St. Mark's Episcopal Church
By Mildred Phillips Hicks and Louise Brown Barr
August 24, 1986
One of the most beautiful structures in Bay City, Texas is St. Mark's Episcopal Church on the southwest corner of Avenue E and Sixth Street. The solid red brick building with its twin towers, glowing windows, and placid cloistered courtyard suggests a small church in the English countryside which might have stood for centuries.
St. Mark's however is not an ancient church. Its organization as a Mission occurred in May 1895, less than one hundred years ago and only a few months after Bay City itself was established as a town and the seat of Matagorda County in 1894.
Previously the county seat had been on the southern edge of the county at the old Gulf Coast town of Matagorda. Matagorda suffered a severe loss with removal of the county seat to Bay City--not only loss of the county seat and many citizens, but also loss of a large part of the congregation of the oldest Episcopal Church in Texas--Christ Church, Matagorda.
It was these members of the mother church who moved to Bay City in 1894 and 1895, along with those already living on northern Bay Prairie and at Caney who gathered for the first Episcopal worship services in Bay City.
Matagorda County citizens had decided that a large and imposing stone courthouse should grace their new Court Square in Bay City and proceeded with plans for its erection. Meantime a two-room frame building which had served as a grand jury room was hauled from the town of Matagorda and set up in the square, the first temporary courthouse.
Among county officials crowded into it were George Austin, County Clerk, and Judge T. J Hamilton, then county Attorney. The Austin and Hamilton families were among the first to move from Matagorda to Bay City and help establish St. Mark's Mission.
The need for more office space for county officials was met when Judge Hamilton constructed a two-story frame business building across from the square. This building served as a courthouse and center for all community gatherings and entertainment until the new courthouse was completed. Bay City's first Sunday-school and church services, including St. Mark's were held there. Alma Austin Doubek, daughter of George Austin, attended the meetings and recalled in later years their stark simplicity and crude furnishings. Seats, she said, were made from planks laid upon beer kegs.
The Reverend John U. Graf, rector of Christ Church, Matagorda, came as Priest-in-Charge to shepherd the little group of Episcopalians in Bay City. He directed the organization of the mission church in 1895 with John Francis Holt, a Matagorda County rancher as senior warden, and William E. Austin and John W. Gaines members of the vestry. Austin and Gaines were among the first lawyers in Bay City. William E. and George Austin were brothers.
John Pierce Gaines, infant son of John and Lorene Gaines was probably the first Episcopalian to be baptized in Bay City. The Rev. Graf performed the ceremony at the courthouse April 14, 1895.
After a brief but eventful year, the Rev. Graf was succeeded by the Rev. John H. Birckhead as Priest-in-Charge, and in 1896, St. Mark's Mission was formally affiliated with the Diocese of Texas.
The Rev. Birckhead served both Christ Church and St. Mark's for four years. One of his last official acts before he resigned in 1900 was to register the burial in the Bay City Cemetery of Judge Thomas J. Hamilton, September 5, 1900.
In December 1900, the Rev. John L. Sloan arrived in Bay City to take charge of St. Mark's. Having served as rector of Christ Church Matagorda, 1890-1892, he was already well known to Bay Citians and remembered with affection as "Father John."
It was the Town Company's policy to donate building lots to all early organized church congregations. The present site of St. Mark's (Lots seven and eight, Block 62) was deeded to Bishop G. H. Kinsolving and his successors by David Swickheimer of the Town Company.
With the coming of the railroad to Matagorda County at the turn of the century, and sudden development of rice growing as a lucrative major industry, Bay City's growth and economy surged forward.
Under Father John's leadership, construction of St. Mark's first rectory and church buildings began. The frame rectory which faced on Avenue E was later moved and altered and is still in use as attorneys' offices in Bay City. A long frame church building, erected at the same time faced on Sixth Street. On Easter Day 1901, the first services were held in this building, a joyous occasion, fruit of much toil and sacrifice. Five years later on St. Mark's Day, April 25, 1906, Bishop Kinsolving consecrated the Church.
However, a vicious hurricane on July 21, 1909 destroyed all of the church buildings in Bay City including that of St. Mark's along with its mission records.
Less than a year after the storm and before its effects had disappeared, the undaunted little congregation began to rebuild. Materials salvaged form the wreck of the old building were used to erect a parish house to serve also as a temporary place of worship.
To make room for the new and larger brick church building, the parish house was moved back some feet farther south on Avenue E. Four classrooms and a study were eventually added to the parish house.
It continued for many years as a center for both church and community-related activities until major expansion of the main church building in 1954-55 included a new parish hall. The old parish house was purchased by the Presbyterians at Old Ocean, Texas and is still in use there.
Bishop Kinsolving placed the cornerstone of the present building November 23, 1910; the building was completed early in 1911 and consecrated the same year.
This was when most of the lovely stained glass windows which adorn St. Mark's church were installed. The windows memorialize lives of men and women who were importantly linked with the development of Bay City and Matagorda County; names of some of their descendants are to be found on St. Mark's roll today.
Father John labored and led, ministering to his people and teaching pupils in private schools. His Episcopal school was the only one in Bay City that prepared students to meet college entrance requirements. The newly opened public schools were not yet accredited and other private schools offered no high school work.
Bishop Kinsolving in his report of 1905 wrote, "Mr. Gordon at Matagorda and Mr. Sloan at Bay City are both doing a fine work along educational lines, but it must be very onerous to combine the occupation of the priest with that of the school teacher." Nevertheless, Father John prepared his students well and instilled them with high ideals. Many were inspired to become dedicated community leaders.
In 1913 St. Mark's became self-supporting and was admitted into the Diocese of Texas as a Church. St. Mark's and other church congregations held the usual fund-raising fairs, entertainments, suppers, and special events to help equip and furnish their young churches. The youth of St. Mark's undertook a number of projects and once addressed Bay City's enduring problem with mud.
Frequent rains turned the town's broad unpaved streets into muddy rivers. Boardwalks laid higher than the streets in front of business establishments around the square provided some relief. But sidewalks were desperately needed, and eventually they came. One of the first resulted from the efforts of St. Mark's young women. They raised the money for a sidewalk to be laid from the corner of the square to the corner of the church so that the church might be reached without walking through dust and mud. Father John, stepping on the slabs would call the names, "Net-Let-Annie-Alma..." thus recognizing those young women who had initiated the project.
It was probably about 1918 that Kate Rugeley and her son Walcott, St. Mark's first acolyte, attended a worship service at Christ Church, Houston. There they saw a vested choir following a like-vested acolyte carrying a processional cross. They were impressed with the dignity and simplicity of the identical vestments and wished to add this beauty to St. Mark's worship services.
So the ladies of the parish started making vestments, and Mr. J. W. Rugeley, inspired by the enthusiasm of his young son, made a wooden processional cross, carving the letters IHS from the lid of a cigar box. This processional cross was continued in use at the church school services after acquisition of a brass memorial processional cross, and is still in use today, being the cross carried for all graveside services.
Similar was the fashioning of St. Mark's gold and silver communion chalice. It was completed and dedicated in honor of the same Mrs. Sargent's 80th birthday. All joined in giving of their own treasure--spoons, rings, pins, and bracelets--as a lasting tribute of love to the church and all those who labored with the honoree.
After serving St. Mark's parish as rector and the community as a teacher for seventeen years, the Rev. Sloan resigned in 1918 to accept a call to St. Mary's parish in Houston. He served a number of churches in the Diocese of Texas and finally became archdeacon of the Diocese. He died in Houston, August 21, 1930.
For a number of years thereafter, St. Mark's was closely linked to the Mother church. Records of the two churches are commingled, and the priests were shared by both congregations. Rectors of St. Mark's since Father John have been: J. Mervin Pettit, 1919-1923; W. W. Daup, 1923-1924; Paul E. Engle, 1925-1941; E. Lucien Malone, Jr., 1942-1944; Aubrey C. Maxted, 1944-1958; F. Parke Smith, 1958-1962; Milton McWilliams, Jr., 1962-1986.
Since its organization, St. Mark's has been a vital part of religious and civic life in Matagorda County and beyond, joining others in efforts to show God's love for the world.
The congregation was led by Father John in a missionary outreach to the community of Collegeport, also in Matagorda County. St. Paul's Mission was organized there and a new church building erected. Bishop Kinsolving consecrated both it and St. Mark's in 1911.
Eventually, the congregation at Collegeport dwindled and the building was deconsecrated and moved across the Bay to Palacios where it became St. John's Mission. It was dedicated by Bishop Quin in 1927. St. John's congregation grew under leadership of the Reverends Engle and Maxted, and Rev. Maxted took the lead in physical work, helping to build a parish house at Palacios. St. John's is an active church today (1986).
Also, one of the first acts of the Rev. Pettit who followed Father John as rector of St. Mark's was to accompany Bishop Clinton S. Quin to the town of Gulf, which was built by the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company five miles from Matagorda and is no longer in existence. Their visit resulted in assignment of a clergyman at Gulf.
During the Rev. Pettit's rectorship, two events occurred which were to have a profound influence on the future life of St. Mark's: First, a small reed organ, worn from many years of use, was replaced with a Pilcher pipe organ--the first pipe organ to be installed in Bay City--thus bringing to the church and the community glorious performances of sacred and classical music not experienced before.
Second, a fine (for then) brick home in the same block with St. Mark's Church and located on the corner of Avenue E and Fifth Street, was purchased for use as a rectory. In 1958 this building was turned over to the women of St. Mark's to be operated as St. Mark's Thrift House with Mrs. D. M. Curtis as founder.
For nearly 30 years the Thrift House has served as an extended arm of St. Mark's selling used clothing and household goods at modest prices, supplying the needy at no cost, and supporting the church with generous cash donations for response to appeals for help both near and far.
The physical appearance of St. Mark's has been altered as necessary since 1911. Along with the new brick parish hall added to the church structure, 1954-55, the church interior was refurbished. A wood beam type ceiling was suspended under the original ornamental pressed tin ceiling which had rusted badly. A new parquet type oak floor was applied over the old pine floor. The interior was refinished, and the lovely leaded glass windows were all reworked.
In 1964 property west of the church was acquired for a parking area. Then a bequest by Pauline and Gus Brown in 1965 inspired and enabled major alterations and additions in 1975.
The old entrance to the church on Avenue E was closed in to form a chapel; the front of the church was extended toward the street, and a new entrance opened upon a covered cloister leading to the parish hall. A tower matching that of the church arose over the parish hall. At the same time, parishioners raised a face-lifting fund for renovating the interior of the parish hall, and for landscaping the grounds. A parish library was organized and opened.
The Stewart Savage Memorial Courtyard was also created, its serene beauty provided a place to pause for quiet contemplation. Stewart Savage was the father and grandfather of present St. Markans and the grandson of Norman Savage, said to have owned the first herd of cattle on the Matagorda area plains.
Property on Fifth Street west of St. Mark's Thrift House was acquired in 1976. A massive wooden cross rising above a grass covered berm overlooks the park-like area where outdoor church services and activities are held, and neighboring families picnic and play.
Finally, a carillon was given by members of the congregation as a memorial for David McWilliams, son of the Rev. and Mrs. McWilliams, who died November 2, 1978 and had spent much of his young life in loving church service at St. Mark's.
St. Mark's celebrated its 90th Anniversary on May 24, 1986, with the dedication of a Historical Marker granted by the Texas Historical Commission.
The Reverend Milton E. McWilliams, Jr. and his wife,
Gretchen, came to St. Mark's from St. Francis Church, Houston in
November 1962. Shortly thereafter he was appointed Dean of the Southwest
Convocation, Diocese of Texas, which is composed of 13 churches. These
past 24 years of their lives have been spent in devoted service to God
as shepherds of St. Mark's. Their lives and works have made God's love
known to many throughout the community and the Diocese of Texas. The
Rev. McWilliams will retire on September 7, 1986.
Picture Courtesy of Matagorda County Museum
Copyright 2010 -
Present by Carol Sue Gibbs
Apr. 6, 2010
Dec. 23, 2010