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Archive for Saturday, April 2, 2005

Historic Chicago church seeks new members

April 2, 2005

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— Around the neighborhood on South Michigan Avenue, glib banners tout new condominiums and town houses for sale. By contrast, the sign gracing the front steps of the Second Presbyterian Church, inviting all to a pancake breakfast, is small, discreet and welcoming -- a bit like the efforts to revive the historic church's congregation.

At the turn of the 20th century, the ornate sanctuary was crowded on Sundays with the likes of railcar magnate George Pullman, grain merchant George Armour and department store owner Marshall Field. But the congregation dwindled as the neighborhood turned heavily industrial in the 1920s and families moved away.

Now, after many sleepy decades, the congregation of about 150 hopes that the surrounding urban renaissance will help restore Second Presbyterian to its former glory.

Thousands of people are moving into newly constructed town houses and high-rise apartment buildings that are transforming the neighborhood flanking Chicago's museum campus. But it's still been a challenge for the church to reach out to new neighbors when they're cloistered behind doormen and locked iron gates.

"Presbyterians are not the best evangelists in the world," quipped the Rev. M. Coleman Gilchrist. Still, Gilchrist got the effort off the ground by obtaining a list of new arrivals and establishing a "phone-bank ministry."

"There was some fear and trembling, but I got a group together to make the calls," he said.

In 3,000 phone calls, 175 families expressed interest in attending a service for newcomers. Only 17 families showed up, yet Gilchrist considered it a triumph. He said it encouraged other outreach activities -- the mailing of 6,000 brochures is next.

When the neo-Gothic church was built in 1874, Chicago's elite was moving to the neighborhood south of the Loop business district and along the Illinois Central main line. Men like Armour, Field and Pullman built giant mansions in a game of one-upmanship. And they didn't skimp when it came to financing the reconstruction of Second Presbyterian after fire gutted the sanctuary in 1900.

They hired Howard Van Doren Shaw, a leading architect, and muralist-sculptor Frederic Clay Bartlett to design the new sanctuary. They installed at least 14 Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass windows, an Italian limestone baptismal font, murals by Bartlett, windows made in the workshop of English decorator William Morris and about 175 sculptured representations of angels.

The Rev. Coleman Gilchrist sits in a pew inside the Second
Presbyterian Church in Chicago. In the midst of an urban revival,
the historic church is reaching out for new members.

The Rev. Coleman Gilchrist sits in a pew inside the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago. In the midst of an urban revival, the historic church is reaching out for new members.

For donations, families were given reserved pews. A seating chart from the era, hidden behind a small door at the rear of the church, shows the Pullmans sat behind the family of Timothy Blackstone, a president of the Chicago and Alton Railroad, and across the aisle from the Armours.

By the 1920s, however, the wealthy congregants were moving to the North Side or suburbs, and fewer people worshipped in the 1,300-seat sanctuary. The neighborhood slid into decay.

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