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Dec 22, 2014 | Bob Kinney

From Matagorda to Manor - St. Mary Magdalene Church

St. Mary Magdalene (SMM) has redefined what an Episcopal church can be since its founding four years ago in Manor, Texas.

The church’s former Sunday services at the Manor High School Cafeteria featured a lively young adult electric band playing soul-stirring music, young children involved in the liturgy, moveable seating and a large video screen above the altar that projected hymn lyrics in both Spanish and English.

The style of SMM worship mirrors the church’s mission statement – “SMM aspires to be a multi-ethnic, multi-generational community, transformed by God’s generosity, and is inspired to share this generosity with others.”

Now St. Mary Magdalene has a new home. About 150 persons gathered inside their just-built church for a service of Dedication and Consecration the evening of December 18, 2014 with the Rt. Rev. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, and the Rev. Alex Montes-Vela, vicar of SMM. 

Designed by the iconic Houston architect Logic Tobola (who attended the service) and assembled by BLS Construction on SMM’s 23-acre site, the church was built using only wood and glass. It is historic in two ways – the building resembles the rural Texas country churches from a century ago and – it is the first moveable church built by any denomination in the U.S.

SMM can keep their new church or pass it on to another congregation in the future. Bishop Doyle’s innovative vision of building moveable churches will enable 15 new churches to be planted in the diocese by 2019. While the cost of one traditional church plant totals almost $5 million, one moveable church can be built for just two-thirds of $1 million. 

The church is easily seen from Rt. 290 on its hilltop site in the middle of Manor. It is painted a bright white with a solid red front door below its classically soaring bell tower. 

“We have become to be known as ‘The Church on the Hill,’” the Rev. Montes-Vela said.

SMM folks could follow the construction progress of their new home when they worshipped Sundays at the nearby high school. “It was like watching a kid grow up,” the vicar said.

Ground was broken on the project last June and the construction schedule promised Christmas services at year’s end.

“The construction crew and architect were open to our suggestions that reflected the culture and vision of SMM. We want to show folks a different way of church,” Rev. Montes-Vela said.

The 23-foot-wide by 89-foot-deep church has no pews. Instead – 150 very comfortable padded chairs are arranged in pew-like fashion. A gift from St. Martin’s Church in Houston, the chairs had been stored for 18 months at Iglesia Episcopal San Mateo Church in Houston where the Rev. Alejandro Montes – Alex’s father – is rector. SMM parishioners recently took apart the chairs then sanded and painted each. The former altar from San Mateo’s chapel now lives in the new SMM church.

The SMM altar is placed only six inches higher than the church’s wood floors. Room for the band is provided to the left and right of the altar. There is no communion rail since there is no space for it and SMM has always been rail free. A large video screen is placed on each wall to show bilingual hymn words and a pull-down screen is behind the altar.

Aside from being all-natural with just wood and glass used for construction, Tobola’s vision incorporated natural imperfections to show the realness of the material and building. Touching a tiny but visible indent in the wall brought to this writer’s mind the words of songwriter Leonard Cohen – “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Alex Montes-Vela agrees.

During his sermon “We are the Workers – God is the Sower,” Bishop Doyle said “people always ask why are you planting a church? Well, here in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas we do it because it’s in our DNA.”

He recalled the founding of Christ Church in Matagorda – the first church of the diocese in the mid-1800s. Folks came from the Northeast to settle along the Gulf Coast wilderness and then asked for a priest. The Rev. Caleb Ives came from New York City and celebrated the first diocesan Eucharist in 1838 – not in a church but in a Matagorda Masonic Hall. The Rev. Ives returned to NYC and raised money for church building materials that were then sailed down to Matagorda and then went back again to raise money for construction of the church. 

Bishop Doyle then noted that the Rev. Alex Montes-Vela came from Waco to the “wilderness of Manor” four years ago much like Ives had done. He lauded Montes-Vela – “He has been working here. His family has been working to support him. Alex – you are a crazy man. People don’t do this anymore. You have to believe in something you can’t see. You found other workers – other partners – who are all here tonight. All of us are always on our way to God’s Harvest.”