Ask McGehee: What Is the History of Trinity Episcopal Church in Midtown?

Vintage photograph of Trinity Episcopal Church's prior location in 1891
In this image from 1891, Trinity Episcopal Church stood on the southeast corner of St. Anthony and Jackson streets in what was a very popular residential district at the time. Today it is located on Dauphin Street in Midtown. Photo courtesy Tom McGehee

Trinity is the second oldest Episcopal church in Mobile, and the only one to have the distinction of having been consecrated twice by two different bishops. Much of its long history, however, did not take place at its present location.

The church was organized by a few dozen members in 1846 and was at the time meeting in a music hall on St. Anthony Street. When the membership topped 500, it was obvious that a permanent home was required, and a cornerstone was dedicated in 1853 at the southeast corner of Jackson and St. Anthony streets.

The New York architectural firm of Frank Wills and Henry Dudley was selected to build the church. Both men were British born and became leading proponents of the Gothic Revival style for church design. Examples of their work may be found from Canada to New England to the Deep South. In Alabama, the firm designed Trinity Church in 1853-57, followed by another in Montgomery in 1854 and finally one in Huntsville in 1857.

A Free Church — For A While

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Trinity was termed a “free church.” Traditionally, pews were either rented or sold to parishioners to raise operational funds. However, the pews here were free and it was planned that monies from free-will offerings would fund the needs of the new church. Unfortunately, those offerings proved insufficient, and members of Trinity soon began renting their pews.

Centered in what today is known as the DeTonti Square Historic District, Trinity Church grew with the upscale neighborhood. One such resident was Orville F. Cawthon Sr. who was a druggist and an owner of the Stonewall Cotton Mills near Meridian. He and his family occupied a handsome home on State Street.

His oldest daughter, Clara, had been married barely a year when she died in 1883. In her memory, Cawthon funded the construction of an offset tower for Trinity the following year. When his son died in 1891 at the age of 30, the distraught father had a lovely stained glass window installed in his memory.

A Shrinking Membership and Changing Neighborhood

At the end of the 19th century, the church had nearly 600 members, but as the 20th century arrived, the city began a westward move beyond Broad Street. By the 1920s, the church experienced a marked decline in membership as the neighborhood no longer was attracting young or prosperous parishioners. Many of the once grand houses were reduced to boarding houses — or worse.

In fact, in 1929, Herbert Schroeter, Trinity’s rector, turned in his resignation. He and his wife had found that the house next door to the rectory on North Joachim Street was operating as a very busy bordello. The couple was especially disturbed by having their home mistaken for it — at all hours of the night.

The vestry at Trinity moved the Schroeters to Houston Street in Midtown by 1930 and purchased a lot at 1900 Dauphin Street for a new church. A small chapel was constructed, and services and Sunday school classes were held there until construction funds could be raised. Regular services continued down on St. Anthony Street.

A “New” Church Home

In the early part of the 20th century, other congregations in Mobile elected to move when their neighborhoods became increasingly commercial. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Jews had all moved to Government Street, abandoning their former places of worship for new construction.

At the end of World War II, funds were finally raised for a new church on Dauphin Street but the members of Trinity chose a revolutionary plan. Rather than new construction, they would rebuild their historic church at 1900 Dauphin Street. Herbert Schroeter handled the deconsecration of the old sanctuary in 1945.

Architect C. L. Hutchisson Jr. was hired and the nearly century-old structure was carefully disassembled. Bricks were cleaned and numbered. The wood forming the handsome interior trusses was taken apart and tagged. The Cawthon tower and stained-glass windows were removed and reinstalled at the new location. Old timers were delighted to find that the floors creaked in the exact same places.

Episcopal Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter handled the second consecration of the church in 1950. A parish house would be added in 1962.

Trinity Episcopal Church has had some run-ins with Mother Nature over the decades since. In 1979, Hurricane Frederic toppled the Cawthon steeple and the church again sustained damage from the Christmas Tornado in 2012.

Today, Mobile’s Trinity Episcopal Church shows no sign of those disasters, and few would suspect that this Gothic landmark was so carefully moved, or that the move was precipitated by the world’s oldest profession.

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