Members of the San Felipe United Methodist Church laugh when asked why they’re raising funds to renovate their 185-year-old building, rather than just destroying it and starting over.
“They’ll never demolish this building,” says Clara Miller, who, along with about 35 others, faithfully attends worship services each Sunday at 10 a.m. at the original sanctuary at 201 Vicaro Guerero in San Felipe.
Parishioners have a history of fighting to preserve their church history. Legend has it that even when General Santa Anna planned to burn the town of San Felipe, locals took matters into their own hands.
“When Santa Anna came through, the people in San Felipe burned the town down because they didn’t want him to do it,” Miller said.
A Texas historical landmark sign was placed in front of the church building in 1964, and restoration began in full force earlier this summer.
“The building is so old and it hasn’t had much attention over the years, so this is going to be an ongoing process,” member Kim Waldrop said of the three-phase renovation plan.
The church is considered the oldest Protestant church in Texas. Many Austin County residents remember attending services there when they were children, or hearing stories about the old building from their grandparents or other relatives.
“I grew up attending a small church in Industry, Texas,” Waldrop said. “My husband and I moved back to Austin County and we visited several churches. When we came here, I found where the Lord wanted me to be. There’s a closeness and a traditional service. Our son was raised in this church and was married there. It’s very simple but you can feel the presence of the saints who were there before us.”
Olshan Foundation Repair recently leveled the building, completing phase one of the renovation work, but much remains to be done, Miller said.
“We’re waiting on a couple of bids on cement work,” she said. “They’re going to continue taking off all that old siding and restoring the cypress trees. We need a new porch and we have to get the ramp up to [ADA] standards.”
Renovations are made little by little as the devoted church members raise money through events like the chicken fried steak dinner held each year on the first Saturday in November. The event coincides with the Stephen F. Austin State Park annual celebration for SFA’s birthday.
The church is actively accepting donations for the remodel but members acknowledge it will be a long process.
“By the time we get the bids, it will be close to the first of the year,” Miller said.
Although renovations are needed to keep the building up to code, many pieces of the original structure remain intact. Until the 1940s, oil lamps were used inside the church because the building didn’t yet have electricity. They remain on the walls and are lit every year for the Christmas Eve service. In fact, the lamps and the illuminated Christmas tree are the only lights used for the holiday service, according to a history provided by the church.
There’s no question that San Felipe UMC is rich in history and plans to also have a bright future for generations to come, members say.
“It takes all of us to keep things going,” Waldrop said. “It’s a wonderful Christian church family.”