Where navigable rivers flow into the sea there is often a point of land on which stands a lighthouse. For many years near the place where the Bon Secour River enters Mobile Bay stood a church known as God's Lighthouse. Many people used the cross on its steeple by day or the lantern hung from its flagpole at night as a steering mark, adding another use to its main one, which was to serve as a beacon marking the right channel for navigation for time and eternity.
The church was St. Peter's Episcopal Church by the Sea. Located on the north bank of the river at the wide reach called Miller's Bend its steeple and flagpole could be seen down Oyster Bay, well up the river itself and as far off as Shellbanks.
In the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century many Baltic German families had settled on Bon Secour River near the mouth of Oyster Bay. These were German Lutheran people and there was no Lutheran pastor available to care for them. So a group of the men went to Mobile by sailing ship and petitioned the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Alabama to give them pastoral care. The Bishop was very much interested in this group and he sent a priest to minister to them as often as possible and came himself several times a year.
For years before they had a church the people met each Sunday for services in homes. The group included Millers, Carvers, Plashes, Munds, Billies, Steiners, Cobums, Rohnwicks, Cazzears, Witts, Wards, Snellmans, Wallaces, Steeles, Krouters, McPhails, Styrons, Rafields, Nelsons, Morgans and others.
In 1878 the congregation was formally organized as a mission. Soon afterwards in 1885 the frame church was built next door to the Witt homestead on land given by them. The church was beautifully furnished in every way and had brass tablets with the Ten Commandments and the Apostles Creed on each side of the altar. It was well equipped with altar and altar brasses, hangings and all other necessities to beautify the worship of God. The church was lovingly tended and cared for by the Witt family.
The clergyman came from Mobile by schooner. Tides and wind made arrival uncertain and since communications were poor, a flagpole was erected beside the church. When the minister arrived a red flag with a white cross was run up by day and a lantern by night. People came from up the river, from Oyster Bay and even from Shellbanks. They came by sailboats, rowboats and bateaus. In time a large bell was installed to call the congregation together.
According to old records when Bishop Wilmer came in the early days, a special signal was run up. Then the water would literally be black with boats for a very large crowd of people would come to the church. Bishop Wilmer was greatly loved throughout his lifetime because of the leadership, help and comfort he gave to his people during the sorrows of the Civil War and the long, bitter years of the Reconstruction period.
Shortly after the church was built a day school was started for the children of the congregation and of the community. The care of their children was very precious to those good people and they had a strong belief in and respect for education. Soon a schoolhouse was built and a teacher employed. These children had the pleasantly different experience of going to school by boat. No doubt they were sometimes tardy if the fishing was good along the way.
At St. Peter's whole families came together to the services. Even babies in arms were brought to church for there were no servants in this seafaring community. Sunday School followed church instead of preceding it - so that the sweet sound of children's voices was heard at God's services at St. Peter's by the Sea.
In the early nineteen hundreds a school was established up the river near Swift's Landing. The Swift family had built a big sawmill there and had a large business with many employees, so this was a more convenient location for the majority of Bon Secour's children. Later St. Peter's School and the Swift School were consolidated as a public school on the present site.
Fire totally destroyed the historic old church building and all its contents. The destruction of the church occurred on the night of December 29, 1928, according to the History of St. Peter's Church by the Rev. J. D. C. Wilson.
It is interesting to note that the earliest official act of which St. Peter's has a record was the baptism of Joseph Richard Gazzear on August 18th, 1889 with the Rev. Joseph Louis Tucker, D.D. of Mobile, officiating. His son, the Rev. Louis Tucker, D.D. came to St. Peter's as its vicar in 1895 as a young man who had just been ordained. In the years he spent working with them, he grew to love the people and the community of Bon Secour. In later life he became an author of national reputation. Bon Secour is mentioned in several of his books, particularly in CLERICAL ERRORS. This mention is made of him because he is the author of the poem entitled "Bon Secour" which is used to open this book. Some of his children attend St. Peter's Church today. A great-grandson was baptized there in July 1964, the fifth generation of this family associated with this church.
It is not unusual to find that many generations of the same family have attended St. Peter's. Among its congregation today are many descendants of those devoted sons of the church who so desired its care that they petitioned the bishop to send them a priest almost a century ago.
In 1932 the church of St. Peter's was rebuilt inland near the public school on land given by Mrs. Susie Swift. A handsome church building of red brick is large enough to seat nearly one hundred and fifty persons. In 1950 a fine parish hall was built and connected to the church by a covered walkway. A church burial ground immediately behind the church building is now being prepared for use on additional land given by the Swift family. Parishioners and friends have gradually replaced the Communion silver, fine chalice, altar brasses, processional cross, proper hangings for the altar, a pulpit and prayer desk and an electric organ.
Once again St. Peter's stands ready to serve both the needs of its own flock and the community of Bon Secour with church, parish hall and burial ground and is still God's Lighthouse leading the faithful home to the safe harbor.
Written in 1965 by Charley and Meme Wakeford for their book “Food, Fun, and Fable.”