A Brief History of Nativity
In 1881, Greenwood was a small, unimpressive collection of river wharves, saloons, general stores and a handful of frame houses. The levee systems which would turn the Mississippi Delta into a cotton-growing powerhouse had not yet been completed and there was little to attract new families willing to brave scorching summers, massive mosquitoes and the network of swamps and bayous stretching from this Leflore County seat to the Carroll County hills.
Without enough individuals to support separate denominational buildings, Greenwood worshipers of the 1880s met in a common center, designated as Union Church and located where the existing Ahavath Rayim Synagogue stands on East Market. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians took turns worshipping in Union Church, and each would eventually break away to start their own building programs. In May of 1881, four Episcopal families asked The Reverend William P. Browne of Canton to travel north and meet with them to discuss a Greenwood parish. Mr. and Mrs. Littleton Upshur, Mr. and Mrs. Alex Henderson, Mr. and Mrs. Gideon Montjoy and Dr. and Mrs. J.H.Lucas spent the evening of May 24, 1881, discussing that possibility with Reverend Browne and plans were laid for a new congregation, to be known as the Church of the Nativity.
The most pressing need for this new parish was a suitable church building, and Greenwood had nothing to offer. Littleton Upshur donated land a few blocks south of the Yazoo River on Main Street (the current site of Fire Station #1) and Gid Montjoy began delivering lumber from his own property. The groundbreaking by the little group was arranged in October of 1882 and by the following March the new church was complete. Thirteen communicants were on the rolls when Church of the Nativity was admitted into union with the Diocese of Mississippi in April, 1883.
Those thirteen souls had a building but struggled to find a full-time rector in this isolated corner of Mississippi. It wasn’t until 1889 that the Reverend Cecil P. Wilson agreed to move to Greenwood, but his tenure was short-lived, lasting only one year. He was followed by the Reverend Jean B.C. Beaubieu and the Reverend George L. Neide. By 1895, the congregation has grown to include 50 members and the small Main Street church was increasingly crowded. Nativity’s Lay Reader-in-Charge, Charles Wheat Hinton, arrived in 1899 and began campaigning for a new and larger building. While he was away at General Seminary in New York City, Dr. J.H. Lucas spearheaded the drive for a new structure and an effort to maintain the active congregation, which had dwindled to thirty-two by the turn of the 20th Century.
When Reverend Hinton returned from New York, building plans picked up speed. Parishioner J.S. McDonald owned the lot at the southwest corner of Church and Howard Street, a prime piece of property in a town that was now the fastest growing community in Mississippi. He had deeded the lot to Nativity in 1896 with the stipulation that “a suitable brick church….not to cost less than $4000” be built on the site. The land was lost to tax default in 1898 and reclaimed by founding member Alex Henderson for $69.99.
It would be 1902 before ground was finally broken for the new church. The existing rectory was sold for $1750 to generate the initial funds and J.E.Barnes and Company of Greenville was hired to begin construction. The Diocese of Mississippi purchased the deed from Mr. Henderson and then deeded it back to the parish on June 21, 1902. As was the custom in those days, the entire building was completed in a matter of months and the first service was held on August 3, 1902, led by the Reverend C.W.Hinton and the Reverend W.C. Whitaker of Jackson. The Greenwood newspaper reported that “Everybody enjoyed these services and are profuse in complimenting the appearance of the new church building and its splendid arrangement.” Oddly enough, the cornerstone, still in place today by the bell tower, was not inserted until the following day.
Two of the Gothic stained-glass windows of the old Main Street church were removed and installed in the new Howard Street sanctuary. The Jewish congregation paid $550 for the Main Street property and worshipped there until their Market Street synagogue was completed in the 1920s.
In 1912, in the midst of Greenwood’s boom years, a two-story rectory was completed behind the sanctuary, facing Church Street. It would serve the church rectors until a North Greenwood rectory was completed in 1956, leading to the demolition of the old house for a new educational and office wing. In 1926, the original tower on the south side of the sanctuary was demolished and the Rose Community Building was erected in memory of Bessie Rose, wife of the Reverend Lysander Rose. By then, Nativity had grown to 300 communicants and was one of Greenwood’s largest and most active churches.
Throughout the century, Nativity was served by a series of outstanding rectors, including the Reverends Dr. Lysander Rose, Randolph Claiborne, Warren Botkin, Duncan Gray, Sr. (later the Bishop of Mississippi), and the inimitable Reverend Jones Hamilton, who would lead Nativity for a full quarter-century. He was followed by the Reverends Michael Engle, Larry Maze (later the Bishop of Arkansas) and Craig Gates. Ella Breckinridge served as Interim Priest from 2005 until 2006, when the Reverend Matthew Rowe was called. During his tenure, plans for a large addition were completed and accomplished, adding a Great Hall, an office suite, a large kitchen, courtyard, loggia and extra rooms for adult and youth education. The Reverend Peter Gray was called as priest-in-charge in 2013 and then rector in early 2015.