St. Paul church with a storied history, and an open door

In January, MPR News got an email from the very well-organized 150th Celebration Committee at Pilgrim Baptist Church, letting us know they’d be celebrating their sesquicentennial in June of 2013.

Stephanie Dilworth, co-chair of the committee wrote:

“Pilgrim’s history began in 1863. With the help of the Underground Railroad, a group of African American men, women and children traveled up the Mississippi River from Missouri to Minnesota. Not knowing for sure where they were going, the group referred to themselves as “Pilgrims”. Members of this group became charter members of the congregation known as the Pilgrim Baptist Church of St. Paul, Minnesota.”

Their history had inspired a play, “Adrift on the Mississippi”, by the History Theater in 2011.

Robert Hickman and a group of former slaves from Missouri founded Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1863. (Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

I’d visited Pilgrim once in the mid-90s. My mom’s cousins were visiting from Norway. When she asked what they wanted to see or do, instead of picking the Mall of America, they said, “We’d like to visit a church where they sing gospel music.” My mom shrugged. “Ok, we’ll go to  Pilgrim.”

We might have been the only white faces that morning, and when it came time for guests to introduce themselves, I knew we weren’t going to pass unnoticed. We stood, and our relatives  explained they were visiting from Norway. For the next ten minutes, while the music played, 300 people boogied over and shook our hands. Every single person.  One lady even spoke some Norwegian with my relatives.

When I showed up to meet Pilgrim’s 150 Celebration Committee, I said I knew they were a welcoming church and told them the story of my visit.   “I think I remember that!” said Yvonne Harrington, who probably hasn’t missed a Sunday in 70 years.

And that, my friends, is St. Paul.

MPR photojournalist Jeff Thompson and I visited Pilgrim on May 5 when they marked the actual 150th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in St. Paul, and we recorded audio and video of the worship service. Then we returned to the church a few weeks later and recorded some oral histories.  I produced a radio story, and Jeff made this video:

Sometimes it takes an overseas visitor to explore your own back yard. Or a news assignment.

Whatever brings you there, Pilgrim is ready to welcome you.