The History of St. Paul's
Since its beginnings in 1905, St. Paul’s Church has been a place where people meet God. The St. Paul’s family today remains deeply committed to providing spiritual leadership for the city of Houston.
While every new year brings growth and change, our mission has been restated over the years, the core message remains the same: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church is a sacred space in the heart of Houston where people seek, find, and respond to God’s love and grace.
1905 to 1918 1927 to 1930 1930s through 1940s
1950s through 1960s 1970s through 1990s The 21st Century
Planning for the Future
1905 to 1918: From Dream to Reality
St. Paul’s was conceived as an act of gratitude. As an offering to God after her recovery from a serious illness in 1903, Mrs. J. O. Ross contributed property on the corner of Milam and McGowen Streets for the establishment of a new Methodist church in what was then known as the “South End” of Houston.
In December 1905, a group met in the Ross home to form the official board of the new church. The first worship service was held on Christmas Eve 1905 in the Winnie Davis Auditorium at the corner of Main and McGowen.
Preaching to 1,000 people in the old Auditorium on January 14, 1906, Bishop Joseph S. Key formally constituted the new church with 153 charter members. Recognizing that “South End” could become inappropriate, Bishop Key suggested the name St. Paul’s.
In the first years, worship services were held in a small frame chapel in the Rosses’ yard.
With a membership of 600, St. Paul’s opened its first sanctuary building at Milam and McGowen on January 31, 1909. The architecture was Grecian with a Byzantine-style dome. The sanctuary was dedicated in 1918 when the building debt was paid.
1927 to 1930: A Brand New Building
After much growth it was determined that further physical expansion was not feasible, so in 1927 the Milam/McGowen property was sold to Second Baptist Church, which worshipped there for 34 years.
Land was purchased from the Hermann estate for the present Sanctuary Building at Main and Binz/Bissonnet. The architect was Trustee Jesse H. Jones’ protege Alfred C. Finn, who also designed the San Jacinto Monument and the Gulf Building, the latter now part of the Chase Bank complex in downtown Houston.
Groundbreaking took place in April 1929. During construction, St. Paul’s Sunday School classes met at San Jacinto High School and the congregation worshipped in the synagogue of Congregation Beth Israel, both now a part of Houston Community College. As reported in the St. Paul’s Church Magazine at the time, “Our Jewish friends refused to make a charge for rent, light, or fuel, requesting only that we employ and loan them our janitor to assist in properly keeping the buildings.”
The first worship service in the new Sanctuary Building was held on February 2, 1930, in the Gymnasium of the Education wing. On November 2 of that year, the first worship service was held in the new Sanctuary. Membership in those years reached almost 1,700.
1930s through 1940s: Years of Struggle and Growth
Soon after the Sanctuary Building was completed, the Great Depression arrived in Houston. Although W.W. Fondren, Jesse Jones, and J.M. West each had provided $50,000 toward construction, times also were difficult for St. Paul’s, and retiring the debt for the building became a major challenge.
The congregation worked for the next 20 years to pay off the building debt. Funds were often so tight that if any other buyer could have been found for the massive, elegant structure, the mortgage holder might have foreclosed.
But the people of St. Paul’s persevered, often having to knock on doors for pennies at a time. Through all the years of financial struggle, the congregation continued to grow in membership and to support a full range of programs and activities. Finally, in November 1951, the debt was retired and the building was dedicated.
1950s through 1960s: Today's Church Takes Shape
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church flourished throughout the 1950s and 60s. The active congregation gained citywide recognition for ministries such as the Coffee Club, one of Houston’s first and most successful church singles programs.
The Jones Youth Building, designed by St. Paul’s member David Baer, was completed in 1958, built on land given by Jesse H. Jones and his foundation, Houston Endowment.
The St. Paul’s Methodist Foundation of Houston was established in 1960 as a permanent endowment to provide the church with a solid financial base. In 1963, a third block was purchased at Fannin/Binz/San Jacinto/Calumet for use as a parking area.
1970s through 1990s: Serving Our Community
As the neighborhood around St. Paul’s changed, the congregation realized that the central urban location provided an ideal opportunity to serve the people in the surrounding community through children’s programs, music, and outreach.
The weekday Mother’s Day Out program evolved into a full-fledged nursery in 1973 and then into St. Paul’s School. In 1986, St. Paul’s School was the first preschool in Houston accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs. In 2008, the school also was one of the first to earn re-accreditation under the organization’s new, more rigorous standards in 2008.
Building on a solid foundation, the quality music synonymous today with St. Paul’s was fortified with new leadership during this period. In 1981, a 76-rank Schantz pipe organ was donated by David Farnsworth. Later improvements increased the ranks to 84 and pipes to 4,569.
In 1983, a tiny group of dedicated St. Paul’s members that had been making sandwiches on a desktop for several years, became the Emergency Aid Coalition (EAC), an interfaith organization of more than a dozen midtown congregations. It serves thousands of needy clients a year through the Clothing Center, Operation I.D., the Food Pantry, and Aid to Families. The latter two operated from St. Paul’s sanctuary basement until 2004 when they moved to new facilities in St. Paul’s Abraham Station.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, St. Paul’s focused on maintaining and expanding its strongest ministries – music and worship, mission and outreach, and programs for children, youth, and families — and providing facilities to support them.
Capital campaigns funded the Jones Building’s Murfee Center, Wilson Prayer Chapel, and Marr Dining Room as well as extensive renovations and repairs to the sanctuary building. Individual gifts provided for the renovation of the tower bells (1995) and the organ (1996).
In the mid-1990s, a fourth block of land with a building on it was purchased, providing the base for future expansion on that property.
Key projects conducted in the late 1990s included the purchase and reconfiguration of Calumet Street between the Jones and Sanctuary buildings into the Jones Plaza, named in memory of the Jones family of charter members whose descendants continue to worship here today. The Sunshine Fountain in the middle of the plaza was built through individual gifts in memory of Anne Jones Brice.
Also in the late 1990s, plans were begun for a Columbarium for the interment of the ashes of St. Paul’s members and family who choose cremation. It was completed and dedicated in 2002. Through a wrought-iron door designed especially for the entrance, the Columbarium holds 1,000 marble-covered niches, a small chapel area with benches and stained-glass windows, and a statue of the angel Gabriel.
The 21st Century: Great Tradition/Great Future
Thanks to a bequest by Bill Dickey, in 2001 St. Paul’s became the first Methodist church in the world to have change-ringing bells. These eight change-ringing bells were installed in the bell tower below the 10 stationary bells brought from the previous church location. Those bells are run electronically by a keyboard inside the church.
Change-ringing bells are hung in frames that allow the bells to swing through 360 degrees. They are rung by trained ringers who pull ropes attached to the bells. A separate Ringing Room was built inside the tower for these ringers who pull the ropes. These bells are rung after each of the Sunday morning worship services and at other special occasions, such as weddings and funerals.
The combination of flooding from Tropical Storm Allison and the church’s approaching centennial in the early 2000s prompted several acquisitions and projects.
- The Sanctuary’s exterior was cleaned, and the stained-glass windows cleaned and restored. The reception center was renovated, the donated echo organ was installed, and more signage and landscaping were added.
- Abraham Station on the fourth block was remodeled to house most of the EAC’s programs plus the Rutabaga Territory afterschool program, Boy Scout Troop #18, and, in 2008, the then-new Cross Walk young adult Sunday School class. The building was named Abraham Station to reflect the Abrahamic faiths represented among the EAC’s congregations plus the proximity to the MetroRail’s Museum District stations.
- Space in the Education wing of the Sanctuary building vacated due to some of the Abraham Station moves was remodeled into the Tubbs Youth Center, a Conversation Gallery, new choir robing rooms, and the Fannin Street Courtyard.
- The January 2006 Centennial Celebration at the George R. Brown Convention Center was underwritten, and a beautifully designed and illustrated, award-winning book about St. Paul’s was published.
In connection with the Centennial observance, information was submitted to the Texas Historical Commission, and an historical marker
was granted. It was placed near the Main Street entrance to the Sanctuary and dedicated in a ceremony on May 20, 2007. St. Paul’s also is registered as an Historical Site
by the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church.
In recent years, St. Paul’s has broadened its international missions through a connection with the United Methodist Church in Russia
and the continent of Africa
and strengthened its connection with the Methodist Church in Bolivia
In 2007 the families of the Rutabaga Territory program formed the core of a growing Hispanic Ministry
at St. Paul’s, complete with a youth program and an Hiispanic United Methodist Women circle..
Also in 2007, the Sacristy, located under the choir loft, was renovated. The two tiny bleak rooms were transformed into one with built-in glass cabinets to hold candlesticks, crosses, and other metalware on one side and built-in wooden cabinetry on the other. The centerpiece is a 33-inch wide, 96-inch long, and 38-inch high chest of drawers in which the paraments, or altar cloths, lay flat. This chest is made of solid oak and topped with a slab of polished soapstone from Brazil. Inlaid on this top is St. Paul’s logo, the Jerusalem cross, in antique green marble from China. Lamps and a new sound system also were installed.
In 2008 a large classroom on the third floor of the Sanctuary Building was refurbished and dedicated as the Fellers Room in memory of Dr. John E. Fellers and in honor of Bobbie Fellers, a former senior minister of St. Paul’s and his wife.
Planning for the Future
St. Paul’s continues to be a spiritual force for its urban community and beyond, providing leadership in liturgical worship and music, missions and outreach, spiritual formation, and education.
A facilities master plan has been introduced to support these endeavors. The first major step toward developing that plan began in late 2010 with the Imagine capital project to expand and renovate the Jones Building to accommodate growth, particularly in the children's area. The expansion and renovation were completed by the end of the summer of 2011 with theGrand Opening and Consecration Service on August 28.
Also during the summer of 2011 an outdoor Labyrinth was constructed on the church's front lawn bounded by Main Street and Binz.