Saint Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church was a segregated congregation originally located at 1119 and 1121 North 21st Street in North Omaha, between Nicholas and Paul Streets. Established in 1877 as a mission, in the 1970s it merged with another Episcopal congregation to become the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. This is a history of St. Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church in North Omaha.
In dusty pioneer Omaha City of 1878, a segregated Sunday School for African American children called the Trinity Mission was established by the Episcopalians in the Cozzens House hotel downtown. Rev. Dean Millspaugh started the mission with a young African American assistant named William A. Green. The mission moved to a hall on North 16th, then bought a lot at North 19th and Cuming Street. William Green was ordained in 1880, and led the mission for two years. In 1882, St. Philip the Deacon was formally established, and Rev. Green left Omaha then to lead a church in Atlanta. A new building was built from the materials at the original Trinity Cathedral, which was being replaced.
At its new Near North Side location, the church was led by a white minister named Rev. John Williams from Saint Barnabas Church. Between 1885 and 1890, the new church struggled for attendees and fiscal support. However, that Rev. Williams shouldn’t be confused with his replacement.
Rev. John Albert Williams and Sustainability
Rev. John A. Williams (1866-1933) was an African American minister, journalist, and civil rights activist. Brought to Omaha by its preeminent Bishop George Worthington, Rev. Williams started with the congregation in 1891 and established Saint Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church as a local powerhouse and ministered there all of his life, another 44 years. When he arrived the church had just 15 members; within two years there were 250 members. Bishop Worthington, the leader of Omaha’s Episcopal churches, led Rev. Williams in a Detroit church when he was younger, and encouraged him to join the ministry. With the immediate success of Rev. Williams, the Bishop’s wife donated money for the English-style building to be constructed on North 21st Street between Nicholas and Paul Streets.
Rev. Williams was also a leader among the local Black newspapers, first as a writer for The Enterprise and then as founder of The Monitor, and frequently wrote editorials that were published as front-page articles in the Omaha World-Herald.
Providing leadership throughout the Episcopal Church, Rev. Williams was remarkable for his time. Representing the congregation in church administrative work throughout the state and beyond, he was a Greek and Latin scholar as well, an author, and a voice of conscience within the church.
It was also under Rev. Williams’ leadership that for more than 35 years, the church held the Coronation Pageant. Since Jim Crow kept Ak-Sar-Ben segregated, North Omaha’s African American community held their own formal and crowned their own king and queen.
Starting from the early years of the Civil Rights movement in Omaha in the 1910s through the 1950s, St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church was on the frontlines of the struggle for equality and justice for African Americans. Through the leadership of Rev. Williams, the church hosted The Monitor, Omaha’s premier Black newspaper between 1915 and 1928. It served as a base of Omaha’s NAACP for several years, from the time Rev. Williams started the chapter in 1919 through the 1930s. Then, as the movement gained steam in the early 1950s, members and the ministers consistently joined with other Civil Rights activists in Omaha.
Rev. Williams died February 4, 1933.
Buildings, Moving and Merger
St. Philip’s was in five locations between its establishment and the merger that created the Church of the Resurrection. They included Cozzens House, a hall on North 16th, North 19th and Cuming Streets, 1119 North 21st Street, and 2532 Binney Street.
Location 1: Cozzens House
Built in 1867 by railroad tycoon George Francis Train, the Cozzens House was a 120-room hotel in downtown Omaha. One of the first hotels in Omaha, it was considered the finest between Chicago and San Francisco when it was built. After other hotels were built around downtown afterwards, the building was rented for events, activities and groups. One of those was the Trinity Mission established in 1878. It was an offshoot of the Episcopal Church intended to serve and keep segregated Omaha’s growing Black population. Early activities included a children’s Sunday School, and then the establishment of regular Sunday worship services.
Other religious activities at the Cozzens House included the early classes for the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which similar to the Trinity Mission, later moved to North Omaha. After being located in its second location, a hall on North 16th Street for a few years, in 1882 a new church was built at the congregation’s third location, North 19th and Cuming Streets. In 1891, a fourth location was opened on North 21st Street.
Location 4: 1119 North 21st Street
Built in 1892, the fourth location of the congregation was constructed at 1119 North 21st Street. It was made of limestone and brick, and had exquisite oak woodwork throughout the interior. Designed in the style of an English country church, the building was consecrated in August 1893.
In 1948, the Kellom School and Recreation Project was enacted by the City of Omaha and Omaha Public Schools. Intended to build a swimming pool and school to serve the Near North Side (and keep Omaha segregated), the City demanded St. Philip surrender their building and rectory. The rectory was sold and moved to North 27th and Miami that year, and the church was demolished in 1949.
Fifth Location: 2532 Binney Street
After intensive fundraising efforts within the congregation and throughout Nebraska’s Episcopal diocese, St. Philips moved from their historic home. Originally, the diocese found a new site at North 30th and Spencer Streets. However, it was deemed too wet to build on, and a new building was constructed at 2532 Binney Street in 1949. Plans for the original site called for a large Gothic Revival style building and rectory, but the costs were too high. In 1949, Lincoln architect Fritz Craig redrew plans for St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Seward with a few changes, and those were used to build the new St. Philips. The new cornerstone was laid on June 26, 1949, and the first service in the building happened on December 18, 1949. Fundraising for the church was so successful that all loans were paid by January 8, 1950.
Built to hold 150 worshippers, the church was made of red brick and had a full basement with classrooms and a fellowship hall.
After they moved in, the congregation remained steady in attendance for almost 20 years. In 1950, the congregation dedicated a stained glass window in the new church in honor of Rev. Dr. Williams and his 42 years of service to the congregation. Another stained glass window was for Bernie B. Cowan, a longtime warden of St. Philip’s. A rose widow showing the baptism of St. Philip the Deacon was eventually installed, too. A beautiful wooden cross memorializing Rev. Dr. Williams that was dedicated to the church in 1941 was re-installed in the new building, as well. During the 1950s, St. Philip’s was credited as a success of the Episcopal church for being a strong African American congregation.
However, in the late 1960s, St. Philip’s suffered diminishing attendance. With new housing laws removing redlining and allowing Blacks to live throughout the entirety of North Omaha, many choose to move from the Near North Side and Kountze Place neighborhoods.
The Church of the Resurrection
At the same time St. Philips started straining to serve North Omaha’s Black community, St. John’s Episcopal Church by Miller Park was struggling to serve their white congregants. White flight kicked into full steam in North Omaha starting in 1966, and afterward many neighborhoods throughout the community struggled along with their churches. With white fragility dominating the hearts and minds of many white people moving from their community, African Americans were celebrating moving from the historical heart of Omaha’s Black community. This included members of St. Philip’s who were moving in around Miller Park.
Racial issues were chomping away at Episcopal congregations in North Omaha. In 1979, a plan was hatched to solve the problems of two churches by merging them to form anew.
In 1986, St. Philip’s and St. John’s merged congregations to create an intentionally integrated church. Meeting in Saint John’s original facility, they formed the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection at North 30th and Belvedere Boulevard. Today, St. Philip Episcopal Church continues as part of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection.
The most notable minister at St. Philip’s was its longest, Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams, who along with his wife Lucy Gamble Williams was a force in the entire community. Starting in 1880, Rev. William Green was the first African American minister at the church. He left in 1888. The minister of St. Barnabas was a white man named Rev. John Williams, and he took over St. Philip’s in 1888, and led the church until 1891. That was the first year of Rev. John Albert Williams, an African American minister. He served 42 years as the minister of St. Philip’s, and died in 1933. Rev. Victor Holly served the church next from 1933 to 1937. The depression was hard on the congregation though, and Rev. Holly was replaced by Rev. Elmer Wright. However, Rev. Wright only served for a year before he died in 1938.
From 1938 to 1943, Rev. George Stams served St. Philip’s. He was succeeded by Rev. Shirley Sanchez, who served from 1943 to 1952. This was the era of the church’s property being taken by the City of Omaha, threatening its existence. Rev. Sanchez kept the congregation alive though, and secured its future before leaving. In October 1952, Rev. Soloman Jacobs started leading the church. After he resigned in 1958, Rev. Charles Taylor took over and stayed until 1962. The next year, Rev. Edward Brightman became minister.
However, Rev. Wright only served for a year before he died in 1938. From 1938 to 1943, Rev. George Stams served St. Philip’s. He was succeeded by Rev. Shirley Sanchez, who served from 1943 to 1952. This was the era of the church’s property being taken by the City of Omaha, threatening its existence. Rev. Sanchez kept the congregation alive though, and secured its future before leaving. In October 1952, Rev. Soloman Jacobs started leading the church. After he resigned in 1958, Rev. Charles Taylor took over and stayed until 1962. The next year, Rev. Edward Brightman became minister.
There were a lot of notable members of St. Philip’s throughout the years. For instance, North Omaha’s African American architect, Clarence Wigington, attended the church his entire life until he moved from Omaha. Before him, community leader Cyrus D. Bell spent his life at the church and devoted a lot of energy to building the congregation.
One of the grandest events in North Omaha in the late 1920s was the funeral of notorious crime boss Jack Broomfield. With his initial service held at Myers Funeral Home by 24th and Lake, a second and much more substantial event was held at St. Philip’s. Dan Desdunes and his band played, an Elks Club procession was held, and much ado was held by the media. Tom Dennison was among the pallbearers, along with Harry Buford, James Jewell, Dr. John Singleton and others.
You Might Like…
- A Biography of Rev. John Albert Williams
- A Biography of Lucinda Williams, nee Lucy Gamble
- A History of Black Churches in North Omaha
- “Our Story,” Church of the Resurrection official website.