We are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, socio-economically diverse, small urban congregation in a unique, south-side Chicago neighborhood. This diversity is highly valued by our members. Over the years we have responded to one another’s needs and served the neighborhood and world in extraordinary ways. We have a long history of supporting social justice and giving generously to mission. As the needs and challenges of our members and neighbors have changed, United Church of Hyde Park has provided innovative responses. Our church is a member congregation of three denominations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist.
In the early days of the Village of Hyde Park, when Paul Cornell and others were developing a community away from the city, the Protestant residents of the area worshipped in a small white frame chapel at what is now 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue. From this beginning, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Hyde Park Presbyterian were organized. Cornell himself had donated the land and had the chapel built in 1858. A formal organization was begun in May 1860, and it was by a close vote that the group decided to affiliate with the Presbyterian denomination. There were sixteen charter members.
A Sunday School was formally organized in March, 1862 and the officers of the church went about with diligence to minister to the children and youth of the growing community. A stone church was built at the northeast corner of 53rd Street at Blackstone Avenue in 1869. The early decades were years of nationwide upheavals due to the civil War and Reconstruction, followed by the local tragedy of the Chicago fire in 1871. The fire brought financial hardship to many of the church families, but members also responded with generous assistance to the homeless and needy of the city. Hyde Park grew rapidly and soon the 1869 stone church was too small for the congregation. The large building still in use was constructed in 1889. In 1923-24 there was an extensive remodeling of the sanctuary, a configuration which is still in use.
During its early years the church started missions and established Sunday Schools in Woodlawn, Parkside, and Rosalie Hall (57th and Harper) for the convenience of its members who lived in the southern sections of the community. In November 1885 a group of 24 people met to organize as a Congregational Church. In 1887 they built a chapel on the northwest corner of 56th Street at Dorchester. Ten years later, a generous bequest from Deacon O. H. Platt enabled them to construct a new, larger building designed by Irving Pond. With the establishment of the University of Chicago in the area in 1892, leading Congregationalists throughout the city were impressed wit the opportunity for work among students there. At this time the name of the church was changed to University Congregational Church. In the late 1920s, the name was changed to Hyde Park Congregational Church, to reflect the broader scope of the community as a whole.
In both churches the women’s societies played a significant role in philanthropic and mission work, as well as financial support. In the early days when trips to the city for entertainment were difficult and infrequent, the societies gave many delightful programs which added much to the social fabric of the community. The Congregational church was among the first to include women on all its official boards.
During the winter of 1929-30 the idea of uniting the Presbyterian and Congregational churches began to develop. The churches were similar in theology and mission, and both were soon to be without pastors. Committees representing both groups met and worked out a plan for consolidation, which was adopted effective October 1, 1930. The first service of the United Church was held on October 5, 1930, with Dr. Ozora Davis serving as interim pastor. Dr. Davis had recently retired as president of Chicago Theological Seminary, which had moved from the west side of Chicago to Hyde Park during his tenure. The Chicago Tribune (Sept. 28, 1930) called the merger “one of the outstanding developments in local Protestant church history.”
Records of various church activities show a concern about conditions during the Depression years, study of major issues of the day, and support for local social service agencies and foreign missions.
In September 1889, a dozen people gathered at a local home to establish a Methodist Episcopal church in Hyde Park. They first met in a vacant store at 5344 Lake Park Avenue, and then built a small chapel at 54th and Blackstone. With increased membership, the congregation was able to construct a larger building on the same site. It was dedicated on Easter Sunday, 1909. This church also had active Home and Foreign Missionary Societies, youth organizations, and women’s groups. Its benevolence included sponsorship of persons displaced by war in Europe, and of Americans of Japanese descent who had been removed from west coast states and confined to remote “camps” after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Significant changes took place in the area after the war years. The second “Great Migration” of African-Americans brought many to the south side of Chicago. Urban Renewal was also taking place during this time. Many white families left the area. Residents were forced to consider the possibility of multi-racial communities and churches. Various community organizations worked to assure that Hyde Park would be a viable multi-racial area on the south side. The Methodist Church was among the first in Hyde Park to embrace this change. A report on the church school in 1955-56 makes first reference to having an interracial student body. Both the United Church and the Methodist Church experienced declining membership and budget deficits in the late 1960s. The proximity of the two buildings prompted both congregations to consider a merger. It began with a shared facilities agreement and a joint Sunday School. The formal agreement for a “union church” representing all three denominations was completed in the fall of 1970. The Methodist church building at the southeast corner of 54th and Blackstone was demolished in 1977 and a group of townhouses was built on the site.
The United Church has continued its ministry in a variety of ways. Study groups, community outreach to serve needs such as support for victims of crime, hunger, and homelessness, and youth activities have predominated. Various fundraising activities have been conducted: Holiday Bazaar, International Festival, musical programs, and rummage sales. In 1991, Alta Blakely suggested putting on a quilt show to raise money to maintain the church’s fine old Skinner Organ. The April 20115 show will be the 25th annual.