This Week in Texas Methodist History, October 28
The congregation of First Methodist Church Dallas assembled on Saturday, October 29, 1921 at a construction site on the corner of Ross and Harwood to lay a cornerstone for a new church. The pastor, Charles Selecman, led the congregation in prayer, but the main addresses were given by Bishop W. N. Ainsworth and S. H. C. Burgin, former pastor of the church but now Secretary of Church Extension.
In 1921 First Methodist Dallas could look back on seventy-five years of existence. Unfortunately for most of that span worshipers had dealt with inadequate facilities. After the Civil War the church shared the ground floor of the Masonic Hall with other denominations. In 1868 they moved to a building on Lamar Street where Mrs. Sarah Cockrell had donated a lot. That building was adjacent to the Fire Station so they didn’t bother to buy fire insurance. In 1879 the fire station itself caught fire and both church and station were destroyed.
The church then met in Dallas Female Academy. After a series of financial misadventures they bought a lot at Commerce and Prather and erected a building there. In many ways the period from 1890 through the 1910s was golden age for Dallas. It had parlayed its rail connections into prominence as the commercial, financial, distribution, banking, and insurance center of the south central United States. Naturally the city population and church membership both increased. The 1900s experienced the establishment of neighborhood churches in the streetcar suburbs being developed.(Oak Cliff (‘02), Grace and Clark’s Chapel (‘03), Colonial Hills and Grand Ave. (‘05) Cochran and Maple Ave. (‘06), Fairland, Wesley Chapel, Forest Ave., and West Dallas (‘08)
Even with such expansion, there was unease about the role of First Methodist. In 1915 it merged with Trinity, another downtown church at McKinney and Pearl. The Commerce Street property was sold and First Methodist worshiped in the former Trinity Church.
After several years of discussion the congregation bought property at Ross and Harwood. Groundbreaking occurred on May 7, 1921, and, as noted above, the cornerstone was laid the following October. Construction did not proceed rapidly. Selecman became president of SMU in 1923. J. Abner Sage, assistant pastor in charge of the musical program, finished the conference year as pastor. Construction on the new building stopped. In November, 1923, Carl Gregory transferred from the Kentucky Conference and assumed the pastorate. Resuming construction was a major priority. A new contract was signed and construction resumed on December 11, 1924, over three years after the cornerstone laying. The building was finally occupied on February 1926.
After pastoring the congregation through its move into the new facility, and being the host pastor for the 1930 General Conference of the MECS, Gregory was appointed to Travis Park San Antonio in 1931. He was replaced by W. C. Martin who was faced with paying down the debt on the building in the depths of the Depression. Martin was elected bishop in 1938 and was replaced by W. Angie Smith who also had to struggle with the debt. Smith was also elected bishop (1944), but he along with Bishops Martin, Selecman, Boaz, and John Moore, came back to First Methodist Dallas on February 3, 1946 when the building was finally debt free. The process from identifying the need for a new building to paying for that building had taken almost thirty years.