There has been a St. Mary Church at the southwestern corner of Lafayette Street and Old Shell Road since just after the end of the Civil War. Mule-drawn trolley lines on Dauphin Street and Spring Hill Avenue attracted a crowd of suburbanites to what at the time was considered Mobile’s “outlying western section.” The original wooden sanctuary, dedicated in 1868, was the first Catholic church built west of Broad Street.
By 1871, a grammar school, manned by volunteer lay teachers and an Irish priest, had been established at the church. In 1898, St. Mary School expanded with the addition of teachers provided by the Sisters of Mercy. In 1909, a new school building and convent were constructed across Old Shell Road.
The most famous priest to serve St. Mary arrived in 1877. Father Abram Ryan, a former chaplain for the Confederate Army, was hailed the “Poet Priest of the Confederacy.” While at St. Mary, a collection of his poems was published, and that volume would ultimately go through 40 printings.
The electrification of Mobile’s streetcar lines in the 1890s brought further residential development to the blocks surrounding St. Mary. Subdivisions such as Fearnway and Ashland Place arrived in the early 1900s, and by the mid-20s, Mobilians were commuting in some 11, 000 registered automobiles.
The Current St. Mary Church
In 1925, St. Mary School was enlarged to accommodate the growing number of students. A year later, plans were accepted for a new sanctuary. On Aug. 31, 1926, ground was broken for what the newspaper termed a “$150, 000 house of worship, ” with Robert M. Weinacker chairman of the building committee. The Washington, D.C. architectural firm of Murphy and Olmstead designed the building while Mobile’s John J. Carey acted as the supervising architect.
When a new St. Mary was dedicated two years later, its cost had risen to $250, 000. The Spanish Renaissance church building was topped with a tower equipped with chimes that sounded on the quarter hour. A lengthy newspaper account at the time noted that the interior featured two Alabama marble shrines and baptistery, color and gilt mosaic stations of the cross, antique bronze sanctuary lamps and a $10, 000 altar donated by the Arata family.
Success Leads to Challenges
St. Mary School was enlarged again in 1949 with the addition of two stories of classroom space and a gymnasium. The school’s popularity led to continued growth, and in 2000, a $1.4 million campaign allowed for a renovated kitchen, a state-of-the-art science lab and administrative offices within the 1949 building. To the west, the historic 1909 school building, which had fallen into disrepair, was restored with room for a preschool program, parish offices and three beautiful reception rooms.
By 2004, the number of student applications began to surpass the school’s capacity. When it was determined that 40 families would have to be turned away, the parish renovated the third floor of the 1909 Sisters of Mercy Building for classroom space, allowing the school to now serve more than 500 students.
Today, St. Mary School is the oldest continually operating Catholic elementary school in the state of Alabama.
The Church Renovation
A capital campaign in 2000 allowed for the restoration of the original church organ and upgraded electrical systems. Thanks to another successful campaign launched in 2009, nearly $1.3 million is now being spent to cover the cost of the freshly painted exterior, restored stained glass windows, opposite, repaired bell tower and the replacement of the cross at its peak.
Inside, a new sound system will be complemented by an acoustical ceiling, as well the installation of a new heating and air-conditioning system. Brides will appreciate a newly remodeled entrance for their use, and volunteers are recovering the kneelers in the sanctuary.
December 7: Restoration Dedication Celebration
9 a.m. Parishioners and their guests are invited to view the improvements at a special Mass. Afterward, the Excelsior Band will lead the participants next door for a reception to celebrate the successful restoration of this historic church, which has been a spiritual and educational anchor for Midtown Mobile for nearly 150 years.
St. Mary Church • 106 Providence St. 432-8678. stmarymobile.org
Text by Tom McGehee