Back when I was living in Brunswick a few years ago, a short noontime bicycle ride down Newcastle Street one sunny day placed me virtually all alone in the heart of the city’s commercial district.
Vacant diagonal parking spaces lined both sides of “Main Street,” behind which every establishment was closed except for a pub and a restaurant that barely served half a dozen customers between them. Far from being deserted, however, Brunswick was actually bustling with folks on this day.
A couple blocks over, parking lots overflowed and cars lined long stretches of Union and Reynolds streets. Ditto for the areas of Gloucester and Egmont streets, Norwich and Monk streets, and elsewhere throughout the city. Pedaling around town, playing hooky from my own church, I felt a serene sense of continuity on this typical Sunday in the South.
For all the stately homes in Historic Downtown Brunswick, few architectural gems shine brighter than the city’s many venerable old churches. Keeping the Sabbath has long been a revered tradition in Brunswick, dating back at least to 1838.
That is when a congregation of Methodists established themselves in the young city. We know this congregation today as Brunswick First United Methodist Church, 1400 Norwich St. In the beginning, Brunswick’s early Methodists were part of a preaching circuit of the Florida Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and had no permanent house of worship. They met at several locations, including the Glynn Academy schoolhouse.
The first church built at United Methodist’s present site arose in 1861. Bad timing. The Civil War broke out that year, and Brunswick’s residents abandoned the city to occupying Yankee troops a year later. Services did not resume there until war’s end in 1865. By the turn of the century, that original church gave way to the current structure. The first sermon delivered inside that sanctuary occurred on Dec. 20, 1904.
As early as 1844, Catholic Mass was being held in the Brunswick home of the Jekyll Island duBignons on Union Street. The first Catholic chapel was erected in 1868 at Egmont and Mansfield streets on land donated by Urbanus Dart. Dart, a former city mayor and member of a founding Brunswick family, donated much of the land on which early churches were built. In 1884, St. Frances Xavier Catholic Church was dedicated at its present site on Hanover Square in downtown Brunswick.
Beginning in 1858, the original congregation of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church also made use of the Glynn Academy schoolhouse, as would several other fledgling churches in their early years. (Established in 1788, Glynn Academy is the second oldest pubic school in Georgia; the building in question was constructed in 1840.)
Regrouping after the Civil War, St. Mark’s claimed 98 members in 1868. Six years later, the first wooden structure went up on the site of the present St. Mark’s Church at 900 Gloucester St. A bell tower was added in the 1890s and the existing structure was fortified in 1911 with the “cement bricks” that stand today. The Rev. Henry Lucas led the congregation from 1876 up until his death in 1900, after which he was laid to rest beneath the altar in an unmarked grave.
Worshippers now gather by the hundreds each Sunday at First Baptist Church at 708 Mansfield St., but the church’s inception began humbly in November of 1855. The first Baptists to gather in Brunswick did so in — you guessed it — the Glynn Academy schoolhouse. The congregation included nine white members and 70 blacks, and was led by the Rev. T.B. Cooper.
The original Baptist church building was constructed in 1858 at H and Union streets, with full immersion baptisms taking place in a nearby saltwater creek. Construction of the present church at Mansfield and Union streets began in 1887 and was completed three years later. A congregation of 200 assumed a $35,000 debt to see that church become a reality.
Just down the street from First Baptist, another large church stands at the corner of Union and George streets. First Presbyterian Church took root in 1867, shortly after the Civil War’s end. Its charter members included two black residents. The first church building at 1105 Union St. was dedicated on Dec. 18, 1873.
Founded by St. Mark’s, St. Athanasius Episcopal Church opened to serve the black community in Brunswick in 1885. The tabby revival-style building was completed around 1890 at 1321 Albany St. and stands today as “one of the best examples of a historic tabby structure that is still being used as originally intended by the designers,” preservationist Taylor Davis has noted.
The congregants of First African Baptist Church of Brunswick first met beneath an oak grove between Gloucester and F streets some 155 years ago, during the Civil War. The congregation built its tongue-and-groove wood church at 1416 Amherst St. in 1867 on land donated by Urbanus. With some modifications, that structure of understated elegance still serves a predominantly black Brunswick congregation to this day.
So Newcastle’s business district might look fairly dead come Sunday. But the spirit will be very much alive elsewhere in Brunswick, as folks answer that time-honored call to worship at long-established churches throughout the city.