In the early 70s muralist Bill Walker covered the front outside wall and the back interior wall of the San Marcello Mission, a Catholic church near the corner of Larrabee and Clybourn, with messages about neighborly love, social justice, and what he called the "unity of the human race." The interior work made the church "a little Sistine Chapel," says Jon Pounds, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group. "It's also important because there's so few examples left of what Bill Walker brought to the city."
"I consider Bill Walker the Diego Rivera of the United States," says mural historian Jim Prigoff, who calls the interior mural "a very important piece of artwork, one of my most favorite murals." Other artists and art historians call it Walker's masterpiece.
Walker, who tends to be modest, sees it as one of his best works. "It was the most difficult and challenging project I'd done up to that point, in relation to the composition, the architecture, and the subject matter," recalls the 77-year-old, who lives in Bronzeville. "For the first time I actually had to think as a muralist. That's why it took me so long."
The murals have a joint title, All of Mankind, and the one on the outside of what's now Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church, on the edge of Cabrini-Green, is faded but still visible. In a huge faux stained-glass window, figures representing different races and faiths are interlocked to symbolize their brotherhood. Around the window--beneath the words Why were they crucified--Walker listed names and events: Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. King, Malcolm X, John and Robert Kennedy, Anne Frank, Emmett Till, My Lai, Kent State.
Walker's 2,000-square-foot interior tableau featured more than 100 African-American adults and children learning, playing, working, worshipping. But you can't see it anymore: this past summer the dingy, partially peeling mural was painted over with white latex.
According to archdiocese records, the little church was built for an Episcopalian congregation in 1901. Twenty-six years later it became San Marcello, a mission of the Saint Philip Benizi parish intended to serve what had become a largely Italian neighborhood. The area became more integrated in the 30s, and during the 40s and 50s the CHA demolished more than 30 blocks of houses, first to make way for the low-rise Cabrini Homes, which absorbed many of the displaced Italians, and then for the high-rise Green Homes, which housed mostly African-Americans. San Marcello was one of the few structures spared.
In 1971 a Benedictine priest named Dennis Kendrick was asked to take over San Marcello and build up its tiny congregation. Kendrick raised funds from foundations to make structural repairs and pay for the upkeep. He cleaned the basement and set up a counseling center for heroin addicts on methadone that was run by Northwestern University. He opened a vocational training center in Cabrini-Green for youthful offenders and increased the number of people attending the sole Sunday mass to around 40.
Kendrick also invited Walker to paint murals on the church walls. He'd met Walker the year before, when the artist was completing a five-story-high mural at 872 N. Orleans (it's since been painted over). Walker was already well-known for his murals, most of which were on the south side. In 1967 he'd organized the painting of Wall of Respect, a collaboration with 20 other black artists on a building at 43rd and Langley (the building was destroyed in 1971). That mural launched the community mural movement, which soon spread across the country. Over the next two decades Walker painted nearly two dozen works that focused on the urban black experience.
Kendrick, now 71 and living in Florida, says he and Walker agreed that the themes of the San Marcello murals would be "love and family and community togetherness." Walker began painting outside in the fall of 1971 with the help of small donations from parishioners and funds from the muralists' organization he'd cofounded the year before (which would later evolve into the Chicago Public Art Group). Kendrick got a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to pay for scaffolding, paint, brickwork, and salaries, and young men from the neighborhood were hired to help scrape and paint the wall and to guard it at night.
In 1972 Kendrick wrote in a report that the mural had become a "center of attraction for artists and art lovers from all over the city. . . . The wall belongs to the community. They protect and celebrate his art."
"Father Kendrick was an unusual human being," says Walker. "He never made any demands of me. He left the imagery up to me. That shows great honor, great respect." Walker remembers thinking that Kendrick might have had problems with the archdiocese because the walls didn't include any traditional Catholic symbolism.
Kendrick did get in trouble, but not for that. In 1972, he says, "several local priests complained" to Cardinal John Cody, saying it wasn't "appropriate" to hold Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the church. "The cardinal asked me to discontinue the program, and I immediately complied," says Kendrick, who simply moved it to the YMCA a block away.
A year later the archdiocese closed San Marcello. "It was a logical decision," says Kendrick, "because the number of parishioners was small and the neighborhood was becoming even more dangerous."
Walker was allowed to keep painting off and on while the archdiocese tried to find someone in the projects to take over the church. The bills began piling up, and the heat was cut off, then the lights. Walker asked the Reverend Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH for help, and in November 1973 a couple hundred people packed the church to hear Jackson demand that the building be turned over to the community. Walker spoke too. "I said to them, 'I'm not trying to get money personally. If the bills were paid it would enable me to complete the project.'" By then he'd nearly finished the mural on the back interior wall, though he still planned to paint the remaining walls and put transparent colors on the clear windows. He figured it would take another six months.
Meanwhile the archdiocese had been negotiating with the Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church, which was renting a space nearby. In late November, Cardinal Cody signed the title over to the church, led by the Reverend Demcy Thomas.
Strangers Home paid the outstanding bills. Walker says he offered Thomas the $500 that Jackson had collected at the meeting, but the pastor refused to take it. Walker says Operation PUSH wound up keeping it.
Early the next year Thomas told Walker he wouldn't be allowed to work inside the church anymore. In the middle section of the mural several children were still just outlined. "It was an upsetting situation," says Walker. "It was difficult leaving that place. I put a lot of myself in there."
In the late 90s the Chicago Public Art Group's Jon Pounds visited Strangers Home and asked its leaders if they'd be interested in having All of Mankind restored. The group had already raised money to restore deteriorating community murals around the city, including two of Walker's. Pounds figured restoring these two would cost around $20,000. "They were provisionally committed," he says.
Creola Thomas, the youngest of the Reverend Thomas's 14 children and one of several family members on the church's board, says she helped send out dozens of letters to foundations and art organizations asking for donations. She didn't get a single response.
Then early last summer the Reverend Thomas's son John Thomas, who's also a church elder, painted over the mural while cleaning up the church. He says he didn't know it had historic value.
"Oh my God--treasures!" said Jim Prigoff when he heard.
"What a shame--it really summarized that period of time," says Kendrick. "It's a destruction of Chicago history."
"I'm not surprised," says Walker. "It comes with the territory."
"We didn't want to cover it up, but it wasn't looking good," says Creola Thomas, then suggests that people were worried about lead. "The paint was peeling off. There were health risks--people were getting sick. They thought the building was falling apart."
Pounds thinks the latex could be lifted off and the mural cleaned and restored. "It's something we'd be interested in supporting," he says. But Heather Becker, head of the Chicago Conservation Center, guesses the job would cost $40,000 or more. "The question is how hard it would be to remove the top layer without degrading the layer underneath," she says. "We've had luck in the past, even if it means using scalpels."
The Thomases say they too would be interested in seeing the murals restored. "If we're all in agreement, that would be a blessing," says another Thomas daughter, Christmas Trotter, who's been the pastor for 15 years. "But nothing's etched in stone."
Definitely not. As Cabrini-Green is transformed into a mixed-income housing development, the church is becoming a forlorn relic. It's still bracketed by two old Cabrini high-rises, but they're coming down. And the land it sits on is valuable--plans by the Cabrini developers include market-rate condos that will cost between $175,000 and $500,000.
Meanwhile the Strangers Home congregation has shrunk from a high of 150 to around 70. Few of those people are from the neighborhood, and some even drive in from the suburbs. Members say they hope to keep the church open a couple more years. And then? "We have several options on the table," says Creola Thomas. Maybe they'll stay and rebuild, she says. Maybe they'll sell and move, in which case the building would almost certainly be torn down. Or maybe they could sell to a developer who would work with some nonprofit to turn the church into a historical museum and gallery, though it's not clear who'd be willing to finance such a venture. She says the church does want to look into getting a city historic-landmark designation.
Thomas says she's heard about small churches in the area that sold but didn't get enough money from developers to start up again somewhere else. "We're not a group of ignorant country bumpkins," she says. "What's happening in Cabrini-Green is like the Trail of Tears, like the Indians. We don't want to be excluded without being properly compensated."
John Thomas has his own notions about how the church could be used. "Maybe we'd call it Fort Cabrini, like Fort Apache," he says enthusiastically, though he's just as enthusiastic about the money the church might get if it sells the building. "It'd be Cabrini's last stand--we could leave a legacy. Cabrini's gone, but this can stay here. It'd be a tourist site. People all over the world have heard about Cabrini--they can come and see the last building standing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Futran, Nathan Mandell, John Pitman Weber/Chicago Public Art Group.