In 1850 the first bishop of Mississippi, the Right Reverend William Mercer Green, visited several individuals hoping to establish a church in the village of Oxford. On May 12, 1851, St. Peter’s was organized at a meeting in the Oxford courthouse of “between twenty and thirty of the most intelligent and respectable citizens of the town and vicinity.” The group elected a vestry and wardens according to canon law, and the following day the vestry requested admission into the Diocese of Mississippi.
Professor Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard, the first resident priest, was ordained in 1855, and under his leadership the congregation funded the church building still in use today. Because all of the founders enslaved others, the church was almost certainly constructed using slave labor. Work was completed in 1860, and Barnard delivered the first sermon in the new nave on Easter Sunday of that year. Having survived the Civil War, St. Peter’s is the oldest religious structure in Oxford.
Because Barnard was also president of the University of Mississippi, a close relationship formed early on between the two institutions. That relationship intensified during the integration of Ole Miss in 1962. The stand taken in support of integration by then rector, Duncan M. Gray, Jr., is well documented.
St. Peter’s has also maintained close ties to the Oxford community. Eastview Homes, an affordable housing project, was conceived by church members. In 1972, the church opened an educational center for mentally and physically challenged children that eventually became the Scott Center and part of the Oxford School District. Church members were heavily involved in the first Habitat for Humanity home, completed in 1989. Leap Frog, an after-school tutoring program for at-risk children, was established in 1989. A Spanish-language worship service began in 1998.
As the church moved into the 21st century, a number of “firsts” took place: the first woman was ordained a deacon in 2001; the first African American priest was called in 2003, as Chaplain to Ole Miss & Assistant Rector; and the first female priest was called in 2007, as Associate Rector.
For more information, copies of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Oxford, Mississippi: A History 1851-2011 by Brenda J. West are available in the church office, as are copies of The Stained Glass Windows of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church by Jean Kiger.