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Monica Butler wants to save gospel music history by bringing a hall of fame to St. Louis

 Steve Smith and Monica R. Butler pose in front of Second Baptist Church near Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis. They plan to convert it into a national center for the celebration and study of gospel music. [8/13/21]
Butler Group
Steve Smith, of the Lawrence Group, and Monica R. Butler pose in front of Second Baptist Church off North Kingshighway in St. Louis. They plan to convert it into a national center for the celebration and study of gospel music.

Monica R. Butler grew up listening to the bells ring at the historic Second Baptist Church in St. Louis’ Central West End. The ringing brought her almost as much peace as the swell of gospel music streaming from the building.

“It seemed like it just calmed the area,” she said on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “The bells are not ringing anymore. We want the bells to ring again.”

Though Butler’s family didn’t attend Second Baptist, they lived nearby. The church, most recently known as Life Cathedral Church, embodied St. Louis’ deep connection to gospel music. Her mother sang there with the O’Neal Twins in the St. Louis Interfaith Choir. The 1982 gospel documentary "Say Amen, Somebody" captured gospel legend Willie Mae Ford Smith performing onsite. And now, Butler wants the building to house her concept, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, which she envisions including a museum, recording studio and event space.

The church is in the Holy Corners district of St. Louis, renowned for its worship houses with impressive architecture. But while the 40,000-square-foot building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has sat vacant for more than a decade and fallen into disrepair. Last October, firefighters battled to control a fire in the steeple, adding to the repairs needed.

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Monica R. Butler's mother, Jacqueline, pictured on the O'Neal Twins and Interfaith Choir's 1982 album "I Can See Clearly Now." Jacqueline would often take Monica into the recording studio during her childhood.

It will cost $22 million to accomplish Butler’s dream. But that doesn’t intimidate her. Gospel music is meant to help people overcome obstacles — dilapidated buildings included.

“Gospel music soothes the soul and helps heal,” she said.

To develop the project, she’s partnered with the Lawrence Group, the architecture firm behind City Foundry STL.

Butler is a TV and film producer who’s worked for Tyler Perry and on films including “The Butler” and “Jurassic World.” Now, she views the museum as her life’s work and aims to make it a cultural and educational hub for tourists and natives alike.

Without her project, she said gospel music artifacts, including the Second Baptist Church, will be lost.

“It holds something dear, and I just want to help bring that part back to life,” she said.

A vacant church could become a gospel music hall of fame — but it will take $22 million

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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