Mission to preserve St. Louis’ historic gospel ties revived in Central West End
CENTRAL WEST END, Mo. (KMOV) – Church bells once echoed hourly in the Holy Corners Historic District in the Central West End where six sacred temples outline the intersection of Kingshighway Boulevard and Washington Avenue. The vacant multicolored brick Second Baptist Church remained dormant for years. That is ... until a local film producer with eyes set to transform the Italianate Gothic-style church into a Gospel Music Hall of Fame (GMHOF).
“This is one of the birthplaces of gospel music,” Film Producer Monica R. Butler exclaimed. “This is long overdue for gospel music to be recognized.”
With 25 years in the film production industry, Butler has worked on a long list of notable projects such as BET’s “Bobby Jones Gospel” and the film” John Wick”. Now, she hopes to add the GHOF to it. Butler envisioned the GMHOF to be a pipeline to honor and acknowledge St. Louis’ history in the gospel music realm. Her goal is to prevent the tales of the healing genre to be forgotten.
“We want to preserve our gospel music,” she said. " You know a lot of times our stories go untold and this is one that we don’t want to go untold.”
Referencing hearing the sounds of soothing melodies as a child, Butler recalled witnessing her mother Jacqueline and the Inter-Faith choir harmonizing with Gospel trailblazers, the O’Neal Twins, in the studio.
“The O’Neal Twins and the Inter-Faith choir were the first to have a concert at this church,” Butler said, detailing the significance of this building.
Her personal connection deepened as she mentioned she was featured in a local 1982 documentary, “Say Amen Somebody” at the age of 15. The center of the documentary was a St. Louis legend considered one of the most influential gospel singers: Willie Mae Ford Smith. Ford Smith helped establish many firsts in the local gospel community including a chapter of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses alongside the Father of Gospel Music Thomas Dorsey.
“[Dorsey and Ford] traveled back and forth from Chicago to St. Louis to create the foundation of gospel music as a business. Before that, groups went around singing but no one documented that. They put it in sheet music form. Everyone could sing it,” GMHOF Board Member Lin Woods said.
The duo helped popularize gospel blues throughout Black churches and educated the first generation of spiritual singers in the 1930s. With the town’s historic ties to the gospel community prevalent, the ladies want to honor each icon.
“St. Louis is full of living legends,” St. Louis City Committee Chairwoman and GMHOF Board Member Yolonda Yancie explained. “St. Louis is still making music. The history here is immaculate.”
Yancie referenced St. Louis native Zella Jackson Price and one of the oldest living gospel songstress Ethel Foster. Both are notable powerhouses in the Show-Me State but their talents may be overlooked by out-of-towners.
“But we will recognize them in this Gospel Hall of Fame,” Butler interjects.
In 2019, the Missouri Preservation organization listed the Second Baptist Church as a “Place in Peril”.
The church’s steeple towers over the overgrown emerald quad just feet away from the garden area. Black soot is plastered on the five-story church belltower. In October 2021, a two-alarm fire rippled through the historic site. Bright orange flames shot out of the church’s bell tower as over 60 firefighters extinguished the blaze. However, she doesn’t want that moment to define the GMHOF.
“The fire was tragic but it’s a blessing at the same time because it brought recognition to what we are doing,” she added.
Fast forward to 2022, the church is still in a deteriorating state. Walking through the site, the trained eye can see broken windows, graffiti marked along each wall and missing pipes stolen from the pipe organ.
Although the $22 million redevelopment hasn’t started, Butler dreams to create a 40,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art interactive museum. The film producer partnered with the Lawrence Group, which renovated several historic sites like the City Foundry STL and Angad Arts Hotel. The main sanctuary is the first area that visitors will set their eyes on once inside. It will be filled with several attractions such as a cultural arts center, museum and educational classrooms.
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