Inside a small brick church on Chicago’s West Side are a set of murals depicting Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Buddha, Confucius, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.
The Third Unitarian Church has gathered in the modern-looking building since 1936. The mostly white congregation has proudly remained in the Austin neighborhood through decades of racial change and disinvestment.
In the mid-1950s, Andrene Kauffman made the first of what would eventually become 24 tile murals for the church interior. Known as the “saints of liberalism,” she chose her subjects from a mid-1950s sermon by the church’s minister, Rev. E.T. Buehrer. King was added in 1969.
Most of the murals are not of religious figures, including former Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld and French writer Albert Camus. However, images of Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Socrates hang to the left of the pulpit.
“Some people are surprised to see that — Jesus Christ in that group — and not by himself,” Third Unitarian Rev. Colleen Vahey said.
The removed mural
One of the original murals no longer in the sanctuary is Thomas Jefferson. In the years since Kauffman made the murals, Jefferson’s reputation as a champion of reason and personal freedom has been diminished by our greater understanding of his relationship to enslaved people, including Sally Hemings, whose five children he fathered while continuing to own her as a slave. Vahey noted that the Jefferson mural was removed at congregants’ request.
Inexpensive, but decidedly modern
In November 1868, Chicago’s third Unitarian congregation started meeting in borrowed space on Madison Street in what’s now called the West Loop. They built three churches over the next few decades, each a little farther west.
Their present building, a block south of the Green Line, was designed by Chicago architect Paul Schweikher. The inexpensive, but decidedly modern, building has grids of windows and a low roof gable. The walls are common brick with plywood panels, and a south-facing wall of windows is filled with milk glass.
In 1956, the church grew to more than 300 members and hired William Fyfe to double the size of the sanctuary and add classrooms and other space. Fyfe, who worked for Schweikher when the first part was built, attached an accordion-shaped wall.
That expansion is no longer necessary as the congregation lost members during decades of racial change. Between the 1960 and 1990 censuses, Austin went from being 99.8 percent white to 86.8 percent black. White church members, white businesses, and other white institutions fled. Today, the church is down to about 70 members.
“You don’t leave a community you’re rooted in over race,” said James Kane, who joined the church in the 1980s after some members formed a new church in suburban Oak Park. “We needed to be present. We needed to accept that the neighborhood had changed and be supportive of this area.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rev. Colleen Vahey of the Third Unitarian Church.