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Oct 29, 2013 | Luke Blount

St. Paul’s,Waco, Celebrates Bright Future with Glimpse into Past

[Diolog Magazine] Few things have remained the same in Waco, Texas, since 1863, but St. Paul’s Episcopal Church continues to thrive after 150 years in the heart of the city. Although Waco is infamously known as the center of Baptist culture, the city also retains a surprisingly rich Episcopal heritage, beginning with St. Paul’s. Though the Methodists and Baptists arrived first, the Episcopal church downtown stands as the oldest church building in town. 


The Rev. Silas Dean Davenport organized the first worshipping body, raising funds to build a church. Unfortunately, the money was invested in Confederate bonds, worthless two years later at the end of the Civil War. Named St. Paul’s in 1868, the first church building was eventually constructed in 1870, and the congregation grew so rapidly that a larger church was completed in 1879 and remains part of the larger campus today.  


“This is a place of comfort and meditation,” said former vestry member Carl Ballew. “If you take the time in our church, you can realize everything that has happened in the past and see how we have grown.”


In celebration of the church’s 150th anniversary, St. Paul’s is holding weekly and monthly events, taking a step back to life in the 1860s. Kicking things off in July of 2013, parishioners worshipped with the first American Prayer Book and sang hymns that Civil War-era Wacoans may have sung. 


St. Paul's, Waco, through the years | photos courtesy of Randy Schorman & St. Paul's



Other events include a tour of the historic stained glass windows, an old-fashioned fall festival, and Bible studies featuring the sermons of one of St. Paul’s first rectors, the Rev. Otis Hackett, whose handwritten sermons from the 1870s are saved in the church archives. 


Throughout the years, St. Paul’s has continued to flourish, surviving the Civil War and Reconstruction, the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression and a devastating tornado in 1953, which killed more than 100 people and destroyed much of downtown Waco. St. Paul’s served as an important relief center in weeks following the storm. In that same tradition, St. Paul’s once again responded to disaster in 2013, lending a hand in the aftermath of the West fertilizer plant explosion. With help from neighboring Episcopal churches, St. Alban’s and Holy Spirit, as well as individuals throughout the Diocese of Texas, St. Paul’s hopes to raise enough money to fund a Habitat for Humanity home for a West family.  


St. Paul’s also serves as a home for much of the civic leadership in the community, including current Waco mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. and his father, former mayor Malcolm Duncan Sr., as well as current and past city council members, at least one past state senator, and countless others involved in creating a better Waco.


For St. Paul’s rector, the Rev. Chuck Treadwell, the real enthusiasm lies, not in the past, but in the present and future. The church is embarking on new initiatives to reach out to their neighbors, including a partnership with a middle school just down the street. 


“The thing I’m most excited about is the next 150 years,” Treadwell said. “There is sort of a renaissance going on at St. Paul’s in regards to ministry. Last year we really focused on how to disciple people, and this year our mission has turned to outreach and how we can become more involved in the community.”


Before the church could embark on these new initiatives, they first had to deal with some issues that come along with an aging church building. But after several years of hard work, the church finished a massive capital campaign, completed building and repair projects, and paid down the debt. 


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“Having a year about celebration and spending time together and really just enjoying ourselves as a community is a relief for folks,” said the Rev. Josephine Robertson, associate rector. “We aren’t doing a building campaign, we just get to enjoy each other.”


Today, St. Paul’s represents a growing and diverse community, including young and old, lifetime Episcopalians and newcomers. The celebration of St. Paul’s vibrant past only serves to point the way towards an exciting future.


“This is a lot of fun for some of the older parishioners to be able to say to everyone else: This is St. Paul’s. This is our history,” Robertson said. “This is part of the reason we really want you to be part of us, because we want you to be part of this story.”