In 1885, Nannie and Elizabeth Pierce, the wife and daughter of Bishop Henry Pierce, the first diocesan Bishop of Arkansas, founded St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock as a mission and Arkansas’ first black Episcopal congregation.
Elizabeth Pierce recalled the churches beginnings: “To start St. Philip’s in the summer of 1885, [my mother] went to West Ninth Street, secured a large room on the second floor over a store …, placed an organ in it and every Sunday afternoon mother and I would go down there. … We soon had to move to a larger room. Then the Bishop secured a lot on Spring Street, about two blocks from the Cathedral. … It was moved to Gaines Street … and became the first missionary project of the Cathedral.”
The church served a small but faithful group of congregants for more than 80 years. It slowly changed from a refuge for African-American Episcopalians into a community that wished to break down racial barriers and strive for inclusive fellowship.
By the late 1960s, most of St. Philip’s members had dispersed to other churches, and the building fell into disrepair. The property was eventually acquired by the government as part of an urban renewal project.
Though St. Philip’s church building is gone, artifacts such as the altar, baptismal font, and altar rail serve to remind of its legacy and importance to African-American spirituality in Arkansas.
Visit the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in downtown Little Rock to see some of these remaining artifacts from St. Philip’s, part of the “Soul Sanctuary” exhibit on display until Feb. 28, 2012.
Information obtained from Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and “White Already to Harvest,” by Margaret Simms McDonald.