History of St. Paul & the Redeemer
The Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer grew out of two nineteenth-century parishes — one in Kenwood and one in Hyde Park—that merged in 1968. It has a long and rich history that encompasses both parishes and reflects the growth and development of the neighborhood.
In 1857 Dr. Jacob Bockée and Catherine Wilkinson Bockée, recently arrived from Poughkeepsie NY, built a frame house on a desolate sandy stretch of Cornell Avenue south of 51st Street in the new railroad suburb of Hyde Park. Neighbors began to join them for lay-led worship services and Sunday School and in 1859 they successfully applied to the Diocese to establish a parish named St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church after the Bockée family’s church in New York.
After attendance outgrew the capacity of a home, services moved to a community building, followed by the Presbyterian Church, and a school. After a failed effort in 1863 the congregation erected its own building at the corner of Lake Park and 49th Street in 1868, complete with a bell purchased by the Sunday School. The parish continued to grow along with its neighborhood as Chicago annexed Hyde Park Township in 1889 and an upsurge in development accompanied the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The congregation bought the current SPR site in 1892, building a parish house in 1896 and in 1901 a substantial Gothic church designed by Ralph Adams Cram of Boston (who is honored on December 16 in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of Holy Men, Holy Women) in collaboration with local architect Solon Beman, who soon designed the nearby Blackstone Memorial Library.
Meanwhile, in 1889 St. Paul's had established The Church of the Redeemer as a daughter parish at the corner of Blackstone and 56th Street. Nominally a mission, Redeemer quickly became self-supporting and developed into one of the most liturgically high churches in Chicago. It was described as having “achieved [by 1910] a daily Celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Reserved Sacrament, the colored silk vestments, the occasional use of incense, and [having] established use of Confession, the Daily Matins and Evensong, and at least twice a month the 11 a.m. Holy Eucharist on Sundays” in a time when Morning Prayer was the Sunday norm in most Episcopal churches. The parish built and then expanded a long, narrow church on the corner and in 1915 added a handsome Tudor Revival rectory to the north, both designed by J.E.O. Pridmore, who was best known as a theatre architect.
At mid-twentieth century St. Paul’s was renowned in the city for its musical tradition of multiple adult and children’s choirs. A 1960 Chicago Tribune story about the boys’ choir called it “the granddaddy of south side choirs,” and today’s St. Cecilia choir room perpetuates the name of the girls’ choir. Chicago’s celebrated Music of the Baroque chorus and orchestra grew out of the St. Paul & the Redeemer choir in the early 1970’s.
During these years Church of the Redeemer became known for its commitment to the civil rights movement. Members of the parish were active in the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. The rector became president of the Chicago chapter and traveled south for Medgar Evers’s funeral and for voter registration. St. Paul’s was also a racially integrated parish.
But the most notable midcentury event in the life of the two parishes was the fire of suspicious origin that destroyed St. Paul’s Church in March 1956 with a second fire heavily damaging the parish house just two weeks later on Easter Eve. The parish chose to remain on the same site rather than leave the neighborhood and the present building was dedicated in November 1958. Churches and synagogues throughout the community contributed toward the new bell tower that houses the bell from old St. Paul’s that now rings regularly.
During the 1960’s a thriving congregation at Redeemer struggled to maintain an aging physical plant while the congregation at St. Paul’s in its new building faced administrative and fiscal difficulties. The lay and ordained leadership of both parishes collaborated to work out details of a plan to strengthen mission and service: in January 1968 the two congregations began worshipping together at St. Paul’s and and in March voted to merge, becoming the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer.
Redeemer had been celebrating the Eucharist with incense every Sunday and was moving toward the liturgical changes that came to be embodied in the revised Book of Common Prayer (1979). The main service at St. Paul’s, by contrast, was typically Morning Prayer with Eucharist only once or twice a month. The combined congregation reduced the frequency of the Morning Prayer liturgy and the use of incense.
Renovation of the building in 2002 followed a period of sustained growth in membership and programs. In the reconfiguration of the worship space the altar and font became central, surrounded by movable seating, both philosophically and practically reflecting the spirit of the parish. Two years later a celebratory concert dedicated the Martin Pasi tracker organ (Opus 15) that graces the east end of the sanctuary.
While they have broadened and grown in the nearly fifty-year history of St. Paul & the Redeemer, the roots of today’s diverse expressions of worship and vigorous programs—adult and children’s choirs, food ministries, and partnerships in Haiti and with Shoesmith School—are deeply grounded in the heritage of the parent churches. Members of past generations would surely recognize them as modern expressions of the faith and service that have characterized three congregations for over 150 years.