Pilgrim Baptist Church, 116 North Birdsell Street
South Bend’s first African American led Baptist church anchored the West Washington community for over a century.
As the number of people of African descent in South Bend grew from the late nineteenth into the early twentieth centuries, so too did the diversity of religious affiliations among them. Black Baptists established their first place of worship on the 100-block of Birdsell Street in 1891. Different buildings all on that same location hosted Baptist worship and community support from that point forward and through to today.
As early as 1872, there was a Baptist church on the corner of Main and Jefferson (now replaced with the Robert F. Grant Federal Court building). In 1887, that congregation moved, leaving the former building to become known as the “old” Baptist church. It was in the “old” building on July 19, 1890, that South Bend’s first African American Baptist pastor, Reverend Ridley, held regular church meetings specifically for the city’s African American Baptist community. On August 17, delegates from the Second Baptist Church in Niles, Michigan, and Chain Lakes Baptist Church in Cassopolis, joined Rev. Ridley at the “old” building to officially recognize the new Mount Zion Baptist Church.
Reverend Ridley soon moved to Cleveland, Ohio, succeeded by the Reverend George D. Smith.
Rev. Smith wasted no time planning for Mount Zion’s growth and securing a building of their own. In July 1891, Mount Zion bought a wooden building that the German Methodists built in 1876 and then moved to Wayne and Lafayette in 1883. Mount Zion then moved the building again, this time to Birdsell Street—just one lot south of West Washington. Officially dedicated on October 25, 1891, the new location generated regional and statewide attention and quickly became a hub for South Bend’s growing west side community. 
Mount Zion’s members engaged in scholarly and community-building activities out of the church. They staged several public debates pitting members against each other on different subjects, including a January 1893 debate posing the question, “Which has caused the most sorrow among the human race: War or Intemperance?” Later that same year, they held another debate questioning which was the happiest—married life, or single life. Married life won the evening.
Mount Zion’s members and leadership also directly involved themselves in local activism, especially around banning the sale of alcohol. In 1897, Mt. Zion members filed a remonstrance against a man on Birdsell Street who was trying to get a liquor license from the city.
Though their challenge was unsuccessful, it was one of several public stances against alcohol consumption in the lead-up to the nationwide ban in the 1920s, and a clear indication of Mount Zion’s members matching their beliefs with their actions.
In 1907, only sixteen years after they opened, the congregation was able to celebrate full payment of the church building with a mortgage burning celebration.
They wasted no time planning for their future growth. In 1908, a call in the South Bend Tribune conveyed the Reverend James Holder’s request for $1 each from “members and friends interested in the new church building.” By 1909 construction workers broke ground, and by June 1910, “the new church building is now entirely enclosed, and the congregation is making preparations for renewed activity.”
Amazingly, only ten years afterwards, church leaders again begin planning for yet another new physical structure. The congregation’s growth was likely the factor in needing two new structures in that relatively short amount of time. A November 1920 article in the South Bend Tribune states Mount Zion’s membership of 500 people, and that the 1910 building “is proving much too small for its weekly attendance.”
Though they intended to have the building completed before the end of 1921, fundraising and other delays stalled completion until early in 1926. Also, despite their intention that the “work is being carried forward with the hope when completed the edifice may be dedicated free of any indebtedness,” Mount Zion needed a bank loan of $41,000 to complete the ambitious new building.
Like so many others who made ambitious financial commitments in the mid to late 1920s, the 1929 financial collapse and onset of the Great Depression had an enormous impact. Mount Zion’s leaders were now saddled with a huge mortgage while its members were saddled with skyrocketing unemployment.
In November 1930, Washington State Bank filed a lawsuit against the church’s trustees, alleging they failed to keep up with their $210 monthly payments (a value of about $3,800 in 2023). The bank asked that the court sell the property on North Birdsell at auction to recover $30,000—the unpaid remainder of the mortgage along with interest and legal fees.
Faced with this lawsuit, by June of the following year, Mount Zion’s leaders organized a new entity: Pilgrim Baptist Church. The majority of the former Mount Zion members continued worshipping in the North Birdsell building under the new title. With the bulk of Mount Zion’s membership gravitating to the new Pilgrim Baptist, leaders picked up right where they left off. After the organizational transition in 1931, Pilgrim immediately began efforts to secure enough funds to purchase and secure their building; however, the reality of the Great Depression made this an especially difficult challenge to meet. In 1935, the building was again almost lost. Official ownership of the building made its way into the hands of the state of Indiana, who found an eager buyer—St. Augustine’s Catholic parish. Formed in the late 1920s by a white Holy Cross priest looking to welcome South Bend’s small but growing Black Catholic community, the parish had grown large enough to warrant its own building by the mid-1930s. When St. Augustine’s leaders saw the Pilgrim Baptist building at a sheriff’s auction, they jumped at the chance to buy it for themselves.
It seems, however, that nobody told Pilgrim Baptist’s leaders, who had the keys to the building and continued to hold regular services out of it. This came as a complete surprise to Rev. Gilbert’s successor at Pilgrim Baptist, the Rev. V. David Bond. He arrived at his new job in early April 1935 to discover that his church building was sold to another organization without any notice given to Pilgrim’s members. Both sides secured lawyers.
Fortunately, within a month, the Fort Wayne Diocese backed away from its position and both sides came to an agreement. The state would sell the building to Pilgrim for only $4,250.
With the uncertainty about the new building now behind them, Pilgrim’s membership could get back to the work they had been doing on that location for forty-five years.
The next decades at Pilgrim Baptist saw the opposite of the tumult they experienced during the 1930s into the early 1940s. From the 1940s onwards, Pilgrim thrived during a period of welcomed mundanity.
A huge factor of this era of stability was the service of the Reverend Charles Rowlett. In 1955, Rev. Rowlett began an incredible thirty-four years of service to Pilgrim Baptist and the South Bend community. Among his actions was a major remodeling of the existing historic structure and a new annex in the mid-1960s, built at an estimated cost of $165,000 (nearly $1.5 million today).
Unlike the previous attempt at fundraising in an incredibly difficult economic environment, this time Pilgrim was able to pay back loans taken out to finance the improvements in less than ten years—well ahead of schedule.
With a secure and expanded facility and incredibly stable leadership under Rev. Rowlett, Pilgrim continued to provide the community with every service one would expect out of a strong community church. Couples were wed, congregants were baptized, and families and friends found comfort as loved ones passed on. For over 130 years, from the 1890s through the 2020s, Pilgrim continues to provide support to South Bend’s African American Baptist community out of the same location on Birdsell Street.
 The earliest reference to the Baptist church is in some of the earliest editions of South Bend Tribune available beginning in 1872. Page 3 of the April 20, 1872, paper references a funeral held at the Baptist church for J. B. Birdsell of the eponymous company his family owned.
 The South Bend Tribune, July 5, 1890, 8. Surprisingly, despite my best attempts, I’m unable to find an article that highlights this move. The Tribune references the Baptist church at Jefferson and Main until early February 1887 when it switches to Main and Wayne. Sanborn Insurance maps from 1885 and 1891 confirm buildings with those purposes at those locations.
 According to the South Bend Tribune, two weeks prior on July 6, 1890, Rev. Ridley held services in the “school building on Birdsell street in the interests of the colored Baptist denomination.” It is unclear what this “school building” is. Construction on the nearby Linden School on Linden and Adams streets began in June, but it would not be completed until the start of the school year in September.
 The South Bend Tribune, August 16, 1890, 1.
 The timing and circumstances of the transition are unclear; however, Rev. Smith is last listed in the Tribune with Mount Zion in September 1890, and Rev. Smith is first listed in February 1891.
 The South Bend Tribune, September 24, 1890, 1.
 “Church Dedication,” The South Bend Tribune, October 24, 1891, 4.
 “Decided for the Affirmative,” The South Bend Tribune, September 20, 1893, 1.
 “Refused a Liquor License,” The South Bend Tribune, December 11, 1897, 1.
 “Church Mortgage is Burned,” The South Bend Tribune, October 10, 1907, 9.
 “Building Trades Show Fine Gains,” The South Bend Tribune, December 6, 1909, 3; “Church Has New Pastor,” The South Bend Tribune, June 11, 1910, 3.
 “Plan Large Church,” The South Bend Tribune, November 22, 1920, 2.
 The South Bend Tribune, December 31, 1925, 18; “Sues to Force Sale of Church,” The South Bend Tribune, November 10, 1930, 18.
 “Church Formed at Old Building,” The South Bend Tribune, June 16, 1931, 20.
 “Seeks Writ in Church Ouster,” The South Bend Tribune, April 22, 1935, 6.
 “Report Church Deal is Killed,” The South Bend Tribune, May 5, 1935, 16; “Church is Sold; Conflict Over,” The South Bend Tribune, October 7, 1935, 20. St. Augustine’s purchased a space almost directly across from the Pilgrim Baptist building on Birdsell Street. Though in a different building, St. Augustine’s and Pilgrim Baptist remain neighbors today.
 “Breaking Ground for New Unit,” The South Bend Tribune, September 6, 1966, 29; “Pilgrim Baptist to Dedicate Wing,” The South Bend Tribune, May 17, 1968, 28; “Pilgrim Baptist,” The South Bend Tribune, May 22, 1975, 39.