Saturday, March 17, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || Updated: 7:57 p.m.
Minnie Alford — a matriarch and master seamstress who literally stitched together a church that would become a community institution and a driving force in the evolution of Chicago Gospel music — died on March 15. She was 102.
Alford’s death was confirmed by her children and members of the Progressive Life-Giving Word Cathedral, where she was first lady for over 40 years during the pastorate of her husband, the late James B. “Papa” Alford, and mother of the church’s current pastor and the couple’s youngest son, Apostle Donald L. Alford.
Minnie was born on May 1, 1915, in Little Rock, Ark. She was in her mid-20s when, in 1941, her husband was appointed pastor of what was then called Maywood Church of God in Christ (COGIC) — the first COGIC church started in the village.
Bishop William Roberts established the church out of a small prayer group in 1925. Its first location was a garage at 110 S. 10th Ave. in Maywood, according to a history on the church’s website.
By the time James and Minnie became pastor and first lady, the church had moved to a building on the 600 block of South 13th Ave. in Maywood.
“Mother was very, very, very gifted with her hands,” recalled Apostle Alford during a recent phone interview.
Minnie treated that first house of worship like her own home, he said, stitching its drapes and chair covers with the same punctiliousness she put into making her family’s clothes or laboring in an Oak Park home as a housekeeper.
When the church needed money to purchase its first organ, Minnie sold baked goods alongside her “cooking buddy,” Vera Grace, Apostle Alford said.
“She was a strong follower as well as a great leader,” he added. “She knew how to gather women and train them on how to be good wives to their husbands. She was definitely a counselor and very hospitable. She would entertain guest preachers who would come and stay at our house.”
In 1947, Rev. Alford incorporated the church, leveraging his vision for structural improvements into a new name for his growing congregation.
“When Papa Alford saw that the church building was leaning, God gave him a vision of ‘progress’ — thus the church’s name became Progressive Church of God in Christ,” according to the online history. “During renovations, the members added a basement to the structure, and propped the building up so that it stood straight.”
Minnie was a member of the church’s Senior Choir, which was organized in 1948 — the year of its first live radio broadcast. She would go on to write and sing lead solo on many of the choir’s recordings.
In the 1950s, the choir began broadcasting live on Sunday evenings, on WMAQ. Eventually, the choir moved to WOPA and broadcast from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., and then WYCA 92.3 FM. A daily broadcast, “The Life-Giving Word,” was also one carried on radio stations WYCA and KSTL in St. Louis, Mo.
“Pastor Marie Moody James trained the choir how to sing and do different types of music,” Apostle Alford said, adding that James was followed by a succession of ministers of music, including Charles Clency and Nash Schaffer.
Clency was married to Minnie’s daughter from her first marriage, Madame Beatrice Alford Clency — a nationally recognized Gospel singer who would travel the world with her gifts, Apostle Alford said. Charles traveled with Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, he recalled, and Madame Beatrice did Jackson’s hair.
In 1962, the church purchased a Jewish Synagogue at 431-33 S. 13th Ave. in Maywood and moved into the facility that year. Helped along by Minnie’s prodigious fundraising efforts, Progressive burned the mortgage on the new building less than a decade later.
In 1969, the choir recorded its first 45 RPM, the start of numerous recordings that would solidify its reputation for versatility and vocal discipline. Most of the songs, such as “I Enjoy Jesus” and “The Choice Is Yours,” were written by Apostle Alford, who became the church’s minister of music in 1975 and eventually its pastor in 1983 — the year Papa Alford died.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, what had by then become the Progressive Radio Choir was signed to Gospel record labels (first Sparrow Records and then Holy Spirit Records), winning awards and touring nationally and internationally with songs like “Rain On Us” and “He’s Alive.”
Throughout the choir’s success, Apostle Alford said, Minnie functioned as its de facto business manager “without the title,” coordinating the choir’s many tours and offering a steady source of support for its members.
“She would make the hotel and flight arrangements, she’d lend money to choir members,” Apostle Alford recalled. “Every second Saturday in September was the choir’s annual concert and drama, and mamma would sell the most tickets — every year.”
Her son, Perry Alford, said that Minnie’s painstaking attention to detail reminded him of the title character in the TV show, “Monk,” about a San Francisco detective who was brilliant but obsessively compulsive.
“[Adrian Monk] was the type of person who would go into the courtroom and if the light wasn’t right, he’d get on a chair and fix the light — that was my mamma,” Perry said, laughing. “If she had an event she was planning, she’d set the tables herself, banquet-style.”
Minnie, Perry recalled, would often have boxes stacked upon boxes filled with supplies for events that she would plan — sometimes a year in advance.
“She’d have the placements folded and everything the way she wanted it to be,” he said. “She always planned way ahead.”
And she planned resourcefully. Each year, she made calendars from Christmas wrapping paper for choir members — an example of her innate ability to salvage life from whatever material was at hand, Perry said.
“You could give her bricks and stuff and she would build the church and the house,” he said.
By 2003, when Minnie’s memory began to slowly fade, the church had been renamed Progressive Life-Giving Word Cathedral and had withdrawn from the COGIC denomination. The year before, it moved out of Maywood and into an old Loew’s movie theater in Hillside.
“In 2003, we were recording ‘We Give You the Praise,’” Apostle Alford said. “Her robe was made for the recording, but she wasn’t up to it mentally. That would have been her last choral event.”
But the church that Minnie helped stitch into being would not forget her nor would it forget its Maywood roots.
On March 12, a few days before Minnie’s death, Pastor DeAndre Patterson, Progressive’s former minister of music, was facilitating a live recording with a reunion choir comprising current and former members of the Radio Choir, at the church’s old location at 433 S. 13th Ave. in Maywood.
Patterson, who was celebrating his birthday, said that he had chosen the old church in order to commemorate the occasion with the people he had known growing up on 13th Avenue, not far from Progressive’s longtime house of worship.
At the end of the recording, word had wafted out into the sanctuary that Mother Alford was experiencing some health problems, which is why Apostle Alford and his wife, Gloria, could not make the landmark event, which drew some of the Chicago area’s most prominent Gospel recording artists.
“She would tear this church to pieces,” Patterson said of Minnie, before recalling some of the songs that she would lead, including “This Little Light of Mine,” “Jesus Christ, Praise Him,” and “Don’t Doubt God.”
“Mom’s breathing was different today and right before the service tonight, they called the family together to rush her to the hospital,” Patterson said. “The doctor said that her heart is strong. Her body may be weak but her heart is strong — that’s where [God] lives.”
A few days after she died, Apostle Alford took solace in, and paid homage to, his mother’s strength.
“She was the glue, the cement, everything,” said Apostle Alford. “She taught us to believe God, to pray and to develop a relationship with God. She taught me how to overcome, how to make it and keep going despite the circumstances. She would not let me use any excuse I’d bring to quit. Quitting wasn’t in her vocabulary.”
Minnie is survived by three sons, 11 grandchildren and a host of great-grandchildren, extended family members and friends.
A celebration of life service is scheduled for Saturday, March 24, 10 a.m. (her body will lie in state) and 11 a.m. (service will begin), at Progressive Life-Giving Word Cathedral, 4500 Frontage Rd. in Hillside.
The family is requesting that, in lieu of flowers, people send monetary donations to the James Benjamin Alford Bible Institute. Make all checks payable to JBABI or text your donation amount to JBABI at (708) 260-8199 (Example: $100 JBABI). A free, one-time setup is required. VFP
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect the correct date of the celebration of life service, which will be on March 24, not March 14. VFP regrets the error.
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