Written on Pilgrim Congregational Church’s 150th Anniversary in 2009.
Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, a Cleveland landmark, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009. Founded by progressive, faith-filled individuals, the church is poised to continue its mission for the next 150 years.
Pilgrim and its history are intertwined with the Tremont neighborhood and the greater Cleveland community. From humble beginnings Pilgrim rose to influential heights, later faltered then experienced re-birth and renewal. Like the Tremont neighborhood where its located, Pilgrim church has an intriguing, storied past and bright future. Today, as the church enjoys a new period of revitalization and growth, its members seek to witness to a new generation of believers a message of extravagant welcome, inclusivity and social justice.
In The Beginning…
Pilgrim Church was born two blocks northeast of its present location, near the site of the current Tremont Elementary School. The Rev. William Brewster, a Wesleyan Methodist, came each Sunday to preach in a small red brick schoolhouse which was then a part of the Brooklyn Township school system. Originally the building had been a part of Cleveland University. The University existed for a few brief years and for a time the area was known as University Heights.
University Heights Congregational Church, Pilgrims predecessor, was founded on Sunday, November 13th, 1859, in the little red schoolhouse by 34 charter members. The group included 5 Wesleyan Methodist, 10 Methodist Episcopal, 4 Presbyterian and 11 Congregationalist. Outsiders expressed doubt that a church comprised of individuals with such diverse ideas on religion could hold together. However, with Rev. Brewster as their first pastor, the congregation moved forward asserting, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
Growth Leads to a New Home…
Early, influential members of the church included Mr. and Mrs. John G. Jennings and Mr. and Mrs. Brewster Pelton. Not long after organizing, the congregation committed to building a sanctuary. The Peltons gave two lots at the corner of Howard and Jennings (now West 14th) streets to build the edifice. The building, designed by Cleveland architect Joseph M. Blackburn, is one of his earliest works still standing in Cleveland. The new structure, designed to seat 600-700 people in a cruciform nave, was formally dedicated in 1870, as Jennings Avenue Congregational Church.
By 1891, the congregation had 961 registered students in their Sunday school program and the church literally began outgrowing its building. Rev. Charles Mills became pastor that year and the congregation voted to build a new larger church just one block away. The cornerstone was laid on July 6, 1893, and in 1894 our present building, renamed Pilgrim Church, was dedicated. The old church was sold to the St. Augustine Roman Catholic congregation for $20,000; that congregation still occupies the building today.
Challenges and Resurrection…
The 1960’s and 1970’s brought freeways and flight from the inner-city. Pilgrim church membership plummeted under the pressure of outside forces. Construction of interstate 71 sliced through the heart of Tremont. In one year nearly 400 homes were demolished in the immediate vicinity of Pilgrim church. Tremonts population declined by nearly half during the mid 1960s and early 1970s; dropping from approximately 30,000 down to about 16,000. The impact on Pilgrim church was staggering. Membership sank from a peak of 1,297 in 1924 down to 161 by the end of 1989. Average attendance at Sunday worship that year was less than 50. The congregation was also aging and Pilgrims future was in jeopardy.
Dr. Laurie Hafner preached her candidate sermon Pentecost Sunday, June 3, 1990. There were 32 people in worship that day. Pastor Hafner is quoted as saying that of the 32, six were, – friends who had come to talk me out of accepting the Call. – Fortunately she didnt listen.
Pastor Hafner had a vision for Pilgrims renewal. Under her leadership and commitment to the social gospel Pilgrim became a Just Peace and Open and Affirming Church. During her 16-year tenure the congregation grew, several major capital campaigns were initiated, and Pilgrim church once again became a respected voice in the greater Cleveland community. Today, Pilgrim is recognized as a flagship church of the United Church of Christ
The Next 150 Years…
With great joy and expectation, Pilgrim church welcomed the Rev. John Tamilio III, as senior Pastor on September 29, 2008. Rev. Tamilio was Called to Pilgrim following an 18-month long pastoral search. He joined a vital, faith-filled congregation that continues to embrace diversity and engage in social justice.
Throughout its history, Pilgrim church has boldly answered the call to teach and live the Gospel message while fostering extravagant welcome and inclusivity. Yet, as rich as our history is, we cannot live on our legacy alone. We desire to grow as a vibrant, witnessing community of faith, reaching out to one another – to all looking for a church home.