History of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Bellville, TX

Bellville, Texas

Bellville came into being not long after Stephen F. Austin’s colonists settled the area. General Sam Houston burned the town of San Felipe to the ground to prevent its capture by the Mexican General/Dictator-President Santa Ana. The colony never recovered and as a result Bellville became the new county seat of Austin County in 1848. Growth was slow in the area partly due to the fact that settlers were engaged in the military service of the short-lived Confederacy. Texas, being the frontier of the South, was influenced by the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1880 which brought prosperity and an increase in population of British and Irish immigrants and later German immigrants.

Diocese of Texas

The Diocese of Texas was established January 1, 1849 in Matagorda at Christ Church, one of the first Episcopal Churches in Texas. The meeting in Matagorda was under the direction of The Rt. Rev. George Washington Freeman, Second Mission Bishop of the Southwest, Provincial Bishop of Texas. Six organized congregations were listed as members of the Diocese of Texas. These congregations were in Matagorda, Houston, Galveston, Brazoria County, San Augustine and Nacogdoches.

Anglican Community

The movement westward brought a change from formal worship of Anglican Christianity in favor of a less formal Methodist and Baptist Christianity. Even though there were some Anglican Christians among Stephen F. Austin’s colonists, there were original families of Bellville with strong Anglican ties. William Bradbury and his family were members of St. Wulfram’s Church in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. Also originally from England was Bellville’s first postmaster, Benjamin Granville.

However, an Englishman named Nehemiah Holland was the most influential person in bringing the Episcopal Church to Bellville. Holland was a lawyer by trade who came to Galveston from Maryland and eventually found his way to Bellville and had a large impact on the development of the Anglican community. With Holland’s persistent efforts, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was established.

Nehemiah Holland

Nehemiah Holland was Bellville’s first lawyer. When the 1850 census was taken, the 28-year-old bachelor was living in Ervin House, a local hotel, where he also had his office. Not being physically strong, he could not fight for the Confederacy but he was appointed to act as a conscript officer for Austin County which is where he gained the title, “Colonel Holland.” A devout layman, Col. Holland held prayer services in his home before establishment of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. At Holland’s urging, The Rt. Rev. Alexander Gregg held the first Anglican morning and evening services in Bellville in the Masonic Hall on February 16, 1861.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Bishop Alexander Gregg was the first bishop of the Diocese of Texas (1859-1893). In his journal entry for February 16, 1861 Gregg wrote: “Several substantial church families reside here and in the neighborhood. The erection of a church building and establishment of permanent services is thought to be a question of time.” Before the actual organization of St. Mary’s, the parish was served by missionary ministers recruited by Bishop Gregg. Rev. Daniel Shaver served Bellville and St. Peter’s in Brenham and also other churches in the newly-formed Diocese of Texas in 1861-1862.

On June 7, 1862, St. Mary’s parish became the 26th church to be admitted to the Diocese of Texas. Colonel Nehemiah Holland, Captain R.T. Paine, William Thompson and S.R. Blake attended the 13th Episcopal Convention as lay delegates in 1862.

Charter members of the parish included Col. Nehemiah Holland, Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin T. Harris, Charles H. Harris, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Reese Blake, William and Sarah Paine Thompson and Robert and Rebecca Chambers Paine. Other early members included Mrs. J.G. Nessendorf and children, Mr. and Mrs. E.A. Tomlinson and children, Z. Hunt, Benjamin Granville, Sam Shelburne, the Burns family, J.P. Osterhout and Mr. and Mrs. W.L. Springfield. Zenos W. Matthews, Alvah Chesley and Emilie Haak were also among St. Mary’s earliest members.

The first minister, The Rev. Daniel Shaver, was followed by The Rev. J.M. Curtis who served in 1865, and The Rev. H.B. Monges served 1867-1879. The services were infrequent because the ministers served several churches and they did not live in Bellville.

In a letter dated February 24, 1876 and with a desire to have a church building, Alvah Chesley wrote to District Judge John P. Osterhout of Belton, Texas requesting a price for the lots on the south side of Main Street between Granville and Masonic (Lots 2 and 4 of Block H) for the building of a church building. Kay Zeiske, a St. Mary’s historian reported: “In the year of 1877, a deed dated June 14, Lot No. 7 of Block G in the town of Bellville was recorded as purchased from J.P. Osterhout for $75.00.” On April 3, 1877 local attorney Alvah Chesley offered the vestry Lot N7 in Block G for $75.00 which the vestry accepted. John Osterhout and wife Junia deeded the property to St. Mary’s. The 60’ X 12’ lot on Masonic is today a parking lot adjoining the present St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. The same event is recorded in Bishop Gregg’s journal of 1877. He wrote: “At Bellville an eligible site has been secured and a building will doubtless be commenced during the year.”

The Rev. Rucker reports: “This parish is doing as well as could reasonably be expected under present circumstances. The vestry has recently purchased and paid for a very eligible lot for their future church buildings, which they purpose making effort to build as soon as financial prospects of the community may warrant the undertaking.” The local newpaper, the Bellville Weekly, issue of January 11, 1877, published that J.P. Osterhout offered a gift to a group of citizens who intended to build a church building.

St. Mary’s owes its solid start to Col. Holland and an early rector, The Rev. Lindsey P. Rucker, who served Bellville in 1870-1871 and the years of 1874-1884. During the rectorate of The Rev. Rucker, a beautiful wooden Gothic church building was erected with magnificent stained glass windows from Munich, Germany. The lumber for the church was hauled for miles from East Texas. The first St. Mary’s Episcopal Church building was the first church building erected in Bellville. It was consecrated September 11, 1881, with a white marble cornerstone placed in position and sealed with local papers, coins and small items related to the church. The cornerstone reads as follows: St. Mary’s Church erected in 1881, L.P. Rucker, Rector. Ironically and sadly, the first funeral service in this structure was that of Col. Nehemiah Holland whom The Rev. Rucker called “St. Mary’s founder.”

The Reverend Thomas B. Lawson became the first resident priest in Bellville in the 1890’s. The parish grew and the first rectory was bought on the southeast corner of Palm and Masonic Streets. A growth in communicants occurred early in the 1900’s under the rectorate of Father Stephen Moyland Bird. Many German families became members of St. Mary’s as did several Czech families. Under Father Bird in 1916, the parish acquired the pipe organ which is used in the new church building today. One of St. Mary’s most beloved rectors was The Rev. Frank H. Stallknecht who served during the years 1930-1945.

The original wooden Gothic church was deconsecrated and dismantled in 1961. The new structure was built and continues to be the main sanctuary for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. In the following years, the congregation continued to prosper. The main building with the addition of a chapel has undergone some major expansions. The old parish hall was replaced with an educational building and a new parish hall. St. Mary’s also added a day school with grades pre-kindergarten to kindergarten for children. St. Mary’s has since purchased the adjacent property where the Etlinger Knesek Funeral Home was. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is now in its 149th year of existence and spreading the Word of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

Written February 10, 2010