From L, Trinity Episcopal Church, ca. 1897; Rev. Fr. Benedict Menges, OSB (1840-1904), founder of St. Joseph Catholic Church and School in 1878; St. Paul AME Church looking north, Jan. 21, 1933; Poplar Street Christian Church, 1903
by Lee Freeman
Florence has always been a city of faith. Upon founding the town in 1818 one of the first things done by the settlers was to found schools and churches.
On July 22, 1818 the first sale of lots was held and in that sale lot no. 84 on Tuscaloosa Street was purchased by “Hugh Campbell of the Presbyterians” for $1600 on which a, probably log structure, was soon constructed. This original log structure was replaced by a permanent brick building which was completed in 1824.
The Methodist and Episcopalian traditions followed the Presbyterians: In 1822 circuit riders John Cox and John Kerr founded a Methodist congregation in the front room of Cox’s newly-built log house in what is now the 200 block of west Tuscaloosa Street. This congregation, now known as First Methodist, has continuously existed, although at several different locations and in several buildings. The Methodists were soon followed in 1824 by Episcopalian Rev. William Spencer Wall, who also taught an early school in Florence. A congregation was finally organized in 1836 by the Rev. Thomas Armstrong Cook and the first building was built on the northwest corner of College and Cedar streets. This original building burned in 1893 and the current church was constructed in the corner of Pine and Tuscaloosa in 1894 incorporating the original bell tower.
The Baptists came to the city in 1859 (St. Mark) and then in 1888, with First Missionary Baptist Church, now just First Baptist Church. First Baptist was founded and originally met in the Court House (in his autobiography WC Handy recalls as a boy being hired by the “white Baptists” at the courthouse to work as their janitor). The East Florence Baptist Church was established by First Baptist Church in January of 1890; Florence Wagon Works (on part of whose property Magnolia’s building is located) founder Dr. Alfred David Bellamy (1847-1913) was a trustee and Sunday school teacher. In September of 1894 Mrs. Hamaker, wife of Wagon Works Superintendent WA Hamaker, organized the Clubhouse Sunday School for the benefit of the employees.
The Christian faith has always been integral to the black community. Florence’s oldest black congregation is Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. WC Handy’s (1873-1958) family were members (his father and grandfather were AME pastors) of this venerable church, which was originally founded ca. 1839 on lot no. 111 on the corner of Court and Bluff streets by 13 slaves and freedmen, with assistance from white trustees of the Methodist Church, as Church Springs Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church.
In 1865 a local freedman named George Poole (ca. 1830-aft. 1900) who had picked up enough of a basic education as a bootblack at Florence Wesleyan University started a school to teach the children of freed slaves. The Freedmen’s Public School, founded to educate children of the newly-freed slaves by the Pittsburgh Freedmen’s Aid Commission, succeeded Poole’s school and opened on October 29, 1866 and was taught by noted black educator Prof. Oscar M. Waring (1837-1911); the school was conducted under the auspices of Church Springs. With its own normal (teacher training) dept., the Freedmen’s Public School sent teachers out to various locations in Lauderdale County to start schools.
Florence’s second-oldest black congregation is St. Mark Missionary Baptist (MB) Church, founded ca. 1859 in a brush arbor on the corner of Alabama and Market Streets. In 1897 Bethel Cumberland Presbyterian Church was founded on Alabama Street, just up the street from St. Mark.
The First Congregational Church, known to locals as “the Colored Congregational Church,” was established on Pine Street sometime in the mid-late 1870s; its first building was completed in 1879. The Congregational Church conducted the Carpenter High School, founded in 1876 by the American Missionary Association (and the congregation’s pastors were the principals). First Congregational dissolved sometime around 1939 and today the Tennessee Valley Community Church is located on the spot where it was located for sixty years.
Magnolia’s own heritage, the Stone-Campbell Movement came to Lauderdale County ca. 1824 with “Stoneite” evangelist Elder Ephraim D. Moore and the founding of the Republican Christian Church, now Stony Point Church of Christ however there was no congregation of the Christian Church in Florence until a group of Christians began meeting in the home of Mrs. Susan Y. Thrasher. This congregation met at various downtown locations (such as Ludike’s and Morrison’s Halls) with Elder TB Larimore (1843-1929) of Mars Hill preaching on Sundays, before constructing its first building on the corner of Poplar and Tuscaloosa in 1890 (the original building still exists and is now home to the Calvary Fellowship Church). This congregation named itself the Poplar Street Christian Church and today exists as the Wood Avenue Church of Christ. First Christian Church was organized in 1917, eleven years after the Christian Church split into mostly Southern Churches of Christ and mostly Northern Christian Churches (aka Disciples of Christ). And in 1928 the African-American East Alabama Street Church of Christ was established by several charter members, converts who in the wake of a 1928 gospel meeting conducted by the late Bro. Marshal Keeble (1878-1968) were worshipping in a segregated room at the Poplar Street Church of Christ. That congregation exists today as the East Side Church of Christ.
In 1908 the first Holiness evangelists began hosting revivals in East Florence. Today the Holiness/Pentecostal/Assembly of God tradition is heavily represented in Florence.
There were Catholic settlers in Florence as early as 1825 though no Catholic mission or parish to serve them. That changed in 1878 when the Rev. Fr. Benedict Menges, OSB (Order of St. Benedict) founded St. Joseph Catholic Church and school above the City Cemetery on Lawton Heights (named after local real estate developer BA Lawton), which soon after came to be known as “Catholic Hill.” Fr. Menges, who in 1891 became the first abbot of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman had served briefly as parish priest at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in St. Florian. Sometime in the mid-late 1940s the Catholic Church founded Blessed Martin De Porres Catholic Mission on West College Street; according to local tradition, this African-American Catholic mission was founded with the assistance of noted Florence businesswoman Bessie Rapier Foster (1882-1963), a niece of noted Alabama Republican Congressman James T. Rapier (1838-1883), who converted to Catholicism from the Methodist Church in the 1940s. Its priest was Rev. Isidore Fussnecker, OSB, the parish priest of St. Joseph.
The Lutheran faith sent ministerial candidate Richard Hasz to Florence in 1936 to explore the possibility of founding a Lutheran congregation which was officially established in Florence in 1939 with Our Redeemer Lutheran Church’s sanctuary being erected on Poplar Street in that year. Now nearly every major Christian denomination is represented in Florence.
In July of 1895 a Ministers’ Association was organized in Florence, whose stated goal was to “bring the clergy of the city into more active cooperation in all good work, to strengthen social relations in religious work, to advance the benevolent work of the city, and generally to act in concert to advance the religious and moral interests of the city.”
By 1896, First Presbyterian, First Methodist and First Baptist were holding “union services” at various times, including on Thanksgiving. In addition, pastors of the various churches would take turns speaking at the Florence and East Florence YMCAs in the late 1880s and 1890s.
By the 1950s several of Florence’s African-American churches were part of a Tri-Cities Interdenominational Alliance. One of the most noteworthy achievements of this group was in getting the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. (1899-1984), father of slain Civil Rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), to speak in February of 1970, at First Baptist Church in Sheffield.
In more recent years, many of Florence’s ministers, pastors and priests, including our own Jimmy Hayes and Joe Van Dyke, have been members of the Shoals Ministerial Alliance. Among other achievements the Ministerial Alliance sponsored several of the Marches for Jesus in the 1990s.
Friday night, October 25, 1957 Dr. JS Gallinger was formally installed as Rabbi of Temple B’Nai Israel (which moved to Florence from Sheffield and constructed its temple in 1953), with Rev. JVC Summerall of First Presbyterian Church offering the invocation as a representative of the Florence Christian ministers, and Rev. John C Calhoun of Sheffield’s First Methodist Church representing Colbert County Christian ministers.
As Florence gears up for its bicentennial celebration in 2018 the city can be proud of its long and venerable faith tradition.