessary, Preservation Chicago executive director Ward Miller told me last week. Among the many he hopes can be saved: St. Michael the Archangel on South Shore Drive, where his great-grandparents were married in 1895, and the shuttered and much-mourned St. Adalbert in Pilsen, with its perilous, scaffolded—but not yet landmarked—twin towers.
At 63rd and Stewart last Friday, as a rainstorm pelted the remains of Antioch Missionary Baptist, a blown-out window offered a glimpse of the kind of miracle such grand-scale preservation might require. On a huge, drenched interior mural, Jesus was still rising above his disciples, floating up from the ruined church into an impossibly serene blue sky.