At the time Austin Boulevard Christian Church was built in 1921 at the corner of Austin and Superior, the cost of a U.S. postage stamp was 2 cents, the top grossing film was the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse starring Rudolf Valentino, and the last 9-game World Series ever was played between the New York Yankees and champion New York Giants.
But the church, located at 634 N. Austin Blvd., didn’t start at that location, which also happens to be the boundary separating Oak Park and Chicago. Though now in Oak Park, the congregation began in Austin in 1898.
It was called Austin Christian Church. The congregation was all white and Austin was still a part of Cicero. Austin would become a Chicago community a year later.
The congregation held its first services in a dance hall at Laramie Avenue and Lake Street. The church used a number of locations during its first 10 years before purchasing a West Side bungalow in 1911 near Central and Pine in Austin. “The Bungalow Church””as it was called then and now”is still a church today.
The early congregation bought the lot at Austin and Superior for $8,000. A great deal has changed about the church and its congregation, but its mission as a “community ministry” has endured, said church members. The challenge in recent years had been trying to serve both Oak Park and Austin.
“Our goal now is to create a balanced worship experience that will be honoring to people on both sides of the boulevard,” said Pastor Dwight Bailey, who took over full-time in 2001.
The church has about 40 members today. It had more than 100 at one time. The congregation today is racially mixed. Bailey is actually the first African-American pastor in the church’s history. While in seminary school one of Bailey’s professors was Harold Lunger, Austin Boulevard Church’s pastor from 1939 to 1950. Bailey said he’s tried to expand the church’s outreach during his tenure, particularly to Austin’s black community.
“Our challenge is how do we create and worship with the kind of vitality of the black church and at the same time not lose the people who are here and affirm their journey as well,” said Bailey.
Austin Boulevard Church has been around longer than most congregations in Austin and Oak Park. But the church is somewhat overshadowed by other churches in Austin, such as Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church or Greater St. Bible Church. Those churches, and a few others with congregations well into the hundreds, have attracted a large number of Austin worshippers.
But Austin Boulevard Church has tried to attract new members, said Bailey. The church hosts back-to-school and other holiday events. It hosts a number of events throughout the month, including its movie night, where church and non-members watch a movie in the church’s large basement screening room and discuss the film afterwards. Last month, the church attracted its largest crowd, Bailey said, for the screening of Crash.
Bailey doesn’t think the boundary has kept Austinites from coming to the church.
“The church is moving into a new lifestyle and expanding to the broader community,” said Bailey.
Opening its doors to more minorities is nothing new for current members, Bailey noted.
“They like the fact that the church is blended,” he said. “They just come to worship and people enjoy it. Basically, we read the same bible, we’re preaching the same sermon and we’re going to the same heaven, so what’s the deal?”
The church has one service on Sunday mornings. After service, members get together for coffee and dessert. It lasts about an hour.
John Muir has been a member of the church for more than 50 years. After being discharged from the military during World War II, he moved to Oak Park with his family from Iowa. They were members of the Christian Church in Waterloo, Iowa. Austin Boulevard has been a member of Christian Church, Disciples of Christ since its beginnings.
Muir and his family lived in an apartment three blocks from the church on Austin Boulevard.
“This biggest change, of course, is the integration that’s taken place in the area, and many African-Americans coming to the church,” said Muir. “We’ve always thought that we served the community, and our community has changed.”
Muir also wonders about church’s failure to attract more members from Austin’s black community. The church did have a large number of black members in the past, Muir noted.
“We just haven’t served that community the way we did,” he said. “We would like to serve that community and the whole community on both sides of the boulevard, and we’re trying to make efforts to do that.”
Grace Herron, a member of the church since 1999, said one of the reasons she joined the church while still living in Maywood was because of its diversity.
“I came from a church that was racially integrated in Maywood, and this one is too,” said Herron, who now lives in Oak Park. “That’s something that I think is important.”
The church itself has changed. The last major renovation took place in 1960. An addition was built to the church’s west side along Superior. A new office for the pastor along with classrooms for bible study was added.
Within the last few years, new stained-glass windows were added. But other than a few repairs to some parts of the building, the church has held up well, said Bailey.
The church has plans to expand its screening room, and upgrade its basement community room. The community is the location for many events past and present. One of the more memorable was its annual cabaret, which enjoyed a run of more than 20 years. The cabarets, held during the spring over two nights, were part Saturday Night Live and Grand Ole Opry, with church members performing skits spoofing current events locally and nationally.
One year, a church member wore a wig impersonating former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne during her term in the early 1980s.
“A lot people really thought it was Jane Byrne,” said James Bruce, church historian and church member since the 1967. She came in to attend the cabaret and she was in the audience. For a while, a lot of people thought it was Jane Byrne.”
The cabarets ran from 1970 to 1990, Bruce said, with at least 100 church members participating.
The church may attract new members sparingly, but the building is currently under use.
West Suburban PADS, or Public Action to Deliver Shelter, provides homeless sleeping space in churches in Oak Park and River Forest. Austin Boulevard Church hosts PADS on Wednesday nights. The third level is rented out to smaller churches.
Pastor Bailey said some in Austin thought the church was leaving the community for good those many years ago.
After 85 years on the boulevard, the church has a history and reputation of serving the community and the people, said Bailey.
“This is a place for God’s ministry and we want to do ministry here if we can,” he said. “The church is open to all people and we’re not moving.”