After 121 Years, Chicago’s Historic Hermon Baptist Church Moves to a New Location, Making Way for a Dance Company

Pastor Keith Edwards speaks about the history of the shuttered Hermon Baptist Church in Lincoln Park on March 19, 2018. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
Pastor Keith Edwards speaks about the history of the shuttered Hermon Baptist Church in Lincoln Park on March 19, 2018. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

For years I walked past Hermon Baptist Church on North Clark Street and wondered how it managed to hang on.

In the past two decades, as Lincoln Park grew whiter and wealthier, as limestone mansions rose on land once occupied by weathered frame houses and brick bungalows, other African-American churches had vanished without a trace.

There was a church on Willow Street, razed to make way for a massive residential building.

A church on Armitage Avenue was replaced by a giant Walgreens.

I can’t pinpoint exactly where the old storefront church on North Clybourn Avenue was, but I do know that it disappeared as the previously run-down street evolved into a shopping extravaganza.

And yet on Sundays, the faithful still flocked to Hermon, a brick building that seemed smaller than it really was because of the condos that towered around it.

The older women wore fine hats. The men wore good suits, some with a neat kerchief poked into a breast pocket. They were a contrast to the young people in workout clothes who bustled in and out of the Equinox Fitness Club next door.

This month, that ritual ended.

On a recent Sunday, Hermon Baptist, known as the oldest African-American church on the North Side, held its final Communion and its last baptism then posted a message on the marquee out front:

“GOOD BYE AFTER 121 YEARS OF SERVICE!”

“The people are the church,” the Rev. Keith Edwards said a few days later, looking around the empty sanctuary, an old room with high ceilings, simple stained-glass windows and red-covered wooden pews. “This is just a building.”

But Edwards knows that some buildings are more than just buildings, they’re repositories of history, and Hermon is one.

As the story goes, the church was founded in the late 1800s by 13 African-Americans who did domestic work on the wealthy Gold Coast. On Sundays they would walk for miles to attend church at Olivet Baptist or Greater Bethesda on the South Side. It was often a two-day trip.

With the founding of Hermon, they could pray closer to their jobs.

The original 13 were singers, and a century later, the church’s choir still made good music on Sunday, good enough, Edwards said, that tourists from places like France, Italy and Germany sometimes exited their buses and climbed to the balcony to listen.

But by the time he arrived as music director in 2001, six years before he became pastor, the neighborhood was changing.

The nearby Cabrini-Green housing project was being demolished. Many black people had moved away. The congregation’s members had roots in the neighborhood but now drove in from far-flung places.

When parking meters were installed out front, churchgoers had to leave in the middle of Sunday service or weekday choir rehearsal to feed the meters — if they could find one. The parking spots were often filled by people who came to play at the nearby lakefront, park or zoo.

“In order to be a member of Hermon Baptist Church, you had to want to come,” Edwards said. “The die-hards would come. If they couldn’t park one Sunday, they would come back the next.”