Saving classic churches sends a message: Old Chicago neighborhoods remain promised lands
Given its architectural beauty and history of service to Chicago, the Pentecostal Church of Holiness should be a shoo-in for landmark status.
A North Lawndale church will take a step toward landmark status today — a potentially good sign in a larger fight to preserve Chicago’s classic church architecture.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks will vote whether to grant preliminary landmark designation to Pentecostal Church of Holiness, a 90-year-old Romanesque Revival-styled edifice at 4208 W. 15th St.
Given the church’s beauty and history, it should be a shoo-in. We applaud the move and hope a permanent designation ultimately is granted.
We also like that the church’s senior pastor, Chaun L. Johnson, took the initiative to get the designation rolling. The city usually doesn’t landmark religious structures without a congregation’s consent. Here, Johnson is consenting.
“There is beauty on the West Side and its landmarks,” Johnson said as he told us why he seeks a landmark designation for the church. “We want people to see [it’s] not a wasteland but a promised land. Our community needs to see something that’s beautiful.”
‘Critical time’ for houses of worship
Many religious congregations in Chicago are struggling with the stratospheric costs of maintaining, repairing and restoring elaborate buildings that are, often, at least a century old. This has put so many of these beautiful places at risk.
Right now, just 4 miles east of Pentecostal Church of Holiness, a demolition crew is razing the long-vacant and tattered 115-year-old former St. Stephenson Missionary Baptist Church, at 1319 S. Ashland Ave.
And on the Far South Side, the former St. James Temple, 11336 S. State St., was demolished in 2019 under an emergency order after residents reported loose bricks from the vacant building raining onto the street. The church was built in 1890.
We live in critical times for historic houses of worship.
Many congregations shy away from landmark status for fear the designation would mean increased building repair costs. But other congregations, such as Pentecostal Church of Holiness, have embraced the designation, seeing it as a way to draw attention to their rich history or striking architecture.
Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, an imposing 111-year-old Greek Revival beauty at 4600 S. King Dr., where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once spoke, was granted permanent landmark status in 2020. So was Blackwell-Israel Samuel A.M.E. Zion Church at 3956 S. Langley Ave., a Romanesque-Revival pile, built in 1886, that became prominent during Bronzeville’s 20th century heyday as a Black city-within-a-city.
Pentecostal Church of Holiness was built in 1931 as Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, closing in 2005 and reopening in 2015 under its current banner.
Our Lady of Lourdes became particularly socially active in North Lawndale in the 1960s. As the area shifted from a predominantly white community to a majority Black neighborhood, the church joined Lawndale Clergymen in Christian Action and worked to improve policing, housing code enforcement, job access and other issues.
“I want to dispel the myths about the poor,” the church’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Ryan Dempsey told the Chicago Defender at that time. “I want to root out poverty. I want justice for all men and women . . . not charity. I have a hunger and thirst for justice, and the Lord promised that it will be satisfied.”
Church ‘needs to be here’
A thumbs-up from the landmarks commission would protect Pentecostal Church of Holiness for a year while city staffers conduct further research to see if a permanent designation is warranted.
Johnson said the church needs “some necessary repairs,” and landmark status could help draw attention — and money — to assist with the building’s upkeep. But preserving the building, he said, also serves the church’s mission.
More churches around Chicago should follow Johnson’s lead. Keep up the fight and stay on mission.
“If we don’t take stock of some of the historic buildings in the community, it’ll become a wasteland,” he said. “Where are people going to get food, [or seek] housing,” he said. “This church needs to be here after we’re gone — to be a beacon in the community.”
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