St. James' Church celebrates anniversary
By Fran Presley Special to the Gazette
Downtown Texarkana would not be the same without the elegant red brick church at the corner of Fifth and Olive streets. The historic church is a landmark.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of St. James' Church, and members decided to celebrate with various events all year long.
Some events took place earlier this year. And in October, the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas will join members' yearlong observance by holding its annual convention in Texarkana instead of Dallas. In addition, church leader Nick Williamson said anniversary festivities will continue on Rally Day, Sept. 7.
The Rev. Jim Price, interim priest, said of St. James, "You have got this long history, and yet for a church this size, there is a lot of intimacy. We are not a small church; we have 500 or 600 members."
Back in 1876, a group met in a downtown hotel to organize the church that has grown to several hundred members. Their first building in the 1800s was a small wooden chapel at the corner of Fifth and Olive streets.
Growth has been steady through the years. Now, Price said, "We have just completed a $1 million building, and about nine years ago we did $250,000 to $300,000 worth of renovation to our church building."
Price said members of St. James have made a commitment to stay in the downtown area.
St. James Episcopal Church has graced the corner of Fifth and Olive streets ever since 1877, when the Texas & Pacific Railroad gave members the land there. That location has been its only home.
In addition to its imposing physical presence downtown, the church has influenced the community through the years by its spiritual and social contributions.
In 1948, when the Rev. Thomas Carson was priest in Texarkana, the church established St. James Day School, now on North State Line-a significant contribution to the city.
And in the 1960s, under the leadership of the late Rev. Canon Richard Allen, the church started the Senior Citizens' Services of Texarkana with its Meals on Wheels operation.
The service to senior citizens became a model both nationally and internationally.
Allen was one of the founding members of the Religious Emphasis Committee of Texarkana, which brought internationally known religious leaders to the city.
Marge Allen, widow of the former rector, said that the city's first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was held at St. James. And in earlier years, the first Boy Scout troop was formed at the church, she said.
Under Allen's leadership, members fed needy people every Thanksgiving Day, and ministered to the needy all year long.
The Rev. Canon Paul Lambert, the church's most recent full-time priest, established a weekly meal at the church for homeless people and began the work that would evolve into the Randy Sams Homeless Shelter.
Several new churches have been formed with the help and support of St. James, including St. Mary's in Texarkana and churches in Mount Pleasant, New Boston, Pittsburg and Atlanta, Texas.
St. James has been fortunate to have two members at different times in its history who realized the importance of preserving a written record of their historic parish. LaVerne Lingold McCurry wrote a history in 1961, and Bettis Lawrence in 1976.
McCurry wrote at the beginning of her history: "As I read the fading ink records in the first book acquired by those 'tried and true' men of the Episcopal faith, I realize how deeply we are indebted to church men whose names are entirely unfamiliar to most all the people now worshiping in our present Church edifice. Except for their love, determination and the sacrifice of their time and treasure there would be no Saint James Parish!"
One of those important early organizers was H.M. Woodward. McCurry credits the planting of the church to Woodward, who arranged for the Texas & Pacific Railroad to donate the land in 1877. A year later, the first wooden chapel was built.
But before that could happen, the groundwork had to be laid. Woodward and other early Episcopalians had met at a downtown hotel called the Marquand House to organize the parish. In early 1877, the group of Episcopalians officially became a part of the national church and took the name St. James.
Today, members will celebrate the Feast Day of St. James, their patron saint.
As early as 1876, though, services were held at a downtown business on Broad Street, and the first baptism was recorded. Later the First Presbyterian Church-then at Third and Texas streets-allowed Episcopalians to worship in their church.
The congregation's first priest was the Rev. Charles Ritter, and while Ritter served the congregation, McCurry records that "the first wooden Chapel was completed and paid for at a cost of $1,417.80."
By 1893, the congregation had outgrown the chapel, and the church built a larger wooden building. McCurry describes the pipe organ in that building: "It was a manually pumped instrument and we 'old timers' recall dear old Mr. Maddux, the crippled janitor, faithfully heaving away in the little dark cubby hole just large enough for his old chair behind the organ."
The wooden building was altered and enlarged into a larger brick building around 1926. McCurry records that she was the only woman on the building committee to erect the new brick church. Her husband, Hiram McCurry, was in charge of fund-raising.
The brick church was completely paid for by 1937, and McCurry writes: "I am sure those who were present at Easter Day morning service in 1937 will never forget the thrill of seeing him (Hiram McCurry) burn the mortgage in a brass pot filled with sand placed upon the Litany desk in the nave of the new church."
Anne Cleveland, one of St. James' longtime members (and the director of St. James Day School's Lower and Pre-School for many years), remembers singing with the Junior Choir the Sunday the mortgage was burned.
McCurry writes that St. James became famous in the community for excellent music. It was music that drew Cleveland into the church when she was about 8 years old, around 1928.
She recalls with fondness her experience in the church's Junior Choir, directed by Louise Holman. Holman also taught Cleveland piano and organ.
"Music has drawn more people to St. James," Cleveland said. "We had a big Junior Choir and a very, very active young people's fellowship group."
She said current church members Ann Gooch and Mary Couch also sang in the Junior Choir.
"We grew up knowing how to sing Canticles during Morning Prayer," Cleveland said. The Junior Choir learned many scripture passages by singing them. A high point for the choir was singing on the Sunday the mortgage was burned.
Cleveland also recalled the sacrifice members made for the youths. For example, the youth group met in a big two-story building, the old Parish House. It was not air-conditioned. The kitchen was on the west side of the building, and had two gas stoves. It was extremely hot in the summertime.
In spite of the heat, Cleveland said that "a lovely, lovely lady would come and prepare our meals."
Cleveland remembers wonderful Sunday school teachers such as Mrs. William Andrew Smith. "She put up with us and tried to help us!"
Another outstanding teacher, Lila K. Holt, taught the young people church manners, Cleveland said.
Church manners included "never going into a church without your head covered," Cleveland recalled. "And you reverenced the altar when you came into the church, and you would not speak until you went out of the church."
Probably the person who has been a member the longest time is Louise Lee, born in 1916 to Episcopalian parents, Anthony and Lila Garrett. She was baptized at St. James. Her father worked for the T&P Railroad and also ran a popular grocery store at 418 State Line, near the church.
Like Cleveland, Lee also remembers the good times she had in the youth group. But her memory goes back earlier than that.
"My first memory of the church is when it was a little wooden frame church," Lee said. "I remember going to church and my mother telling me when they were going to go up to take Communion that I was just to sit and behave-and I hope I did!"
Lee said Mrs. McCurry, who wrote the church history, led a Junior Daughters of the King group in which Lee participated. The girls learned to polish the church's vases and candlesticks and perform other helpful deeds.
In more recent times, Bettis Lawrence reported in his church history, a boys' choir was organized in 1949 by Mrs. John Ware Holman. Later both the Boys' Choir and Men's Choir were developed into a "justly renowned institution" by organist and choir director Wendell Blake. Lawrence wrote that some think the Boys' and Men's Choir was started by Blake, but it was started by Holman.
Current church members Charles Firmin, Jr., and Justice of the Peace John Carson sang in the Boys' Choir when they were young. Firmin's father was a member of the Men's Choir. Lawrence wrote: "Charles Firmin and his children trace their life in St. James back to Harry Firmin, who by 1901 is active in the Parish."
Lawrence wrote of the Boys' Choir: "It is amazing to recall what was done by those little boys ... One remembers Janet Sheppard Arnold saying, 'Marvelous! Imagine Palestrina in East Texas.'"
In addition to remarkable choirs, Lawrence also mentioned two outstanding Sunday school teachers at St. James: Janet Sheppard Arnold and her husband, Richard L. Arnold, both erudite students of the Bible. Mrs. Arnold taught herself biblical Greek with the help of her son, Richard Sheppard Arnold.
Their classes were crowded with interested learners.
Historians Lawrence and McCurry provided a lot of memories for members to consider during the church's 125th year. Old-timers in the congregation will contribute more.
And today, Louise Lee, who rarely misses a service, will join worshipers both young and old to celebrate the church's Feast Day.
Lee said, "The church is very dear to me. St. James has always been a part of my life. I was baptized there, confirmed there, married there-and I guess I will be buried there." She added hastily, "But I am not in a hurry for that."
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