Jackson’s First Christian Church doesn’t exactly fit in with some of our other Abandoned Mississippi sites. It doesn’t sit crumbling, left alone in the woods or out in a field, far from the city. From the outside, in fact, the casual observer might not even know that this imposing Gothic Revival building on the corner of High and North State Streets is not a church anymore. But its future is just as murky as if it were in those straits. It has been abandoned–not just abandoned but vandalized–by its original congregation, and is now owned by a congregation that really has no use for it. First Baptist Church bought the property in 2002 with the intention of tearing down all but the tower and creating a “prayer garden” on its corner lot one block from First Baptist’s complex.
After a public outcry in the local press, First Baptist backed away from that plan. In all fairness, they have maintained the property to its current level of manicured lawn and have kept the building secured. But so far they haven’t expressed any desire to actually do anything with the imposing Gothic Revival building, constructed in 1950 and designed by the prominent Jackson architectural N.W. Overstreet & Associates (ironically, N.W. Overstreet was a deacon at First Baptist).
I was fortunate enough to explore the sanctuary one day about a year before the congregation, dwindling down from its stated 450 members in the 1950s to about 50 by the turn of the century, abandoned the church and moved to a small Ranch house at the corner of Ridgewood and Briarwood roads in northeast Jackson. Unaware of what was to come, and before the age of digital cameras, I didn’t have a camera with me to capture the amazing sanctuary, whose shockingly vivid stained-glass windows oozed a blue aura that infused even the high spaces of the sanctuary. I can still see a mental picture of the specs of dust caught in the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows–I wish I could paint that picture for y’all. Luckily, I did snag a full-color brochure that explained each window, and I have scanned those images, which give only a shadow sense of the space. Two pictures of the sanctuary on the MHT site give the best feeling of how the space felt.
For a while, there was talk of another congregation from south Jackson buying the building, which includes not only the sanctuary but an attached two-story educational wing and small chapel. That talk abruptly ended when it was announced that the congregation had sold to First Baptist. The Northside Sun and the Clarion-Ledger both ran articles that were answered by a flood of letters to the editors, and the old Planet Weekly (those were good times, man) published a mocking “alternative-future” article, set in 2009, when the Scientologists buy First Baptist and the New Capitol so that the legislature can move to Madison. The Belhaven Heights neighborhood, which is anchored at the southwest corner by First Christian, opposed the proposed demolition and questioned the sale, as noted in the Northside Sun (April 4, 2002):
Alex McCord, architect and president of Belhaven Heights Neighborhood Association, said his association is appalled at First Christian’s willingness to allow the church to be raised (sic) without properly marketing it.
“It has not been on the open market or with a Realtor. There are bound to be congregations out there that would love to be in such an exquisite historical building that is centrally located downtown,” he said.
“There were several offers that came by virtue of word of mouth.”
The Mississippi Heritage Trust placed the church its 2003 10 Most Endangered Places list.
The negativity clearly caught First Baptist off guard, and they announced they would not demolish the building and even had the building designated as a Mississippi Landmark by MDAH. But there the church has stood, with no use for almost a decade.
Worse, and I’m not clear when this happened–I’ve been told it happened even before First Baptist signed the papers–members of the congregation of First Christian allegedly destroyed the old sanctuary by breaking out as much of the enormous blue windows as they could reach. They also apparently stripped some of the hardware and doors, and even destroyed the altar/pulpit area, which had been nicely finished in the Gothic style. I was told by a friend who went inside the building after this occurred that shards of blue and red glass literally covered the sanctuary floor. She was visibly upset by the sight.
What could have possessed a supposedly Christian congregation to destroy a place of beauty and glory to God with such conscious relish? Did they want a piece of the building for nostalgia? Did they assume it would be torn down so it didn’t matter? Did they not want it to ever be used again? Certainly, this vandalism has diminished the value of the sanctuary. At least in its previous state, as Alex McCord noted, its architectural presence and detail were a selling point and might have led another congregation to take on the maintenance of such a large and complex structure. Now, possibly only First Baptist has the money, if it will spend it, to put the building back into use, but what does that church need with yet another sanctuary? Is there anyone in the First Baptist congregation who can speak up for this abandoned treasure?