Tupelo’s downtown churches build for the future
By GLENDA SLOAN
Churches, with roots in downtown Tupelo since the 19th century, continue to play an integral role in the city’s oldest area as they grow and build to meet the needs of their congregations.
“I consider the churches to be like an anchor store in the mall,” said Debbie Stauffer, director of the city’s Main Street program.
“They create stability, an atmosphere that is safe. They are very, very important to the downtown area,” she said.
Five churches are located in what is considered by the city as the downtown neighborhood: First United Methodist Church, Calvary Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, First Baptist Church and All Saints Episcopal Church. Combined, they have a total membership of nearly 6,000. Two other churches, St. Paul United Methodist Church and Gloster Street Church of Christ, are situated just outside the boundaries.
While the city’s population has shifted over the decades, moving north and west, the downtown churches have grown, remained viable and continued to be the foundation of the city’s oldest section.
“I don’t think Tupelo has yet grown to the stage where a church is going to have more members by moving away from the downtown area,” said Dr. John G. Armistead, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church for the past 15 years.
That has primarily taken place in large urban areas, he said.
All Saints, which will mark its 125th anniversary next year, made a commitment two years ago to remain downtown when it built a new church building on its property along Jefferson Street.
First United Methodist, with about 1,500 members, also is committed to remaining downtown, said associate pastor Chris Young.
Located at the corner of Main and Green streets, First United Methodist has the oldest existing sanctuary of all the downtown churches, dating back to 1896.
The church luckily was spared from ruin by the 1936 tornado, unlike First Presbyterian, All Saints and First Baptist, all of which were located in the twister’s path and were destroyed. All three congregations rebuilt on their sites.
Then in the early 1950s, the congregations of both First Presbyterian and First Baptist again chose to rebuild on their downtown spots after separate fires heavily damaged or – in the case of First Baptist – destroyed their buildings.
Tim Hopkins, associate pastor of First Baptist, said the church’s congregation took a look at long-range plans three years ago. Those plans included expanding at the current location.
First Baptist was organized as the Baptist Church of Tupelo in 1850 about three miles northwest of its present site at the corner of Jefferson and Church streets, where it moved in 1861. After rebuilding its sanctuary and additional buildings following the tornado and 1950 fire, the church is now looking to construct a new building to house rooms for preschool, children’s and youth activities and a fellowship hall, Hopkins said.
First Presbyterian, too, is solidifying its commitment to remain downtown. Located on its current site at the corner of Jefferson and Green streets, First Presbyterian has purchased adjacent property, which houses the former Mississippi Valley Gas building, at a cost of $485,000.
The church intends to spend nearly $1.7 million to renovate and add on to the building to transform it into a youth center, fellowship hall and four classrooms, as well as make renovations in the education and main buildings. A new 1,352-pipe organ, being built by Orgues Letourneau LtŽe of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, at a cost of $239,000, is expected to be installed by July 1996.
“We started six years ago doing long-range planning for the future for our congregation in this downtown location,” said the Rev. McCoy Franklin, senior minister of First Presbyterian. Outside of building the church, “it’s the largest project we’ve undertaken,” he said.
The congregation has pledged about half of the estimated $2.5 million for the projects with plans to borrow the rest, Franklin said.
Most recently Calvary Baptist affirmed its downtown pledge when it began rebuilding its sanctuary and a new education building at the corner of Main and Church streets. The old sanctuary, built in 1936, and educational classrooms located downstairs were destroyed by a blaze in December 1992. The project is expected to be completed in about a year.
It is still important for Calvary, which has about 1,500 resident members and more than 1,900 total members, to be identified “with the heart of the downtown area,” Armistead noted.
The new sanctuary will seat 800 with construction costs for it and the new education building estimated at about $4.2 million. It is being funded through insurance on the old sanctuary and $2.6 million in pledges from members and gifts from local business people.
Stauffer believes the churches’ downtown locations are “part of their character and their strength.”
Furthermore, besides the economic boost the churches give to the community from the millions invested in construction projects, they also create a stable atmosphere for businesses downtown, making the area more viable, she said.