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Historic Black church in southern Indiana rededicated after being saved by volunteers

After sitting dormant for decades, volunteers brought the church back to life with community donations.

WEST BADEN SPRINGS, Ind. — A historic Indiana church, once declared an endangered landmark, celebrated its rededication this weekend with a ribbon cutting, church services and a tree planting ceremony.

"It's called the First Baptist (Colored) Church of West Baden Springs, Indiana. This is the last structure and the only structure left of the Black community from that era, from Jim Crow," Elizabeth Mitchell, a historian who helped with the project, told 13News last year.

RELATED: Historic Black church saved by volunteers

The historically significant small white chapel represents Black history in West Baden Springs. After sitting dormant for decades, volunteers brought the church back to life with community donations.

They spent the past several years restoring it and, after a pandemic delay, they rededicated the building Saturday.

Credit: WTHR
The First Baptist (Colored) Church of West Baden Springs was rededicated on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022, marking the completion of a years-long restoration effort at the historic landmark.

The church is located in a community known for bringing Hoosier treasures back from the brink of ruin. Right across the highway from the church is the restored West Baden Springs Hotel. 

At the turn of the 20th century, in the midst of segregation, West Baden Hotel owner Lee Sinclair recruited Black employees for the famed resort. They were paid well, owned their own homes and helped deliver outstanding service at the luxury hotel. But outside of work, it was a dark time in our history. Black families were forced to have separate restaurants, hotels and churches and West Baden didn't have a place of worship.

At the time, West Baden Springs and French Lick were extremely competitive.

Sinclair didn't want his workers attending services in French Lick, just a mile away.

So he sold his workforce this land in West Baden Springs for a dollar to create a spiritual sanctuary.

"Lee Sinclair knew how important faith was to the Black community," Mitchell explained. "He wanted to make sure his workers - bellhops, maids, had a place to worship and so thus First Baptist Colored Church was built."

Credit: WTHR
The First Baptist (Colored) Church of West Baden Springs was rededicated on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022, marking the completion of a years-long restoration effort at the historic landmark.

It became a thriving center for religion and culture and was known for helping people in need, regardless of race.

But when the hotel declined, so did the congregation, eventually dwindling to just one remaining member.

The church sat dormant for decades and was named one of Indiana's most-endangered landmarks.

That's when a group of faith leaders from Bloomington decided to save it.

The Southeastern District Association of the Indiana Missionary Baptist State Convention bought the church from the town council for a dollar, promising to return it to its former glory.

"It wasn't just outsiders that saw the need, the community saw the need and they welcomed us here and they still do," Mitchell said.

"The siding was falling apart. The animals, the dust, you could see the rafters where they had a fire and it was burnt," said Dr. Bruce Rose, Pastor of Second Baptist Church in Bloomington and chairman of the board for the West Baden Church Renewal Project. "It was just really like, 'How in the world are we gonna get this back?'"

Credit: WTHR
The First Baptist (Colored) Church of West Baden Springs sat dormant for decades and was named one of Indiana's most-endangered landmarks. Now the building is being restored.

They've done it with community support, donations and volunteers - mostly skilled retirees from Pastor Rose's church.

For the past four years, they've been stripping the building down, straightening bowed walls, rebuilding floors, doors and windows.

They've also saved the original pews, restored the original bell tower and secured a large piece of stained glass from a church in western Indiana.

"My proudest thing? I love this ceiling! It's absolutely gorgeous," Pastor Rose said.

"And they (volunteers) faithfully came twice a week every Wednesday and Friday on their own time, on their own dime to restore this church," Mitchell said. "I don't think we had anybody say 'no' or 'I can't'. There's times we'd come here and there's money stuck in the door. Today when we came, there's a note in the door, 'I will come and help paint ' and this person was from out of town."

Now, after years of work, the project is complete.

Mitchell tracked down descendants of the original congregation: educators, musicians and business owners from across the country. They were all invited to the rededication, an opportunity to be a part of the church's first service and to celebrate their ancestors' legacy.

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