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Fire at Antioch Church in Englewood eerily similar to Pilgrim Baptist fire

Easter weekend was an emotional time for members of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Englewood. A fire at the church rekindled memories of what happened to the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville 16 years ago.

Two hours after the church hosted a Good Friday service, a massive fire gutted the building at 6248 S. Stewart Ave. Approximately 184 firefighters with more than 50 pieces of equipment battled the blaze that destroyed the entire roof.

While members were preparing to hold Easter Sunday worship services at Callahan Funeral Home, firefighters made the second of three trips back to the church late Monday, April 18 after the fire reignited from the smoldering debris.

When the smoke cleared, the Chicago Fire Department learned that the accidental fire was caused by workers using a propane tank as they were repairing the roof. That explanation is eerily similar to the fire in 2006 that wiped out Pilgrim Baptist Church, known as “The birthplace of Gospel music.”

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Rev. Dr. Gerald M. Dew

An iconic masterpiece by renowned Architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, the Pilgrim Baptist Church building was an official Chicago Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke were among prominent gospel vocalists who sang at the church.

On a cold winter night, January 6, 2006, a fire ripped through the church, destroying the soaring 200 ft. ceiling, consuming historical records, artifacts, and boxes of sheet music from Thomas Dorsey, the church’s renowned music director known as the “Father of Gospel Music.”

The fire gutted the building, leaving Pilgrim Baptist Church a literal shell of itself with its walls standing on three sides. Huge braces were later installed to hold the walls on Indiana Avenue and 33rd Street. In 2019 a powerful storm blew the south wall down.

Like the fire at Pilgrim Baptist Church, the blaze at Antioch Baptist Church was caused by workers using a blowtorch as they were repairing the leaky roof. Workers were using the blowtorch to seal metal coping.

With a dwindling congregation and no insurance, Pilgrim Baptist Church had no money to pay for the millions of dollars to restore the landmark. In the church 2021, received a $216,960 grant to stabilize the walls. The grant was from Chicago’s Citywide Adopt-A-Landmark. Today, the building’s two remaining walls are still on braces, and restoration efforts have yet to begin 16 years after the devastating fire.

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Firefighters putting out the fire at Antioch Church in Englewood

Pilgrim’s congregation continues to meet across the street for Sunday worship services. In 2018, Don Jackson, founder of the Stellar Awards, announced plans to turn the site into the National Museum of Gospel Music.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. The fire destroyed much of the building, leaving its walls standing like those of Pilgrim Baptist Church. With little support, there are concerns that Antioch’s walls will eventually collapse. Homes and an apartment complex sit on the north and south sides of the building.

During a visit by a Crusader reporter on Easter Sunday, white smoke was still rising from the rubble. By late Monday, firefighters returned to the site when the fire reignited for the third time. On its Facebook page, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church said the latest blaze drew concerns for the adjacent education and fellowship hall buildings, which were spared by the fire.

According to its website, the church grew out of Salem Baptist Church in 1922 and started in Bronzeville in February 1925. The church moved several times over the next three decades and bought the present church building in Englewood from Foster Park Baptist Church for $200,000 in 1958. The church spent an additional $75,000 on renovations.

Antioch counted more than 4,500 members by the 1990s, according to the church website.

Reverend Dew took over as pastor in 2001 and launched a $450,000 renovation to overhaul the sanctuary, kitchen, banquet hall, chapel, restrooms, offices and its sound system and technology.

Hundreds packed the Callahan Funeral Home Sunday, where Antioch held its Easter worship service.

In his sermon, Reverend Dew said, “Today, we celebrate the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That Friday back then was an awful Friday. It was a dark Friday. It was a devastating Friday. Hearts were broken on that Friday. Tears flowed on that Friday. Hopes were dashed on that Friday.

“These are the emotions we are so familiar with because we’ve just experienced an awful Friday. But thank God for Resurrection Sunday. Amen, because on that Resurrection, the angel of the Lord descended, the earth quaked. The soldiers fell like dead men. The angel rolled the stone away. Jesus rose from the dead, folded the grave clothes, walked out of the tomb with all power in his hand. Somebody ought to celebrate today, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”

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Burned remains of Pilgrim Baptist Church

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