The First Baptist Church of Saint Paul was organized on December 29, 1849 by twelve persons who had recently arrived at this frontier village on the upper Mississippi River. A Sunday School had begun two years earlier, led by Harriet Bishop, Minnesota’s first public school teacher. She invited the children who attended her first week of classes to return on Sunday, July 25, 1847 for Sunday School. The first church building was erected on the present site of Mears Park, bounded by Sibley and Wacouta, 5th and 6th Streets. Before the streets were graded, this was an elevated plot known as “Baptist Hill” which sloped down to the river at the Jackson Street “Lower Landing.” This part of early St. Paul became known as Lower Town.
Most of the early members came from New England where Baptists had established churches in disagreement with the Puritans (Congregationalists) on the subject of individual conscience (soul liberty) and separation of church and state. Roger Williams, founder of the First Baptist Church in America, moved from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638 to form the colony of Rhode Island where persons of all religious persuasions were welcomed.
Miss Bishop wrote to the Baptist Home Mission Board requesting help for the group meeting in St. Paul. In February, 1848, Rev. John P. Parsons was assigned to the area. Work began on a church building, and Rev. Parsons went East to raise money to complete it. He was beaten and robbed of the funds in New York. He began the journey back but was found dead on the river boat before it reached the landing at St. Paul. The first service at the little church on Baptist Hill was his funeral.
T. R. Cressey and Andrew Torbet were next appointed by the Home Mission Society to minister to the small congregation. Minnesota was granted statehood in 1856. and the city began to grow rapidly. Rev. John Pope arrived as minister in 1857, and served for nine years. The membership expanded, and a new building was completed on Wacouta Street near Eighth. This building served for 13 years. The congregation had grown to over 300 when the decision was made to erect the building that is still in use today.
Plans for the building were drawn by Chicago architect, W. W. Boyington. The builders were Monroe and Romaine Sheire, members of the church, who built many of St. Paul’s early buildings. The cost of the grounds and building was $120,000. $10,000 of this was for the organ, said to be the finest between Chicago and the west coast. A large stained glass window faces Ninth Street. There are ten stained glass windows along the two side walls of the sanctuary. One window is dedicated to Horace Thompson, early banker, who headed the building committee, and died at age 52. At the top of each window is a picture that symbolizes an aspect of the Christian faith. The present sanctuary was completed adjacent to the second building (called the stone chapel )which was to be used for meeting rooms until it was damaged by fire.
In the years that followed there were many changes in Lowertown. Some families who lived nearby moved to Summit Avenue and other streets on the hill. Residences were replaced by businesses and factories. Young people poured into the city, seeking employment. The church offered many activities for them, including boxing for men and sewing for young ladies. In 1902, the American Baptist Convention was held in St. Paul. using the church facilities.
The first black member joined in 1856. In 1864 a group of ex-slaves under the leadership of Robert Hickman arrived by river boat. They were part of First Baptist Church until Pilgrim Baptist Church was formed. A Chinese Bible class was started in 1912. During World War lithe church hosted 25 Niesi who came to Minnesota from relocation camps or who were stationed at Fort Snelling. During these years the city was home to a large Mexican population. The church became home to a Spanish-speaking congregation with aid from the American Baptist Home Mission Society. This group also gave support to the Wacouta Christian Center at 583 Mississippi Street, which sponsored weekday activities for children and families from 1921 until the area was cleared for freeway development in the 1950’s.
Dr. Edwin T. Dahlberg came as pastor in 1939. During the succeeding seven years the church membership increased by 252 members. He later became president of the American Baptist Convention and of the World Council of Churches. Woodbury Baptist Church, founded in 1962, is the most recent in a chain of 12 churches founded by First Baptist Church. The Downtown Child Care Center was opened in 1966. In 1996 an alternative congregation known as House of Mercy began meeting on Sunday evenings.
The church celebrates 150 years of service in 1999.
In the 1990’s, the surrounded neighborhood received significant improvements. Empty and abandoned business buildings were rebuilt as units of rental and market rate housing were built. Wacouta Commons Park was built.
Rev. William M. Englund, the longest pastor at First Baptist Church, became involved with refugees from Burma seeking a new home in St. Paul. A large numbers of people from Burma—especially those of Karen ethnicity—began arriving to worship at First Baptist Church in 2000 and brought new traditions.
The family Place, a day center for families without permanent housing became a tenant early 2005.
Historical Notes about the Building
Plan drawn for building by W.W. Boyington, Chicago architect
Lot purchased for $16,000.
Building constructed by Monroe and Romaine Sheire, members of the congregation. Monroe Sheire supervised the entire project, and his firm made all the decorative woodwork for the interior. Ornamental arches and trim of interior was carved on site of black walnut and butternut.
The building was dedicated May 31, 1875. The local newspaper, The Pioneer Press declared it the largest church building in St. Paul and the finest building west of Chicago.
Cost of building $94,000
Cost of organ $8,000
Steeple clock $800
Bell was from original church on Baptist Hill.
Total cost $120,000
The cross at the peak of the roof rose 85 feet and the steeple towered 152 feet above the street.
The steeple and stone entrance was removed because steeple area was sinking.
Excavation beneath church sanctuary provided additional meeting rooms
Completion of gymnasium and classrooms at 10th & Wacouta
Rebuilding of steeple with modified design $75,000
Rebuilding of center section of building (between historic sanctuary and gymnasium) with church offices, library and meeting rooms.
Copper doors depicting history of church commissioned by Norman B. Mears.
Much needed improvements was made to the organ with the help of a $35,000 grant from Historical Society.
New pew cushions, carpeting, lights were installed. The existing sound system was moved to the main level of the sanctuary and upgraded with new a system and speakers.