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Feb 11, 2014 | Luke Blount

Black History Spotlight: St. Augustine's, the First African-American Episcopal Church in Texas

“In the grand diversity that is here,
no one focuses on the differences,” said
the Rev. Chester Makowski

Established in 1884, St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church in Galveston has a rich history as the oldest African-American Episcopal Church in Texas.

As Galveston grew in the second half of the 19th century, Anglican seafarers from the West Indies became frequent visitors. These men went to Grace Episcopal Church, but given the prejudices of the day and the sailors’ dark complexion, they were “invited” to attend services on Wednesdays and Fridays only. Of course, they wanted to participate in Sunday worship, so 50 of the seafarers reached out to Bishop of Texas, Alexander Gregg. He consented to provide them a church; named it after St. Augustine of Hippo, and the rector of Grace, the Rev. Charles M. Parkman, served as the first vicar.

In 1885, the Rev. William F. Floyd, an African-American from Kentucky, was named vicar. He died in 1887 and was replaced by the Rev. Thomas White Cain under whose leadership a church was built on 22nd Street and Broadway. It was destroyed by the great storm of 1900, and the Rev. Cain and his family perished in the storm.

The Rev. W.H. Marshall was assigned after the storm of 1900. He was in charge of orchestrating the reconstruction, and a new building was erected on December 21, 1902. The 1902 church structure is the current church; however, it is not in its original location.

The Rev. William H. Bright-Davies came to St. Augustine in 1930. He was a dynamic force and grew the congregation, making it a center for the Black community in Galveston. Bright-Davies wanted St. Augustine to resemble the other two Episcopal Churches on the island; he wanted a parish hall and a lawn. That was not possible at the original location, so in 1940, the congregation sold the property and bought land across town. The church structure was moved to the current site using logs and mules. Bright-Davies was the longest serving clergyman at St. Augustine, serving for 18 years. During his leadership, the church had its highest number of communicants, 194, and it was the center of the community.

Later, under the leadership of the Rev. Fred Sutton’s leadership, St. Vincent’s House was established in 1954 as an outreach ministry, which continues to serve the needy of Galveston with a food pantry, free clinic, and many other services.

Today, the legacy of these many pioneering Episcopalians continues with a church family that comes from different ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, but who are knit together by the Holy Spirit. See the video below: 

In 2008, Hurricane Ike destroyed St. Augustine’s parish hall and classrooms, but the community remained, rebuilding the structures better than before. Under the leadership of the Rev. Chester Makowski, St. Augustine has once again become a leader in the community. The church is an official host for World AIDS day as well as a home to a community garden, an annual art show, and an annual BBQ featuring Neil “Bigmista” Strawder, a nationally famous BBQ chef who grew up at St. Augustine.

“I think the role of St. Augustine’s going forward is to continue the rich tradition that it always has had of ministering to those who are, societally, a little bit on the edges,” Makowski said. “That is what we will continue to do now; break through these social barriers that we have.”

Makowski’s biggest surprise since joining St. Augustine’s has been the way that the community interacts with each other.

“In the grand diversity that is here, no one focuses on the differences, at all,” he said. “They look past it, and they all treat each other as a family. And to witness that is very humbling.”