Every Sunday morning, an Anniston legacy is reborn.
Inside the more than 150 churches representing any and all denominations that align like constellations along the city's landscape, congregations gather in faith and social obligation to pray, sing and worship.
Their unified voices echo through time to Anniston's founding fathers, Samuel Noble and Daniel Tyler, who turned a "Model City" vision into a brick-and-mortar reality.
The provincial influence of Anniston's faith community is as diverse as the people who sit in its pews. These houses of worship provide a safe haven for those in need — no matter if they pray to God or simply pray for help.
Whether sprawled over an entire block or tucked in a strip mall, Anniston's religious community is defined by more than its architecture. Faith and worship are woven into the very moral fabric of the town.
And yet, Anniston is not a utopia. Poverty, drug abuse, homicide and all the evils confronting modern American society are present, if only in smaller doses. Community outreach and religious conviction doesn't make this "City of Churches" unique. In the South, faith-in-practice comes with the territory.
However, faith and worship are the cornerstones upon which the town was built, a legacy that is carried out in the daily lives and actions of its residents.
R.A. Thompson understood this responsibility for he was witness to its birth.
Born in Jacksonville, Thompson was given the charge of starting a new Methodist church in the domesticated wilderness that would become Anniston.
In the winter of 1881, Thompson rode into town in a buggy and started gathering up a loose congregation. In less than two weeks, Thompson was preaching to the 25 members of what would become the First United Methodist Church of Anniston.
Upon looking back on those earlier days, when he had no church and often preached under an oak tree or standing on a pile of wood, Thompson found little pride in how far they had come, but rather in the promise that lay ahead.
"In reviewing the past with the small beginnings and trials, we ask, was it worthwhile? When we look at the great church … when we see this great host of God's people, we can but exclaim — 'What has God wrought?'"
With its endless parade of stoplights and traffic stretching as far as the eye can see, Quintard Avenue is the bane of most commuters' existence.
But few slow down long enough to appreciate that Quintard serves as more than the asphalt artery carrying drivers through the heart of Anniston. To drive along its tree-lined street is to cut a path through Anniston's religious genesis.
Faith and worship took shape along this street.
Tucked just off Quintard stands Grace Episcopal Church, which claims to be the first organized congregation in Anniston – a rightful declaration considering both Samuel Noble and Daniel Tyler were devout Episcopalians.
At the corner of Quintard and 12th Street is Parker Memorial Baptist Church. Named in honor of Dr. D.T. Parker, who established Anniston's First National Bank. Parker's cornerstone was laid in 1888.
One block up stands the modest Temple Beth El ("House of God"), Anniston's lone Jewish synagogue, which opened its doors for Rosh Hashanah in 1883. As it stands today, Temple Beth El is the oldest Alabama synagogue still in use.
Within relative walking distance of these houses of worship are other Anniston religious landmarks. The First United Methodist Church, at 1400 Noble St. was formed in 1881 back when Anniston was still a privately owned factory town.
First Christian Church is another of Anniston's oldest congregations that continues to thrive just off Quintard Avenue at the corner of 14th and Leighton. Organized in 1885, First Christian worships on the property that once belonged to St. Paul's Methodist Church, which built the existing sanctuary in 1889.
The First Presbyterian Church was organized in March of 1884 back when Anniston was becoming a boom town, having grown from a frontier village with a population of 942 in 1880 to more than 6,000 by 1884. Before building its existing sanctuary on Henry Road, Anniston's First Presbyterian Church stood at 10th and Quintard. But that lot was sold to Alabama Power, which took possession on New Year's Day 1963
Through the towering 100-year-old oak trees that line Quintard Avenue, it's easy to see the quaintly beautiful sanctuary belonging to Trinity Lutheran Church. But this was once home to Anniston's first Catholic congregation. Organized in 1885, Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church is one of many local houses of worship whose history is scarred by fire as their original building at the corner of Quintard and 11th was destroyed by fire on Palm Sunday 1922. Sacred Heart rebuilt the church as it stands today but sold it to Trinity in 1997 after breaking ground on a new building in Golden Springs.
And just down from Trinity is another former house of worship that once belonged to one of Anniston's oldest congregations. The First Baptist Church, which owned the now abandoned property on 14th and Pine, was among the first five congregations to call Anniston home. Organized in 1882 as a missions church, First Baptist's sanctuary was also devastated by fire in 1885 and the congregation would eventually move onto the former Fort McClellan.
These city blocks, where over the generations homes, business and even churches have moved or vanished like so many chess pieces, retain little of the early splendor that once defined this street named in honor of long-time friends and confidants of Sam Noble – among them was C.T. Quintard, who served as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.
But these are only buildings – concrete facades from which a town's soul reaches out to support those in need. And beneath the banner of religion, each is doing what they can – Protestant and Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and even growing Hispanic ministries are reaching out in fellowship and hope. That was the founding fathers' goal for the establishment of some of these and other area churches. The structures alone were but empty vessels. It was the people who provided the real sanctuary.
"The hearts of the people are to be trained by the churches," exclaimed then-Mayor F.M. Hight in 1885.
In those early days of prohibition, that meant luring the locals away from the evils of alcohol, a poison that Noble, known as a "friend of the hardy sons of toil," publicly scorned by vowing to keep "whiskey and beer from the mouth of the working man," which he did by serving as elected president of the Prohibition Club.
On Feb. 28, 1883, the county voted by overwhelming majority to outlaw spirits. The ban was considered the "life and salvation of Anniston."
The "Model City," as Anniston was called, was meant to be a haven from the wickedness that plagued larger cities. And what better place to find sanctuary, to explore more meaningful activities than within the churches whose influence reached beyond property lines and into every aspect of life in the small Southern town.
Anniston's battle over prohibition found an early ally in the town's vocal congregations and preachers, who were the city's conscience. Quietly the "Model City" had become the "Moral City."
Even years later, the churches were still weighing in. An 1899 resolution by P.M. Jones, member of the Calhoun Baptist Association, condemned alcohol sales. "For as much as we believe that dancing, card-playing, frequenting barrooms, theater-going, drunkenness, swearing, gambling, baseball games are each hurtful to Christian influence and demoralizing in their tendency," he said. "Be it resolved, that we request each church in said association to withdraw the right hand of church fellowship from any member engaging in any of the above offenses."
The motion was carried by a unanimous vote.
While prohibition served as one rallying cry for Anniston's religious community, there was no lack of diverse ecclesiastical influence.
The first edition of The Hot Blast, published Aug. 18, 1883, listed five organized churches, including two black congregations – the Colored Congregational Church, which Noble donated land and building materials for, and Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The first white congregations were Grace Episcopal, First Methodist and First Baptist.
All of which came into being while Anniston was still a private factory town. The population surge that occurred when Anniston opened to the public in 1883 led to immediate spiritual growth and enthusiastic building projects across town.
The trade journal, Alabama Hot Blast, referred to Anniston as the "pride of the South – the City of Churches," a nickname that was well-deserved considering that by the mid-1890s Anniston was now home to 25 congregations – and one Jewish synagogue.
Among those was Anniston's second Episcopal church, St. Michael and All Angels. Built as a gift to the working class by John Ward Noble, St. Michael's was expected to have a priest working with the poor and an infirmary where a sisterhood could attend to the sick.
That medical mission is still being carried out.
First built in the early 1920s to help Anniston's poor survive a raging flu epidemic, St. Michael's medical clinic has a storied history of community outreach. Today a team of doctors and nurses of all faiths and denominations have volunteered to care for uninsured patients.
Being a Model City means exhibiting model behavior. This, in the South, is defined by one thing – worship. Church is how residents, lured by the promise of work and a booming economy, socialized. And within those fertile fields is where the kind-hearted have maneuvered to affect real change.
While it is impossible to list and quantify 125 years of outreach, it's easy to recognize those founded on faith and inspired by the needs of an ever-growing, ever-desperate population.
Perhaps the most shining example of the power that Anniston's religious community wields can be seen through the works of Interfaith Ministries. Founded 33 years ago to streamline the efforts of area churches, Interfaith enlists more than 125 churches — roughly 40 percent of Calhoun County houses of worship — each of which donate money, supplies or volunteers to help those in need.
Faith and tenacity
While some congregations offer social impact through actions and outreach, others bring about change by their sheer existence. Such is the case for Temple Beth El, whose significance within Anniston's faith community is its diversity.
Though limited by its size – starting with 24 members in 1893 and now hovering around 40 – its presence in an area dominated by Christianity cannot be diminished. The temple's importance was measured less by its collective efforts than by the individuals who worshiped within its modest synagogue.
Their actions represented Jews everywhere.
And yet they walked the same streets and saw the same problems facing all people – not just Christians and Jews – and did what they could to help.
They hosted food drives and joined Interfaith Ministries. Joseph Saks donated the land that gave rise to the Saks community and its school system. Alfred Caro was among those who founded the Anniston Soup Bowl, and Rudy Kemp, as local legend has it, held the door open when black pastors Bob McClain and George Smitherman successfully integrated the library.
"Our members were involved in making Anniston better," says Sherry Blanton, temple president. "Our congregation is tenacious. Whereas there are many small congregations in small towns across the South teetering on the brink of closure, our congregation remains tenacious in its desire to keep its identity alive in Anniston."
But Anniston's religious diversity doesn't end at the temple doorstep.
Anniston is also home to a growing population of Muslims, who, since 1997, have worshiped at the Anniston Islamic Center. Tucked amongst the homes along Christine Avenue, the center has a membership of more than 100.
And each has arrived with a story to tell, says Islamic Center organizer, Safaa Al-Hamdani.
"We come from every spot on earth, every continent, different nationalities and backgrounds – all coming together to pray to one God," he says. "When we meet, it's like the United Nations all under one roof."
Much like the Temple, the Islamic Center's impact is difficult to measure because of its relatively small size and desire to remain more on the outskirts of large social issues. Local Muslims understand that as a religious minority, it's their responsibility to try and educate others about their faith, an opportunity they relish.
But as far as community outreach, the Islamic Center has one thing in large supply.
"We have a lot of doctors," Al-Hamdani says with a grin. "And they like to help any way they can."
Many of the center's physicians have volunteered at the St. Michael's medical clinic, while some of its opthmologists have opened their offices and given free eye exams to those in need and without insurance.
In Anniston, religion permeates every facet of life – from ads in the Yellow Pages to fighting poverty – but such is the nature of the South, where faith is not only influential, it's defining.
Nicknamed the "Model City," the "City of Churches" back in a time when such terms were rather naive, Anniston has solidified a legacy of faith-in-practice that reaches beyond what its founding fathers, devout men in their own right, could have imagined. And its influence has become as diverse as it is far-reaching.
"Whatever we can do … we will," Al-Hamdani says. "Though some of our beliefs are different, we are one community. This is home to us all."