Last week I spoke about the history of Columbus to a large group of sixth graders at Heritage Academy. It’s always interesting to see what questions are on the minds of young people. Last week I found the single most common topic for questions to be, “How old is my church?”
Although Columbus was first settled in 1817, was a town by 1819 and in 1820, under the auspices of the American Board for Foreign Missions, the Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches founded the nearby Mayhew Choctaw Mission, it was 1829 before any churches formally organized in Columbus. The order of formal organization of the first churches in Columbus was Presbyterian in 1829, Methodist in 1831, Baptist 1832 and Episcopal in 1837. The first church building was constructed by the Methodist in 1831. Prior to 1831 church services were held at Franklin Academy, a small wood frame school built in 1821.
Of the old 1860s or earlier Columbus church buildings only three have survived. They are St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, First United Methodist Church and Annunciation Catholic Church. Other early church structures which have been lost include the 1831 and 1844 Methodist churches (the 1844 structure later served as the Jewish synagogue), the 1838 Presbyterian church, the 1839 Baptist church, the 1839 Episcopal church, the 1840 Cumberland Presbyterian church, and the c. 1850 Christian church.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on College Street is a Gothic Revival structure reminiscent of a medieval English country church. Planning for construction began in 1854 with the acquisition of plans from a Mr. Humpage. Those plans were very similar to plans for an “ecclesiastically correct church” that had been published by Rev. John Hopkins. The plans were submitted to Columbus architect James Lull for review and cost estimate and construction began.
Problems arose with “faithless contractors (and) unreliable friends.” Then, in the 1855-56 cotton season, low water in the Tombigbee prevented the shipment of cotton crops to Mobile to be sold. That brought major hardships to a local cotton based economy and construction of St. Pauls’ was suspended for a year. William O’Neal another Columbus architect and contractor was hired to revise the building plans and resume work. The church was completed in 1860.
Work on First United Methodist Church on Main Street began in 1860. It was constructed in the Romanesque Revival style and was based on drawing by architect Samuel Sloan found in his 1850s publications, “The Model Architect” and “City and Suburban Architecture.” The completion of the structure, which cost over $30,000, was delayed by the Civil War.
During the war the structure was first leased to the Confederate Briarfield Arsenal from March 15 to July 31, 1862. It was used as a munitions laboratory and the manufacture of ammunition. Much of the labor there was done by children and women. Later the church was converted to a hospital. The main auditorium was finally completed by 1867 and the basement in 1871.
The Church of the Annunciation is an example of a type of Gothic form rarely found in the South and is is one of the most architecturally significant religious structures in Mississippi.
The construction of Annunciation Catholic Church began in 1863 under the supervision of Father Jean Baptist Mouton, a French priest and architect. The inspiration for Father Mouton’s design was the gothic chapel of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, which had been completed in 1248.
Both the exterior and interior design of the church reflect scaled down elements of Sainte-Chapelle. The cornerstone of Annunciation Church was laid on May 4, 1863, and construction commenced. One of the problems of war time construction is that the best materials are not always available for civilian projects. That problem surfaced with the brick used in the church’s construction. The brick that were used turned out to be of inferior quality and in 1878 the exterior of the church had to be stuccoed due to problems with the brick.
In a 1917 article about Columbus in Collier’s Weekly, Julian Street wrote of the destruction of historic buildings and particularly of historic churches in Columbus: “Columbus may perhaps appreciate the charm of its old homes, but there is evidence to show that it did not appreciate certain other weatherworn structures of great beauty…(The destruction of) these early buildings represents an irreparable loss to Columbus and it is to be hoped that the town will some day be sufficiently enlightened to know this.” Of the many early historic churches of Columbus only three have survived and it is hoped that the town has come to realize the value of its surviving old and historic though not antebellum churches. Research by Gary Lancaster and Ken P’Pool helped with this column.
Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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