Church History


By Rev. Kenneth Ribelin

On Sunday morning November 30, 1902 at 11:00 a.m., a commission appointed by the Meridian Presbytery met in the Mayhaw Public School two miles east of Hattiesburg in what was then Perry County, Mississippi for the purpose of organizing a Presbyterian church. The commission consisted of Rev. R. L. Campbell, Rev. E. J. Currie, Rev. Charles Oversmith and Elder George Hartfield.

Twenty people were present and signified their desire to become charter members of a Presbyterian church in the community of Petal. Three Ruling Elders (S. D. King, G. D. Wilson and D.N. Currie) were elected and installed, and two Deacons (J. P. Keeton and J. D. Carter) were elected and installed. On the same day, Rev. E. J. Currie, who was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg, agreed to serve the congregation as its first pastor on a part-time basis. A basket lunch was served at noon by the ladies of the church on that first eventful day.

Petal_Church_1902-Small The newly organized congregation was called the Leaf River Presbyterian Church and met in the Mayhaw School until a building was erected on land donated by T. C. West next to the school. The church was sometimes called the Mayhaw Presbyterian Church because of the large Mayhaw pond on the other side of South Main Street from the church. The first public school building in Petal was called the Mayhaw School for the same reason.

The Mayhaw School was started in October 1894 on land donated by T. C. West. The school was at first called Westville in honor of the land donor. The first building was destroyed by a storm in 1900 and was rebuilt and was known after that as the Mayhaw School or Leaf River School. The school operated until 1920 when it moved to a frame school building constructed at the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue. The old Mayhaw school building and land went back to the ownership of the family of the original land donor. Two houses were built from the recycled lumber. The house on the south side of the Petal Presbyterian Church has become the church's Educational Annex. The other house is now behind the church and it has become the Youth Activity House.

The Petal Presbyterian Church was the first church building on South Main Street. Because the nearby Methodist and Baptist congregations had not yet built their own sanctuaries, the sanctuary of the Petal Presbyterian Church was used by all three denominations for several years.

One Sunday there was a Baptist worship service, the next Sunday there would be a Methodist service, and then the next Sunday there would be a Presbyterian service. The Hattiesburg ministers serving those three small Petal congregations would walk across the railroad bridge over the Leaf River when it was their turn to preach. The three congregations stayed on this rotation until the Petal-Harvey Baptists and the Petal United Methodists were able to build their own sanctuaries. These three neighboring congregations have had an historically close spiritual relationship.

From 1902 to 1929, Presbyterian services were held about once a month during that period because it was difficult to obtain and keep a minister for such a small congregation, and the church was kept going by supply ministers. Rev. Luther Blackwelder was the first regular pastor for the church. He pastored the church from 1929 to 1949. Rev. Blackwelder also had the Eatonville Presbyterian and the New Augusta Presbyterian churches which he served during the same period.

On December 14, 1949 Evangelist Howard S. Williams became the church's pulpit supply for an indefinite period. Mr. Williams had originally owned the Hattiesburg American newspaper until he felt called to be an evangelist. He served the church from 1949 until his death in 1960. During those years the church's name was changed to the Petal Presbyterian Church and many renovations to the church building and property were made. A fellowship hall was built which bears his name.

In 1961, Rev. Peter DeRuiter and his family came to Petal. Having a large family and ambitious faith, Rev. DeRuiter led the congregation in the purchase of the manse. The house had been gutted by fire and was rebuilt with the sacrificial help of the congregation. Rev. DeRuiter retired in 1969.

February 1, 1969 brought Rev. Hervey L. Laenby, Jr. to the Petal Church, and he was the pastor until 1971. Rev. Wallace Carr, while obtaining his doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi, served the church from June 1972 to August 1973. Shortly after that the church withdrew from the P.C.U.S. (Presbyterian Church in the United States) denomination and joined the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America. Rev. Charles West came in January of 1974 and served the congregation until he retired in February 1976.

Rev, William R. Hermann came to the church in 1976 while still a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. His love for foreign missions inspired the congregation to increase its foreign missions giving. Rev. and Mrs. Hermann left the church in March 1980 to be foreign missionaries in Portugal.

Rev. Ken Ribelin became the pastor of the Petal Presbyterian Church on November 1,. 1990. Rev. Ribelin had served as the assistant pastor of the Bay Street Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg for two and a half years.

The sanctuary of the Petal Presbyterian Church is the oldest church building in Petal and all of Forrest County. Its construction was begun at the end of 1902. The sanctuary is the oldest continuously used building in all of Petal by the original tenant. Many improvements, additions and renovations have been made to the original structure. All the changes have been done with the goal of preserving the church's original historical nature yet while making it more functional for today and the future.

Heart pine was used to build the sanctuary. The exterior walls are narrow beveled Dutch lap pine siding and the interiors walls are pine beaded paneling. The ceiling is made of the same beaded paneling. The interior and exterior walls are painted white. In the 1950's the original pine floor was covered with oak flooring. The basic floor plan is in the shape of a cross making one large room. In the church's earliest years, there were four large steel ropes which connected the four inner corners of the sanctuary. Tall curtains were on these cables and the sanctuary could be subdivided into five classrooms. A big pot-bellied stove sat in the very middle of the sanctuary to provide heat on cold days. The original pulpit is in the foyer of the front entrance.

There are still two large schoolhouse globe lights that were used from the church's earliest years which have survived. They are in the front foyer and the handicapped entryway. The church first had cane bottom chairs until pine pews were purchased. All but two of those chairs were given away to young couples when they were married to help them furnish their new homes. The earliest offering plates were baskets woven out of pine needles.

The sanctuary now has 14 new stained glass windows which were built by a church artist, John Whitt, which depict key events in the life and ministry of Jesus. There are 22 pine pews and an expanded choir area with 20 new choir chairs. Several years ago the church acquired a new piano and an antique Hammond organ. There is a very large wooden cross behind the pulpit which was built by a church craftsman, Fletcher Whitt. The church has been made handicapped accessible with ramps and a special bathroom.

The Petal Presbyterian Church from 1980 to 1997 has bought four pieces of property adjacent to the church. Two of the houses which were purchased have been moved and are being used for Sunday school rooms. Two of the houses have been torn down to provide additional parking. The manse was sold in 1981 and the money from that sale paid for the property purchased in 1980. The church now has a greater physical visibility as a result of the purchase of these four pieces of property.

The morning worship service is at 11 a.m. and the evening worship service is at 6 p.m. Sunday School beings at 9:45 a.m. and ends at 10:45 a.m. for all ages. The Wednesday night prayer meeting/Bible study is at 7 p.m. There is an adult choir practice each Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. The church has youth fellowship classes and a children's evening church each week, many Girl Scout and Boy Scout groups meet at the church.

The historic Petal Presbyterian Church is very active and growing. The church is committed to honoring God by applying God's Word, the Bible, to every area of life. The Petal Presbyterian Church is a happy spiritual family fellowship where the people enjoy God and one another. The church seeks to apply God's eternal truths to the modern situations which are faced today.