St. Peter's Catholic Church

St. Peter's Catholic Church
Gothic Revival
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
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Pine Bluff, Jefferson, 207 E. 16th
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1903 Church served by early African-American Catholic priest

Listed in Arkansas Register of Historic Places on 03/06/02


The St. Peter's Catholic Church is significant under Criterion B for its association with Father John Dorsey, the first African-American priest in a southern state. The later alterations to the building preclude its nomination to the National Register, because it no longer evokes the feeling and craftsmanship of the church where Father Dorsey served.


The present St. Peter's Catholic Church is a direct extension of what may be the first African-American School in Arkansas (the Colored Industrial Institute 1889) and the first African-American Catholic Church in Arkansas (1894). The original church was built very near the current church's location in 1894. St. Peter's parish replaced the small structure with the current church in 1903. This 1903 structure is also associated with the first African-American pastor in a southern state in the Union, Farther John Dorsey, SSJ. Father Dorsey was a priest of the religious congregation of the Society of St. Joseph, commonly known as the Josephites. Father Dorsey gave the dedication during the celebration of the opening of the 1903 church, and later served at St. Peter's from 1905-1907. This 1903 structure is also historically significant, as it is very likely the oldest African-American Catholic Church still in use since construction, west of the Mississippi River.

As stated above, this 1903 structure was home to Father John Dorsey, the first African-American Catholic Pastor in a southern state, from 1905- 1907. As such, it is eligible under Criterion B as it is strongly associated with the life of a significant individual whose contributions to local and state history can be identified and documented through numerous primary historical sources.

The original windows were commissioned and donated by local African-American members of the community. The structure with its large steeple was designed and built by T.C. Windham, an African-American architect. This steeple was one of the tallest structures in all of Pine Bluff from 1903 to 1948, and served as a local landmark for the community. T.C. Windham and his brother opened an office in Pine Bluff and were one of the most successful African-American construction firms in Arkansas.

Currently associated with this church are a multi-room rectory with attached cafeteria, a gym, a tool shed, a single-story brick school, a convent with library, and a free standing metal bell tower.

The actual construction of this building was completed in 1903, but the history of St. Peter's Catholic Church began in 1874 when Monsignor John M. Lucey came to Pine Bluff.

Monsignor Lucey arrived in Pine Bluff to be pastor for the St. Joseph Church (1874-1914). He had also founded the Annunciation Academy at St. Joseph Catholic Church and became the driving force behind establishing a vocational school for the African-Americans in the 1880s. On July 25, 1889, John O. Harrison and his wife, Mary Belle, deeded a block of land in the Dexter Harding Addition of Pine Bluff to Bishop Fitzgerald of the Little Rock Catholic Diocese. This block of land between East 15th and 16th Avenues and State and Alabama Streets was donated for the construction of the first African-American school in Arkansas.

Additional supporters of the school included Pine Bluffs mayor J.W. Bocage, County Judge J.W. Owens, Circuit Clerk Ferdinand Havis, Jefferson County's largest cotton planter John M. Gracie, and Wiley Jones, a successful entrepreneur of Pine Bluff. Jones and Havis were two of the main African-American contributors to the school. The school was named the Colored Industrial Institute and it opened for classes on September 9, 1889, with two Sisters of Charity from Nazareth, Kentucky, and six pupils. This two-story wood frame structure was constructed in the northwest corner of the block of land and had a rectangular foot print with the long axis running north to south. In May of 1893, ten bound volumes of the student's work at the school were sent for display at the World's Fair in Chicago (five of these volumes are on file at the current St. Peter's School Library). As well as literary skills, the Sisters of Charity taught sewing, knitting, crochet, embroidery, dressmaking, cutting by chart, and machine sewing. At the World's Fair, the Institute received two medals and two diplomas from the general authorities and one diploma from the Catholic Educational Exhibit.

In addition to the fund raising drive to establish the first African-American school in Arkansas, Monsignor Lucey was also instrumental in raising funds for the first African-American Catholic Church in Arkansas, which was completed in 1894. This small church was built south of the Colored Industrial Institute, and faced west. This small, wood frame, single-story structure was dedicated on May 27, 1894, and was said to seat seventy-two persons. This construction was possible due to funds outside of Arkansas, including the editors and readers of a Boston newspaper, The Pilot.

The construction of this small wood church also roughly coincided with a single-story extension of the Colored Industrial Institute. This single-story addition was built on the east side of the Institute and included a kitchen and boarding area, so that the school could introduce cooking and housekeeping while enrolling female boarding students. By June 1894, the enrollment had increased to approximately 200 pupils.

The popularity and success of the school continued, and a larger school was constructed in 1897 to meet the demand. This second school was a three-story brick building, with large foundation stones, and was designed to accommodate three hundred students. This structure was built south of the original school and north of the 1894 church. The new school was dedicated on November 25, 1897. This structure was used mainly for literary skills while the earlier building was used for cooking instruction and boarding areas. The combined facilities served as a day and boarding school for girls and young women. While boys up to 16 years of age were instructed during the day in literary skills, wood working skills, and music lessons. By 1898, the enrollment was 235 students.

The success of the Colored Industrial Institute continued and the needs of the associated Catholic community soon exceeded the small wood frame church. Again, funds were raised for a new structure, but this time a larger local effort contributed. The construction in 1903 of the second St. Peter's Church included impressive stained glass windows on all sides and a tall steeple on the west end with a large bell. The original construction cost, as stated by Monsignor Lucey, was $10,000.

The new church was constructed south of both school buildings and was dedicated on November 1, 1903; with a Mass conducted by Father John Dorsey, SSJ. Father Dorsey was the second African-American priest ordained in the United States, and the first pastor in a southern state. He returned and served St. Peter’s congregation from 1905 to 1907. As such, he was the first African-American priest, serving in Arkansas. John Henry Dorsey was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 28, 1874, to parents Daniel and Emma Snowden Dorsey. His parents were members of St. Francis Xavier Parish, which was the first African-American parish in the United States in 1863. John Dorsey studied at St. Thomas' college in St. Paul, Minnesota, for one year prior to enrolling at the newly opened Mill Hill Josephite Minor Seminary, Epiphany Apostolic College in Baltimore in 1889. He continued at St. Joseph's Seminary until 1894. He then worked for three years on the missions of Virginia as a teacher and catechist in Jarrett's Station and Keswick.

John Dorsey continued his seminary studies in 1897 and was ordained to the priesthood on June 21, 1902. Father John Dorsey was stationed at St. Joseph's Catechetical College in Montgomery, Alabama, and offered Mass once a month at the Tuskegee Institute. Father Dorsey was assigned to St. Peter's Church in February 1905, and served till 1907.

The Sisters of Charity taught instructions at the school from 1889 to 1901. Sisters of the Holy Family from New Orleans replaced them in 1901 and continued teaching until 1909. From 1913 until 1927, the Sisters of the Holy Ghost and Mary Immaculate continued instructions while Josephite Fathers missionary priests served the community from approximately 1898 until 1928. The Sisters of the Holy Spirit from Techny, Illinois, served the students from 1928 until 1975. While in the care of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit, a high school was added. The actual school remained in use until 1963. The school was closed for structural problems, and later torn down. The current single-story St. Peter's school reopened in 1984 with grades K-2nd and approximately 50 students. At present, the school has grades K-6th with about 175 students.

The St. Peter's Catholic Church is eligible for listing in the Arkansas Register of Historic Places under Criterion B with statewide significance. The 1903 gothic church is associated with the first African-American pastor in a southern state in the Union, Father John Dorsey, SSJ. Changes to the exterior preclude it from being listed in the National Register.


Bell, D.C., and W.D. Jones. J.M. Lucey. J.M. Gracie, Wiley Jones, and Ferdinand Havis. The Pride of Pine Bluff - Souvenir. (Gazette Print: Little Rock, Arkansas) 1898.

Howard, William and John Jacob, co-chairmen. Reunion 1989: St. Peter's Catholic School - Our Line From the Past to the Present and to the Future. (St. Peter's Catholic Church: Pine Bluff Arkansas), 1989.

Keller, Father Bernard, SVD. Personal Communication. 2001.

Leslie, James W. Pine Bluff and Jefferson County: A Pictorial History. (The Donning Company: Virginia Beach, Virginia).

Lucey, J.M. Pastor. St. Joseph 's Advocate. Volume III, Number 10. (April 1894), page 553.

Mullally, Father Thomas A., SVD Pastor. We’ve Came This Far by Faith: The One Hundredth Anniversary of St. Peter's Catholic Church, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. (St. Peter's Catholic Church: Pine Bluff, Arkansas), 1994.

St. Peter's Echoes: St. Peter's Catholic School Yearbook 1951. (St. Peter’s Catholic Church: Pine Bluff, Arkansas), 1951.