Saturday, November 09, 2013

Twelve People Meet to Organize New Church in Southeast Houston, Nov. 10, 1941

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 10     
Twelve People Meet to Organize New Church in Southeast Houston, Nov. 10, 1941

One of the most important reasons why Methodism has prospered has been its ability to create new churches rapidly in areas of population growth.  One aspect of that ability was the denomination’s reliance on cooperation between lay and clergy.  In the 19th century the model was the circuit rider who travelled between groups of Methodists. Lay members kept the organization going strong between the infrequent visits of the circuit riders, the quarterly visits of the presiding elders, and the very infrequent visits of the bishops.  That model contrasted with other denominations.  Lutherans, Anglicans, and (some) Presbyterians demanded educated clergy who could teach the catechism and preside over formal liturgies—something the laity could not do and was difficult for itinerate clergy. Many Baptists on the Texas frontier were part-time preachers and full time farmers who served faithfully, but did not have the full weight of a large supportive denomination behind them.  As a matter of fact when Texas was being settled, there was a significant Baptist faction that refused to sanction any missionary efforts to the frontier. (The name “Missionary Baptist” in some church names is a relic from the time when there were Anti-Missionary Baptists.)

As Texas urbanized and circuits turned into stations, the role of the laity in holding the church together between clergy visits was diminished.  Station churches had a full time preacher, and the church tended to rely on his professional skills rather than on the volunteer laity for church administration, visiting the sick, fund raising, membership cultivation, and so on.   

The idea of a core group of laity founding  a new church never really disappeared in Methodism and became especially important in a kind of a 20th century frontier—the rapidly expanding suburbs that popped up around every major Texas city in the 20th century.  

St. Andrews Methodist Church in southeastern Houston is a good example of the process that planted dozens of churches in 20th century Texas.  On November 10, 1941, less than one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wilbur and Josie Maxwell hosted ten of their neighbors to set in motion the establishment of a new Methodist church.  After prayer, they got down to business.  They agreed to print circulars and distribute them in the Pecan Park, Gloverdale, and Mason Park subdivisions. Those circulars invited residents to join them at Southmayd School the following Sunday, November 16, 1941, for worship. 
Fifty people showed up on the first Sunday. The District Superintendent appointed Rufus Bivins as pastor.  They decided to purchase property and become a church.  As the United States was going to war, the folks in southeast Houston were moving rapidly.  The first quarterly conference was on March 17, 1942.  The conference authorized the purchase of property at 2420 Garland and also a parsonage.  The church, now named St. Andrews, continued meeting at Southmayd School until it moved into a frame building on September 5, 1943.  

St. Andrews prospered.  Reverend Myers Curtis replaced Reverend Bivins in 1948, and St. Andrews was growing in the post-World War II religious revival.  Rev. Curtis led the church in a building campaign that resulted in a new sanctuary in 1951.  Just five years later, 1956, the church added  a new educational building to its campus. That was not the end of the construction phase.  By 1967 St. Andrews had added a Scout Room, Fellowship Hall, and office suites. 

St. Andrews hosted vigorous programs for UMM, UMW, Scouts, UMYF, Christian education, and service projects. Its membership, as reported in the 1956 Journal, topped 1000 members, with a Sunday School enrollment approaching that number. From 1955 to 1960 the Journals reported more than 400 attendees every Sunday in Sunday School. 

Twenty years later membership was less than half what it had been in 1956, and on June 1, 2005, the Texas Conference officially closed St. Andrews.  What happened?  

As with many closed churches, we have to examine changing land use patterns and demographics.  Cities are dynamic with periods of birth, growth, and decline.  In the case of St. Andrews and many other Methodist churches founded in the first half of the 20th century, Houston’s dynamism meant that the cycle of birth, growth, and death was compressed into a relatively short period.

One of the contributing factors for St. Andrews was the construction of the Gulf Freeway from 1948-1951.  The freeway was the first of Houston’s controlled access highways and was later incorporated into the Interstate Highway System as I-45, even though it doesn’t cross a state line.

It is ironic that freeways which are designed to provide links between places (in this case Houston and Galveston) also divide people by creating barriers to movement perpendicular to them.  I-45 was built only about two blocks west of St. Andrews, effectively cutting off easy access between the church and parishioners to the west.  As the I-45 corridor matured, it accelerated changing land use patterns from residential to commercial and public services.  Later the I-610 Loop further isolated neighborhoods to the southeast. 

The Gulf Freeway was only the first freeway in Houston.  Within a few decades other freeways spread like a spider web along the existing rail corridors.  Housing developments followed the highways, the more affluent, who could afford the new houses, followed them, and the process of founding Methodist churches in more distant suburbs continued.  Some of them also began in the living rooms of faithful laity. 


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