Minnesota’s oldest African American church is celebrating 155 years of service this year, both inside its sanctuary and in the surrounding community. While the faithful know Pilgrim Baptist Church for its praise and worship services, many who don’t walk through its doors still reap the benefits of its organizational efforts and influence.
“Pilgrim Baptist Church is…very important to the community — not just because of the messages that it preaches, such as the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it is also a message of transformation,” said Pilgrim’s Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Charles Gill.
“When you think about the formation of the NAACP here in Saint Paul, that was done right here in Pilgrim Baptist Church,” he said. Members also helped establish the Minneapolis Urban League and the Hallie Q. Brown Center in Saint Paul, which is housed in the Martin Luther King Center.
The congregation has also worked to preserve connections after the construction of Interstate 94 cut through the Rondo community in the 1960s. Members including former pastor Rev. Dr. Floyd Massey, Jr. supported the construction of pedestrian bridges to reconnect the divided neighborhood. Rev. Massey also co-launched the Rondo-St. Anthony Highway Organization in 1956 and served as chairman of the drive to rebuild Maxfield Elementary School.
Pilgrim’s history of taking on justice and political issues began with its own establishment.
In 1863, founder Rev. Robert Hickman began preaching to approximately 50 slaves from Boone County, Missouri. Armed with the gospel, the group sought freedom.
Referring to themselves as “pilgrims,” they escaped by paddling a handmade boat up the Mississippi River until they reached Fort Snelling in 1866. There, Hickman and his followers established Pilgrim Baptist Church and held a celebratory baptismal service on November 15 in the Mississippi River.
Hickman eventually settled the church in downtown Saint Paul and, in 1928, moved it to its current home on Central Avenue, which is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the church hosts local charity operations such as a food shelf, men’s and women’s prison ministries, a Vacation Bible School, and a community garden. Pilgrim also hosts meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and community groups for youth. Additionally, church members host Griefshare, a program aimed at helping grieving members recover from loss and learn healthy ways to cope.
Rev. Gill credits the power of faith for the church’s longevity. “Many start-up businesses and even churches shut down after the first year, and certainly very few of them get beyond seven years,” said Gill. “With that in mind, Pilgrim has now gone beyond the first year, beyond the seventh year. We have gone 155 years.
“When you look across the nation, in comparison to the number of churches, very few of them [have lasted] beyond 100 years. So when you think about 155 years, that is a rarity in and of itself.”
Pilgrim Baptist Church will host an anniversary celebration and fundraising event Saturday, June 23, featuring a solo performance by Thomasina Petrus tailored specifically for Pilgrim’s anniversary. The celebration will continue the next day with guest pastor Rev. Dr. Elliot Cuff, dean of the National Baptist Convention and senior pastor of Lincoln Heights Missionary Baptist Church in Woodlawn, OH.
For more information, visit pilgrimbaptistchurch.org or call 651-227-3220.