From Pilgrim Holiness to Jiu-Jitsu

Adaptive reuse of houses of worship is a common feature of the contemporary American landscape. The building pictured here may no longer look like a church, yet it was first erected on its hillside as Avondale Pilgrim Church, the home of a Wesleyan Holiness congregation that was part of the Pilgrim Holiness Church. Today, the symmetrical front of its remodeled exerior is the main clue of its former ecclesiastical function. After many months of being available for lease, in October 2020 it became the home of Gracie Barra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Avondale Pilgrim Church changed its names a few times due to denominational mergers. The origins its denomination were in the Holiness revivals of the late nineteenth century which led a variety of groups out of the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the United Methodist Church). In 1968 the Pilgrim Holiness Church united with the Wesleyan Methodist Church (formed in New York prior to the Civil War) to become the Wesleyan Church. Both denominations were were formed by people who left the Methodist Episcopal Church in order to maintain stricter doctrine and emphasis on holiness than other Wesleyans. From 1968 until it closed, the congregation at 3800 Third Avenue South was known as Avondale Wesleyan Church.

The Avondale congregation closed or moved before 1991. The ministry of the Wesleyan Church in Birmingham is continued by Brookview Wesleyan Church, started in the 1980s, and located near the Grants Mill campus of Church of the Highlands. The building on Third Avenue South was used in the early 1980s by St. Symeon Orthodox Church before it settled on nearby Clairmont Avenue. It also served as the home of Temple of Hope Baptist Church. I remember the building from earlier in the 2000s, when it still had its church sign, but do not have pictures from that period.

Avenue C

Until this year, the intersection where the church stood was one of the few on Birmingham’s Southside which was visibly stamped with the name of a lettered avenue. Until 1910, when the City of Ensley was annexed into “Greater Birmingham,” avenues on Birmingham’s southside were lettered. Thereafter since Ensley’s avenues were also lettered, Southside became numbered “South.” Thus “Avenue C” became “Third Avenue South.”

One hundred ten years had left the sidewalk weathered and cracked. And it lacked curb cuts. At this intersection Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ is doing a brisk business in the building that was once Bottletree and Saigon. Therefore, the city has replaced these weathered pavements with new, unmarked ones. This December one corner still had a 38th Street stamp, and perhaps the “Ave C” is still there but if so it was overgrown by grass.

Gracie Barra Birmingham USA, former Avondale Wesleyan Church, 3rd Ave. S. Birmingham, October 2020.

Religious Change in Avondale

Change is an intrinsic part of city life. Here a church is now a Jiu-Jitsu studio, four blocks away a former Masonic hall is Beloved Community Church. Elsewhere in Avondale former houses serve as Quaker and Bahai meetinghouses. You can explore more of Avondale’s religious life on Magic City Religion where my students and I have documented our survey of the neighborhood in fall 2019. Especially useful is a map detailing every religious community we could find in the neighborhood over its more than one-hundred-forty-year history.

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