In 1904, a frame house on the southeastern corner of Dauphin and Ann streets was purchased by a group of 24 members of Mobile’s St. Francis Street Baptist Church in an effort to establish and support a mission church. By 1909, both groups had contracted with Tennessee architect Reuben Harrison Hunt to build their new church homes.
Because the St. Francis Street church had been damaged in the hurricane of 1906, St. Francis Street Baptist members opted for new construction on Government Street and changed their name to First Baptist Church. Their impressive Greek Revival building, made of Indiana limestone, cost $125, 000.
The more recently formed mission church, Dauphin Way Baptist, built a far more modest brick structure at the Dauphin and Ann streets location with construction costs estimated at just under $26, 000. That edifice lasted until Christmas 1935 when it was lost to fire. The building was underinsured, leaving the congregation in a hazardous position in the midst of the Great Depression.
As the decade progressed, Mobile’s shipbuilding industries exploded with new growth and drew many a Baptist to the Port City. Dauphin Way’s central location made it a popular choice for many of the new arrivals. Property to the east became available, and in 1942, a far larger church was constructed. Educational wings were added to both the east and west in 1948.
Alabama’s Largest Congregation
Postwar America saw mainline churches continue to grow at an enviable rate. By the late 1960s, Dauphin Way Baptist Church was bursting at the seams with some 6, 000 members. It was the largest Baptist congregation in the state.
In 1969, an activities building was completed, containing a gymnasium, bowling alley, skating rink and meeting rooms. According to a newspaper account, members could opt to participate in Bible study or classes in “photo-graphy, sewing, interior decoration, home-making, health, music and crafts.” An outdoor pool was also added.
Since the main building only held 1, 500 for Sunday worship, it was soon decided to add a new one. In 1979, plans called for a 3, 200-seat auditorium to be constructed on the southeast corner of the property where the 1910 church had once stood. By the late 1970s, Mobile’s historic districts were being developed, and neighbors in what was being designated Old Dauphin Way protested the new construction. The church members also voted down the plans for the additional building.
In reaction, the congregation, which had by then ballooned to nearly 8, 000, decided to move westward; in 1988, a new Dauphin Way Baptist Church was completed on Dauphin Street west of I-65. The cost was a whopping $17 million.
A New School
Their former home, comprising more than 132, 000 square feet of space and a city block of real estate, appeared to many to be the city’s largest white elephant. Luckily, plans were underway at the time to establish a statewide residential high school with a focus on math and science. In 1989, the state legislature established the Alabama School of Math and Science, and fundraising began in earnest.
A private foundation was formed in 1990 with a goal to raise $12 million to buy and remodel the former Baptist church, with the state of Alabama providing operating funds. Just one year later, the facility remodel began, and 140 students arrived that fall amidst the construction.
What was once the Christian Life Center was converted to a student center, and the main church building became the school’s auditorium. Sunday school wings were converted into dormitories, classrooms and science labs. The property already held a full-size gymnasium complete with bleachers. In 2007, a $5.5 million library was completed and dedicated to Ann Smith Bedsole who had tirelessly worked to make the school a reality.
According to its website, the Alabama School of Math and Science is the state’s only fully public residential high school offering advanced studies in math, sciences and the humanities. Students from across the state make up the more than 2, 000 graduates with the majority having matriculated to college.
Text by Tom McGehee