Despite Omaha’s deserved early reputation as a city of crime and vice, it was also a city with a thriving religious community. Or, more properly, a variety of religious communities, as Omaha has always been home to practitioners of many faiths.
We can go all the way back to 1854 to find the first sermon preached in Omaha, predating the building of churches: It was a quarry owner named Peter Cooper, a Methodist who gathered fellow Methodists from Council Bluffs for services. In pioneer days, small towns and new cities often didn’t have permanent clergy, and the Methodist and Episcopal churches responded by sending out itinerant ministers, often meeting in private houses. This practice was called “circuit riding,” and circuit riders added Omaha to their routes within six months of Cooper’s sermon.
Here is a look at some of Omaha’s past churches and other places of religious worship. Some have closed, while others have been repurposed.
Emmanuel Lutheran Church:
Possibly the first Lutheran congregation west of the Missouri, Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in 1858. The church was built with generous donations and encouragement from a specific parishioner, Augustus Kountze, who was then starting to have success in the banking industry. The congregation lives on at 2650 Farnam St. in a new structure built in 1906, now called Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church.
St. Mary Eastern Orthodox Church:
Starting in the 1930s, Omaha became home to a large number of Syrian/Lebanese-American Christian Orthodox families. The congregation is an excellent example of a longstanding tradition in religion: Repurposing existing churches or temples. In 1957, the congregation of St. Mary purchased the former Lutheran Memorial Church and rectory on 52nd and Seward streets.
They used this for years, until the congregation outgrew the space, and then repurposed another church in 1977: Countryside Briardale United Church of Christ on Pacific Street. And, in fact, the location is occupied by another church previously used by another congregation: the Living Faith Assembly of God Church on Boyd Street, purchased in 1985.
St. Mary Catholic Church:
There was an attempt to build a Catholic church in Omaha in 1855, but the priest who instigated it, The Rev. William Emonds, was called away and the project was abandoned. In 1856, however, the church received a donation of two lots on Eighth and Howard streets, from the Nebraska and Iowa Ferry Co., and there they built a small church called St. Mary, largely with the support of Omaha’s Irish population. The church was converted into a parochial school when St. Philomena church was built in 1867, and served several additional purposes before being torn down around 1882.
While the congregation of Temple Israel now has a synagogue on Sterling Ridge Drive in Omaha, they built their first house of worship–and the first synagogue in Nebraska–back in 1871. The first location was at 23rd and Harney streets, and the congregation moved to a new location at 29th and Jackson streets in 1908.
RECENT CHURCH AND SYNAGOGUE CLOSINGS in OMAHA
1. First Christian Church, Fremont
Founded 1890. Closed this year due to financial troubles.
2. Blessed Sacrament Church.
Founded 1919. Closed in 2014 to merge with St. Philip Neri Parish.
3. St. Patrick Church.
Founded 1883. Closed in 2014 to merge with St. Frances Cabrini Parish.
4. Temple Israel.
Founded 1871, built Cass Street location in 1951. Moved to new building in 2013; old building recently purchased by Omaha Conservatory of Music.
5. St. Richard Catholic Church.
Established 1961. Closed in 2009 due to decline in parishioners.
Editor’s Note: The original article did not identify the First Christian Church as being in Fremont. The First Christian Church in Omaha is a Mid-Century Modern building completed in 1963 and holds services to this day.