Ask McGehee: What’s the history of the Catholic Church that is closed on Springhill Avenue?

Postcard of St. Joseph's Church
A circa 1909 postcard shows the newly completed St. Joseph’s Church and its rectory to the west. The Mobile Register termed it “one of the most beautiful churches in the state.” It has been vacant since 2018.

St. Joseph’s Church was dedicated in 1908 and has been vacant since 2018. The parish itself has a much longer history, however.

As Mobile began its meteoric growth in the 1830s and 1840s, a substantial number of German immigrants arrived, many of whom were Catholic. By the 1850s, Bishop Michael Portier arranged to establish a German Jesuit church where services could be conducted in German. With the new cathedral well underway, the recently vacated church on the southwest corner of Conti and Conception streets became available.

Before the decade was over, the bishop directed the Jesuits at Spring Hill College to build a new church for the growing German congregation. Portier explained “the continually expanding limits of our prosperous city and the rapidly increasing number of inhabitants demands another Catholic church, especially for those that are at a greater distance from the cathedral.”  The newly formed parish stretched as far west as Ann Street.

Hospital Proximity

It was determined that the new church should be built near Providence Hospital, which at the time was on St. Anthony Street near the U.S. Marine and City hospitals. In 1858, a brick church was constructed on North Jefferson Street, between St. Louis and St. Anthony streets.

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The church, with its flat tin roof, faced west. A detached two-story frame structure held the bell and a long rope reached into a second floor window of the church. Also on the property was a rectory with a separate building, housing a kitchen and dining room. The large tree-shaded lot contained a barn, chicken yard, and vegetable and flower gardens.  

A four-room parochial school was soon added and its second floor held a large room, which was used for a variety of events and meetings. Separate playgrounds for male and female students were provided. 

Special French Protection

In 1862, after the eruption of the Civil War, the local French consul announced that since the church was conducted by French Jesuits, it was under the special protection of France, “a neutral and friendly nation.” The church survived unscathed by the conflict, and in 1870, it was granted independence from the Jesuits at Spring Hill.

By 1903, plans were underway for a larger church. The New Orleans architectural firm of Diboll and Owen was hired. That partnership produced several Catholic churches in Louisiana as well as the New Orleans Public Library and the headquarters for the United Fruit Company.

A triangular lot was obtained on Springhill Avenue, a block south of the old location. The new church was completed in 1908 and featured seating for 600 as well as a rectory. A central 120-foot tower was flanked by two entrances but a third was later added in the center due to crowding. The cost for the building was $50,000 or nearly $1.5 million today.  

Not included in that cost was the magnificent white marble altar featuring a scene of the Last Supper. It was created after the church received a $6,000 bequest in 1916, the equivalent of over $150,000 today.  

The numerous stained glass windows were given as memorials over the next decade, and in reviewing the names of the memorialized members, it is obvious that by the 20th century, the church had long surpassed its original purpose to cater to German immigrants. Included in the names are members of local Irish, French, Italian and German Mobilians.

In 1926, the former site of the church became the location for the new St. Joseph’s School. The $80,000 structure fronted St. Louis Street rather than North Jefferson.

A Changing Neighborhood

As the decades progressed, Mobile continued to grow west and expand, just as it had during Bishop Portier’s lifetime. More parishes were established and more Catholic churches built. The once tightly-filled residential district surrounding St. Joseph’s began to decline. Traffic increased and commercial intrusions mounted.

By 1968, St. Joseph’s School had closed its doors, as had the nearby Convent of Mercy.  In 1970, the organ in the church failed as a wedding ceremony got underway, leading to the substitution of an accordion.

While the former convent became a chandelier showroom, and later condominiums, St. Joseph’s School ultimately was converted into Wings of Life. The last service at St. Joseph’s church took place in 2018, and the interior elements have been incorporated into the recently completed St. Ignatius Church, also located on Springhill Avenue, though far to the west.

The future of the former St. Joseph’s is unclear. Early rumors circulated that the new owner might convert it into a “boutique hotel,” but more recently, it has been considered for office space. Whatever its future, this well-constructed and historic building is a true landmark of downtown Mobile and one that reflects the history of this port city.

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