Building a Community

The Sacred Space that Bridged Two Minneapolis Congregations
[From left to right] FCOGIC Director John Lewis, Dr. Marilyn Chiat, Jessie Merriam, Jade Ryerson, and Dr. Greg Donofrio standing atop a balcony in the FCOGIC building. The cielings are painted like the sky, and the face balcony painted with gold zodiac medallions
[From left to right] FCOGIC Director John Lewis, Dr. Marilyn Chiat, Jessie Merriam, Jade Ryerson, and Dr. Greg Donofrio observing one of the zodiac medallions that line the balcony of First Church of God in Christ building in North Minneapolis

In North Minneapolis sits a building with features that Dr. Jeanne Kilde (PhD ‘91, American studies), Director of Religious Studies, and historian Dr. Marylin Chiat would have never expected to see. “We were just amazed,” Kilde says with a grin. “We were really thunderstruck.” At the First Church of God in Christ, churchgoers gather every week to build community and practice their faith surrounded by the beauty of the original (1932) painting in the sanctuary, created by the community who used the space before them. 

A Tale of Two Communities

The church greets you with trompe-l'œil (or “deceive the eye” in French) paintings of curtains and flowers, pilasters, and capital columns, and a series of zodiac medallions along the balcony. These art styles are not characteristic of American Christianity, but rather they hail from Central European Jewish tradition.

The sacred space of the First Church of God in Christ (FCOGIC) was originally erected as a synagogue in 1926. The Bessarabian Jewish community from southern Romania brought the memories of these painting designs with them, just as they had been painted on the synagogues in their home country.

At the same time that Jewish immigrants established North Minneapolis as their home, the area became one of a shrinking number of neighborhoods in which Black families could find housing. Often subjected to the same discrimination and demolition projects, these Jewish and Black communities have faced similar adversities. “They were doing these ‘urban renewal’ projects and were wiping out whole blocks—city blocks of residences,” Kilde says. “[Highways] destroyed many, many houses of worship as well as businesses and homes. So it’s a neighborhood that has been sorely tested and yet still remains vibrant in so many ways.”

Sacred Spaces

exterior of First Church of God in Christ building in front of a blue sky; a large, brick building surrounded by grassy space, two stories of narrow windows, and front semi-circular window design
Exterior of First Church of God in Christ building on 810 Elwood Avenue, N. Minneapolis

Kilde and Chiat got to explore this cultural and religious history through their research project, Twin Cities Houses of Worship. Beginning in 2010, they have documented sacred spaces in the Twin Cities between 1849 and 1924. The project shows the “religious diversity in the urban landscape” in the early years of immigration to the Cities. They have documented hundreds of religious communities and sacred spaces throughout the years, the FCOGIC being one of them.

This building is one of several former synagogues in North Minneapolis. “Maybe three or four of these buildings are still there,” Kilde says, but this one was particularly special due to the preserved paintings. The late Pastor Horace Hughes had taken special care of the art, preserving them and even touching them up when they needed it, until he passed away in late 2022. The original Jewish Tifereth B’Nai Jacob congregation built and used the space until 1957 before selling it to FCOGIC, meaning the building’s current owners have been maintaining the art for over 60 years. “It is remarkable that they survive; it's a wonderful, wonderful thing,” Kilde says, and with the backing of the greater Minnesota community, the congregation will continue to enjoy the art for years to come.

Coming Together

With the help of local organizations like the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota community, Kilde, Chiat, church leaders, and the rest of their project team have organized a two-day event centered around the history of the building and the congregations that have worshiped in the space. On May 10 and 11, 2023, this event will be held both via Zoom and in person at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC).

The Twin Cities Houses of Worship project received a grant from the University of Minnesota Imagine Fund through the Institute for Advanced Study. They also were awarded with two Historical and Cultural Heritage grants from the Minnesota Historical Society. All of this support, along with co-sponsorships from many CLA departments and the College of Design, have made this event possible. “It's just the kind of project that really resonates with all sorts of communities here,” Kilde says. 

But beyond this event, the Houses of Worship Project has committed itself to preserving the FCOGIC building and writing it into Minnesota history. They are in the process of nominating the building to the National Register of Historic Places. Kilde says that she hopes this event will help to uplift the North Minneapolis community and create a strong appreciation for its history. “Religious diversity is one of the founding characteristics of this city, as well as the state of Minnesota. And that religious diversity—although it looks different now—is part of the strength of an urban community, or any community."

The work of Kilde, Chiat, and many other researchers in documenting sacred spaces like this around the Twin Cities not only brings awareness to our history of religious pluralism, but it also can create an appreciation for the diversity and community we have in every corner of Minneapolis. This city is made up of diverse people and stories, and it is stronger and more beautiful because of it.

Art and Faith Bridging the Jewish and Black Communities: Stories of a Historic North Minneapolis House of Worship

View the event page

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLA. 

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