Indiana Landmarks placed the church on its 10 Most Endangered List in 2014. (James Vavrek/WFIU-WTIU News).
West Baden’s historic First Baptist Church was once considered one of the most endangered landmarks in the state. But now, it’s on its way to holding its first service in decades.
Every Friday, a small group of volunteers from Bloomington’s Second Baptist Church goes down to West Baden. They’ve been making the trip twice a week for about a year to restore the town’s historic all-black church, one of the only standing structures tied to the city’s African-American heritage.
While other volunteers fix walls and windows in the small, white church building, Elizabeth Mitchell is trying to find some of the names of the church’s original congregation, who worshiped in West Baden more than a hundred years ago.
“We are in the process of finding out who those people are,” she says. “We have found about 10, and we have found descendants of two so far.”
The congregation of the church formed in 1909, but the actual building was not constructed until 1920. (James Vavrek, WFIU-WTIU News)
Black workers from the West Baden Springs Hotel built the church in 1920. The hotel’s owner, Lee Sinclair, sold them the property because he wanted to provide a place of worship to his employees
“They had their own everything. Hotels, churches, restaurants, places to party for social activities,” says French Lick West Baden Museum Director Patty Drabing. “Because of segregation you have to have your own everything.”
But a lot of those structures that served as the center of life for the African-American community in West Baden no longer exist. Drabing says that makes it all the more important to keep the church standing.
“The Waddy Hotel is burned down. The Babylon burned down,” she says. “We’ve lost a lot of our historical buildings because they’re made out of wood, so we need to save that church.”
The church hosted several congregations in the 20th century. But the building has sat empty since the early 90s, when the last surviving member of the church donated it to a local historical society. After that, the Town of West Baden took ownership.
“The whole town is getting spruced up, dilapidated homes are being torn down, new sidewalks are being put in, flooding issues are being addressed,” Drabing says. “But this church just sits there and just gets in worse and worse shape.”
The historic preservation group Indiana Landmarks put the church on its endangered landmarks list in 2014. After that, the Southeastern District Association of the Indiana Missionary Baptist State Convention sought to buy the building. The West Baden Town Council sold it to them for one dollar, with the group promising to restore and reopen the church, something Mitchell says is no coincidence.
“What we’re doing is revisiting a dollar because Mr. Sinclair, the owner of the West Baden Hotel back in the 1900s, had sold the slot for a dollar,” she says.
Mitchell says once the church is restored, they’ll have no problem finding a new congregation to fill the building on Sundays.
“We have people that are already arguing about who is going to sitting in the front row,” she says.
Volunteers have done work to rehab both the exterior and interior of the building, so it can be used as a functional worship space again. (James Vavrek, WFIUWTIU News)
Another volunteer with the project, Thomas Doyle Sr., agrees that the West Baden community has been very welcoming.
“They’re opening their arms like they never done before,” he says. “They have just been over-abundantly appreciative of what we’re doing.”
Funding A Potential Hurdle For Finishing Project
Mitchell says the biggest challenge right now is getting funding. They’re about $50,000 short of a $200,000 goal. But she says the fact that they’ve gotten this far speaks to the importance of the project for the community.
“They most certainly deserve to be remembered and this community had, was such a large community and to be forgotten would have been a shame,” Mitchell says. “So now is the time, it’s the time to tell stories of African-Americans.”
Volunteers are hoping to finish fundraising and complete the restoration soon so they can begin to host services for the new congregation.