Chapel on the Green, formerly the Bristol Congregational Church and Yorkville Congregational Church, has been recognized by the National Park Service for its role in assisting those seeking to escape from slavery.
The site in Yorkville is one of 23 nationwide newly recognized by the Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom for providing insight into the diverse experiences of freedom seekers and those who assisted them.
In 1846, Bristol Congregational Church members issued a statement against slavery in their “Resolutions on Moral Subjects” sent for publication to the Chicago Western Citizen just 10 years after the congregation was formed. Several charter members of the church and its first pastor, Rev. Heman S. Colton, had close ties with the Bristol Hill Congregational Church in Volney, New York, where church members were staunch abolitionists and the congregation had both black and white members at a time when few churches were integrated.
In Bristol, they clung to their strong anti-slavery views and became active in the underground railroad. The 1855 church building (later Yorkville Congregational Church and now the Chapel on the Green) was long rumored to be a hiding place for freedom seekers. The building’s original cellar is now gone, but research has confirmed that church members and pastors offered transportation, shelter, clothing and protection to freedom seekers passing through the area.
Chapel on the Green board president Susan Kritzberg interviewed current and former residents of homes once owned by Bristol Congregational members. They reported unusual hidden spaces in the homes believed to be used to conceal enslaved people on their way to freedom.
“Although my research focused primarily on the history of the Bristol Congregational Church and its members’ involvement, it opened a window into a fascinating period of history for Yorkville and the county at large and shed light on the commitment and dedication to human rights and personal freedom that the Underground Railroad demonstrated,” Kritzberg said in a news release.
“I am proud to know that this was part of the early foundation of the town and county that I have always called home. Too often in school, I think, we learn about ‘history’ as if it were something taking place in another time and, more importantly, another place,” Kritzberg said. “Rarely are we taught much about the history of our own community, or the events that may have happened in our own ‘backyard’ 150 years ago, or, in this case, the neighbor’s home next door, or the church down the street. It is much more exciting to imagine and embrace events that helped shape history when the stories involve familiar names and places. I hope that folks throughout the area will take pride in the countywide history that this special distinction celebrates.”
The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom serves to honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to slavery through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide today. The Network represents more than 700 locations in 40 states plus Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As a member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, the building could be eligible for part of the $500,000 in grant money the National Park Service has set aside for preservation of these sites. Kritzberg said that other Network to Freedom sites have also been successful in applying for historic markers through the Illinois Historical Society.