Brief History of Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church

In March of 1897, a committee of the session of the Second Presbyterian Church recommended the construction of a building near 59th and Indiana for a new mission. Money for the mission was provided by the John Crerar Foundation of Second Presbyterian Church, thus the building was named Crerar Chapel. Two years later, the original building was enlarged. On April 5, 1908, a new, larger building was dedicated. This new building was constructed on the corner of 57th and Prairie Avenue to house the officially organized congregation to be known as Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church.

After two decades in its new building, the leaders of Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church had to face a change in the racial composition of its community. Because Chicago’s 1921 race riots had completely divided Blacks and whites, most church congregations elected to sell their property and move rather than accept as members, Christians of another color. When Blacks moved into the 57th and Prairie area, Crerar elected to disband. On April 10, 1928, Crerar’s property was entrusted with the Church Extension Board with the understanding that the proceeds would be used to establish a new Crerar Church in Chatham Fields. Later in 1928, the property was sold to the Congregational Missionary Society.

Although the church was officially disbanded, a few members sought to maintain the continuity of the congregation by conducting Sunday School in the Ruggles School at 78th and Indiana. This group later moved its operation to a vacant store in the 7900 block of King Drive (then South Parkway). Their efforts were rewarded when, on December 1, 1928, Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church was reestablished with 46 charter members. The Crerar Church officials purchased the property at 81st and Calumet in March of 1929 and began construction of the first phase of their building plan, Fellowship Hall. The building, designed to serve as the eventful education unit, was dedicated on April 20, 1930. Initially, the new structure provided space for Sunday School, worship services, bazaars, stage productions, the church office and all other activities. A kitchen was located where the church office is now and the minister’s office was a small room in the tower. It became clear that as versatile as the building was, it could not accommodate a growing congregation.

The struggle to maintain Crerar was far from over. During the Great Depression, the congregation was faced with a $36,000 debt and possible foreclosure. The judge handling the case eventually appointed an officer of Crerar as receiver for the property enabling the church to continue.

Plans for Crerar always envisioned two buildings: one for religious education and the second one to house the sanctuary. In 1944, the mortgage on the first building was paid. In 1947, when membership exceeded one thousand, the congregation began the task of constructing a sanctuary.

As Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church entered the 1950s, the congregation was compelled to confront its most serious challenge. Blacks were moving into Chatham. When faced with changing demographics in 1928, the church elected to  disband. But, this time, in the 1950s, the Session authorized its minister, Reverend Warren Studer, to follow established procedures should Blacks apply for church membership. As a result of this action, Blacks were actively recruited. Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church had made a commitment to remain in Chatham and become active in the racial integration
of the community.

Crerar’s commitment to racial integration was affirmed through the actions of its new minister Reverend William Watkins. When Reverend Watkins came to the church in September of 1960, he brought a willingness to participate in activities which promoted key interests of Crerar’s Black members. Specifically, in 1962 the minister took part in the Albany Movement. In 1963, the church provided space for a Freedom School for children boycotting the Chicago Public Schools and support was provided for demonstrations against the Chicago Real Estate Board and the Board of Education to protest policies which perpetuated segregation in housing.

The continuing change in the racial composition of Crerar’s membership brought concomitant changes in the church and its stewardship. Although membership decreased by approximately 300, there was an increase in expenditures for local and general mission activities. The allocation of additional dollars for mission activities reconfirmed the church’s commitment to its announced mission: to carry out its Christian work within a pluralistic community by earnestly striving to eliminate de facto segregation and working toward establishing a more equitable society. Despite concerted efforts to maintain an interracial, inclusive congregation, the membership of Crerar Church became predominantly Black during the 1960s. On May 21, 1967, Reverend Clarence E. Lennon was installed as the new minister.

With the divisiveness and dissension of the 1960s behind them, the members of Crerar Church coalesced and focused upon creating a Christian environment in which the lives of the parishioners could be nurtured and enriched. The prime concerns were the quality of human interaction and adequacy of the buildings to facilitate improved fellowship. To that end, the church leaders, in consultation with the congregation, moved to improve the tenor and tone of the worship services and align its music ministry with the current membership.

With the installation of Reverend Clarence E. Lennon, Crerar Church began its longest era of operation under the leadership of one minister. Twenty-two years of continuity fostered the growth and development of a new Crerar Church. While Crerar is indeed a Presbyterian church, its ministry uniquely reflects the aspirations and culture of its congregation. Feedback from the membership made it clear that there was a need to make changes in the operation of Crerar Church to reflect the interest of its predominantly Black congregation. Artifacts of change included a locally compiled supplemental hymnal and banners in the sanctuary. Evidence of change in the fabric of the ministry include a deformalization of interaction between the minister and congregation during worship services and the adoption of the “Crerar Family” theme.

The participation of its members in a wide array of activities is the manifestation of the increasing quality of Christian fellowship at Crerar Church. Members may select from among new activities and some which have been revitalized in recent years. The church is financially supported by its members and is, therefore, the largest Chicago area Black Presbyterian church that does not have mission status.

Major improvements have been made to the church’s buildings and grounds. The list would include the construction of the addition to the offices area, air conditioning in the sanctuary, Studer Hall, offices and conference rooms, and upgrading of the parking lot.

After the death of Reverend Lennon in 1989, Crerar was served by several interim pastors: Reverends Floyd Rhodes, Ruben Armendariz and Abraham Ko Akrong. Reverend John F. Warner was installed as pastor of Crerar on February 2, 1993. Since the installation of Rev. Warner, Crerar : computerized most of its operations; upgraded its publications, specifically the Sunday Bulletin and Crerar X-Press; produced first-rate quarterly statements; formulated and adopted new bylaws, incorporated as Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church under the laws of the State of Illinois, April 10, 1996.

We held our 100th year anniversary celebration in 1997. It was a joyous occasion with a concert, summer festival with merchant venues, an anniversary gala and a special dedication service.

Today’s Crerar Church provides for its members a comprehensive ministry comfortably housed with a strong sense of family. With activities ranging from day camp to groups for seniors, members are provided with opportunities for a full life in a functioning Christian environment. While the Lennon years did leave an indelible mark, the Crerar Church, with its firm foundation and indigenous strength, remains confident that it will continue to flourish.}