A Church With a Heart
Pastor Makes Preservation His Life's Work
By Jennifer Farwell | Online Only | Feb. 22, 2010
For Pastor James M. Moody, Sr., and his wife, Corliss, restoring Quinn Chapel AME Church—both the sanctuary and its place as the cornerstone of a community—is more than a job; it's a calling. "God has given me a ministry of restoration," Moody says.
Often called Chicago's African-American "Mother Church," Quinn is home to the city's oldest African American congregation (c. 1844). The structure is a magnificent 1891 Romanesque and Victorian Gothic building designed by noted African American architect Henry F. Starbuck. (The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the original church.) Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have spoken from its pulpit.
The Moodys came to Quinn after serving at other churches that needed restoration—though none as critically as Quinn. Moody's first challenge was Saint Johns AME church in Burlington, Iowa. Established by escaped slaves in 1862, the 1930s-era structure was in dire need of a roof and other repairs when he assumed the pulpit in 1996. Moody, with the help of the Southeast Iowa Builders' Association, hired African American men "who had been in trouble" to work on the restoration, he says. In doing so, he helped rehabilitate both an important physical structure and the lives of local residents.
His next assignment was the century-old Bethel AME in Des Moines. The congregation recovered from a disastrous flood and rehabilitated the entire sanctuary, even reframing the original wooden windows. During that project, Bishop Phililp Cousins called. "He said, 'There is a church in Chicago, the building is in disrepair, the neighborhood is one of the worst in the city, the people have all left the congregation, the church is in debt, and we haven't been able to help them,'" Moody remembers. "I said, 'Are you asking me to go to this church?' And he said yes. When we got there [in 2002], it was exactly as the bishop described it. We looked around at the peeling paint and everything it needed, and we realized we were right where we needed to be."
During their eight years at Quinn, the Moodys have led the National Register-listed church through $1.7 million in repairs and expanded its congregation from 45 to 350. Even more amazing, says Moody, is that his tiny, original congregation became a valuable resource, with knowledgeable members providing technical and other expertise. In addition, $110,000 of the restoration effort has been funded directly from the collection plate. "Everything we needed was already in the pews," Moody says.
How To Raise $7.5 Million
Thanks to the Moodys, substantial sums of money have flowed into Quinn's coffers. The Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Quinn a grant of $245,000 for the first phase of its restoration. Another Quinn partner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, helped them win a Partners in Preservation grant from American Express, which awarded $100,000 for kitchen renovations in 2007. To meet restoration expenses, every component of the effort became a potential source of line-item funding. For example, when Quinn Chapel needed to update its ADA compliance with a wheelchair ramp, it looked to, and received $25,000 in funding from, the Retirement Research Foundation.
Quinn also garnered substantial assistance from Partners for Sacred Places, which works to empower houses of worship to save their historic structures and congregations. With help from Landmarks Illinois, Partners for Sacred Places brought its New Dollars/New Partners for Your Sacred Place effort to Chicago in 2006. Today, Corliss Moody is on the board of Partners in for Sacred Places. "By [the Moodys'] investment in time and resources in Partners for Sacred Places, they are showing they believe in the significant role that historic places of worship play in neighborhoods and stabilization," DiChiera says.
Pastor Moody and Corliss are "keepers of the most important African-American church in the city of Chicago," Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois, which helped upgrade Quinn's landmark status so it would be eligible to apply for federal grants like Save America's Treasures. "It is not about their church and their teachings, but it is Quinn Chapel—the building itself—that has a very important story to tell. They have been able to broaden their support to include people who understand the significance of Quinn Chapel as a place."
When considering his role in revitalizing Quinn Chapel, Moody says community support and succor are far more important in sacred places than in those that are privately or publicly owned. "In a [threatened] church, there first has to be restoration of the relationship of the people with the church, and the restoration of the church to the community around them. The last restoration to happen is the restoration of the physical facilities."
Quinn's revitalization has also been a significant boon to the neighborhood. When the Moodys relocated eight years ago their first concerns were "taking back the [area] from drug dealers and the pimps," Pastor Moody says. Today, local youth ministries and other outreach programs have engaged scores of nearby residents, and Moody's efforts have expanded the scope of Quinn's influence. "When people hear about Quinn winning an award from the City of Chicago for the restoration of the building, they want to be part of it," he says. "People tell me, 'I am here because I am a history person. I heard about Quinn and the restoration happening here.'" That success in turn fuels further restoration efforts, he notes, saying, "One hand is washing the other."
The $7.5 million restoration—and Moody's work—is not over. His current goal is to complete all the service work, including the bathrooms (which he says "are a determining factor in which church people will attend") by year's end. The 1,200-capacity sanctuary—which houses the largest tin ceiling in the Midwest—is the biggest project, estimated to cost $1.2 million, and will be the final piece of the five-phase restoration.
"We have sealed off the envelope, and that is great," Moody says. But the sanctuary beckons. "Imagine what it must have looked like; the tin ceiling with no paint, and all the gas lights everywhere. That is going to be a big restoration. We don't have a schedule, but we are working on the money."
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.