Religion has always been important to the people of Ocean Springs. Its commencement here can be traced from that day in April 1699, when Father Bordenave was assigned by d’Iberville to remain with the French colonists at Fort Maurepas. After the abandonment of New Biloxi in the 1720s, the Roman Catholics of the Mississippi coast were without priests. Their spiritual needs were attended to by visiting missionaries from the Dioceses at Mobile and New Orleans. When the cathedral parish of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was established at Biloxi in 1843, a new period began in the care of Gulf Coast Catholics. Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, Handsboro, and Mississippi City were a part of the Biloxi parish. A Catholic church was not built in the small village of Ocean Springs until Bishop Elder of the Diocese of Natchez determined that the population could support it.
In 1859, after buying a lot from Joseph Bellande on the northwest corner of present day Porter and Dewey Avenues, Bishop Elder had a simple church erected. It was dedicated to St. Alphonsus. Father Georget of Biloxi ministered to the people of St. Alphonsus as a visiting priest. The parish moved to its present location on Jackson Avenue north of Calhoun when a new church was dedicated there in February 1874. The Catholic school opened in October 1887, under the direction of the Marianite Sisters of the Holy Cross.
The present day sanctuary and rectory were erected in 1961, when Father Francis Deignan served the people of St. Alphonsus. Ocean Springs got a new Catholic parish in September 1975, when the St. Elizabeth Seton Parish was organized for the Catholics in the eastern area of the city. The Reverend Noel Fannon, a native of Ireland, was the first pastor and remained with his parish through the building of the new sanctuary on Riley Road in 1988.
The First Baptist Church of Ocean Springs was organized in 1832, by Elder George Davis. Located on Davis Bayou, the church was called the Tidewater Baptist Church. Because of the transitory nature of the settlers, the church disbanded circa 1840. In 1847, the Baptists in the area were strongly reunited by Elder Philip P. Bowen. In 1874, the Tidewater Baptist Church became known as the Ocean Springs Baptist Church. It moved to a small rental house near the L&N depot in 1876.
A sanctuary was built on the northwest corner of Desoto and Church Street in 1878. The Baptists of the community worshiped here until the structure was severely damaged in the hurricane of September 1906. In the spring of 1909, Burr & Bradford erected a new church on land donated by George W. Davis (1842-1914), a descendant of the Davis family of the Tidewater Baptist Church on Davis Bayou. The structure was situated on the northwest corner of Porter and Bellande. The church called its first full-time minister, the Reverend John E. Barnes, in 1932. Sanborn insurance maps indicate that the Porter Avenue edifice was remodeled and enlarged before 1935. A post-1935 renovation occurred resulting in the present structure, which is used for storage.
In 1958, the heirs of E.W. Illing (1980-1947) sold their property on the northeast corner of Washington Avenue and Porter to the First Baptist Church of Ocean Springs. This conveyance terminated the long history of the cinema entrepreneurship of the Illing family at this location. The Baptist under the leader ship of the Reverend Paul D. Aultman erected a new sanctuary here. It was built to accommodate approximately twelve hundred persons. The new church was dedicated on May 11, 1969.
The Methodist Church at Ocean Springs was organized in 1853, by the Reverend James Sampey. It wasn’t until 1870 that a church building was erected on the north side of Porter near Washington. Elizabeth M. Stuart (1840-1925) who was a strong financial supporter of the Methodists’ efforts here became the first registered member when the new building was dedicated in 1872. In April 1900, the Methodist Church was demolished and the materials sold to druggist, Herman Nill (1863-1904). The salvaged lumber was used by the Vahle family to erect a hotel, the Vahle House, on the northwest corner of Washington and Calhoun.
In 1901, a new sanctuary was constructed on the southeast corner of Porter and Rayburn on a lot donated by Bishop Keener. After the death of Mrs. Stuart in January 1925, a relative, W.C. Howcott of New Orleans, donated money for a memorial to the Stuarts and Bishop Keener. Three large stained glass windows were added to the church in their honor. By 1950, the Ocean Springs Methodist church had become a station church. The Reverend William L. Elkin was the first full time pastor. The next decade saw a growing congregation and the need for a larger sanctuary.
In 1962, a modern brick structure was built at the same location as the 1901 church. The Stuart-Keener memorial windows were integrated into the new church. Today, St. Paul United Methodist Church has over one thousand members and may have outgrown its present location. A committee is investigating the purchase of land in the eastern part of town for a new complex of church buildings.
In July 1886, an organizational meeting of Presbyterians was held by eight Ocean Springs families in the Washington Avenue vacation home of Louisa Burling Bartlett (1832-1889). Mrs. Bartlett and her husband, William A. Bartlett (1816-1882), the proprietor of the Home Insurance Company, resided at New Orleans. Their son-in-law was George Washington Cable (1844-1925), who gained national prestige as a writer of Creole life and social reform. Cable’s wife, Louisa S. Bartlett, owned the Bartlett Cottage on Washington from 1876 until 1890. The local Presbyterians had been meeting on Sunday afternoons at the Baptist Church, and it was decided by the small congregation at the July 1886, meeting that they should have their own church building. As a result of this meeting, a committee was organized which saw a church erected on Ocean Avenue and dedicated in October 1886. The church lot was donated by Mary Ann Wing of New Orleans who also maintained a vacation residence at Ocean Springs.
The First Presbyterian Church has grown slowly through the years. The 19th Century church was given a new belfry and steeple in 1956, by Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Walker. After nearly a century, the Presbyterians led by Reverend Andy Wells built a large sanctuary just east of the old church. It was dedicated on August 20, 1995.
The early history of the Episcopal Church at Ocean Springs has been lost, but it is known that in June 1865, an organization of Episcopalians was formed. The first records of the church indicate that the “Fortnightly Guild” met in June 1891, at the home of Dr. Tebo. It was decided at this gathering to accept the offer of the Baptist congregation to use their church building on Desoto Avenue.
The St. John’s Episcopal Church building was built in 1891, from plans drawn by Reverend Nelson Ayers from illustrations in the “Churchman.” The lot was donated by W.B. Schmidt, a wealthy merchant from New Orleans. The building committee was composed of Mrs. G.T. Helmuth, Mrs. F.V. Garrard, Mrs. Stansbury, and Dr. Tebo. It is very likely that Louis H. Sullivan, the renowned Chicago architect, assisted in the design of the church. In 1903, George and Adele Arndt gave the church bell in memory of their young daughter, Elise Arndt. The parish house was built in 1948. St. John’s was a mission church served by rectors of the congregations at Pascagoula or Biloxi.
In 1955, the Episcopal congregants of Ocean Springs got a full-time priest, the Reverend Howard B. Kishpaugh. The old church building received major renovations in 1995-1996. It was rewired, repainted, and a new copper shingle roof was installed.
The organized Lutheran religion at Ocean Springs is relatively new. Services commenced in September 1963, and the congregation was officially organized as Christus Victor Lutheran Church on February 23, 1964. It is part of the Southeastern Synod of the Lutheran Church in America. The Reverend Richard Dahlke was the first pastor. Parishioners met in a building at 703 Washington Avenue until a church was built at 2755 Bienville Boulevard in 1967. The land was purchased in 1964 from the Fort Bayou Development Corporation. On August 6, 1967, the first services were held in the new church with the Reverend B.F. Rutrough in attendance.
The black Protestants of Ocean Springs have been represented by the Baptist and Methodist faiths since the late 19th Century. Today, the Macedonia Baptist Church located on Weed Street and the St. James Methodist Church on Government Street minister to the spiritual needs of the Black community.