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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday Then & Now: the Union Church

The Union Church has a long history in our community, built in 1885.  At a time when Kerrville had no churches, a group of ladies, traveling from house to house on horseback, raised enough money for a church to be built.  It was named the Union Church (at a time when the wounds of the Civil War were still relatively fresh in the South) because four different congregations shared the building: the Presbyterians, Baptists, Christian Church, and Methodists.  Through the hard work of the Kerr County Historical Commission, and especially Julius Neunhoffer, the building was restored and moved to the corner of the Schreiner University campus.  (When I was a boy, the structure was on Lemos Street, and housed an Army/Navy Surplus store.)
Click on any image to enlarge
The Union Church building, when it was on Clay Street,
facing what is now Union State Bank, Kerrville, late 1940s.
Restored Union Church Building, Kerrville, 2011
Walking through Kerrville today it's hard to travel far without hitting a church yard; they are especially congregated in our Old Town section. It wasn't always this way. Although preaching has been going on in our community for a long, long time (starting with the first preacher here, a Father Ralls, a Methodist circuit rider) -- it wasn't until 1885 that there was a church building to worship in. Granted, you can worship the Lord while working in His garden, but more than a few folk, mostly the ladies, wanted a pew to visit on a weekly basis.
1885 sounds like a long time ago, but remember that the county was organized in 1856, so there were more than a few grown people who'd never been in a church when the Union Church was finally constructed. The Civil War came and went without a church here. Charles Schreiner traded in his store for over 15 years before there was a church in Kerrville.
There were several reasons for this: there was no money in the county during those days, and the pursuit of life was a full time occupation, especially during the Comanche moons. It is still startling to think of a town without churches for that long.
Finally, in 1876, a group of citizens petitioned the Commissioners' Court for permission to use the district courtroom as a 'place for the of worship of Almighty God.' The court granted this request, 'provided the citizens were responsible for the safekeeping of same and that they pay to the sheriff a pecuniary compensation of five dollars per day,' and that 'no distinction shall be made between associations, sects, classes, or denominations in the community,' according to Matilda Real.
This arrangement lasted for six months before it was 'proved unsatisfactory to the citizens.'
During this time Mrs. Whitfield (Harriet) Scott became 'extremely interested' in building a church, and with the assistance of her sister, Laura Gill (later Mrs. W. G. Garrett), began to collect funds for the project. They went from house to house in the county on horseback. Captain Schreiner donated two city lots for the purpose, at the 'northeast corner of Main and Clay streets' according to Alice Olen. The northeast corner would be where the old City Hall is today -- the building being renovated by the Union State Bank for its new headquarters. However Ms. Olen further states that there was a 'Texaco station' on the site when she wrote her story in 1986 -- which would either put it on the southeast corner where the NationsBank drive through is, or the northwest corner where a Texaco station is today. The sources conflict on this -- but a deed was recorded, should anyone want to solve the mystery.
The subscribers to the project included Mrs. D. B. Lawrence, A. C. Schreiner (who would marry Mrs. Scott's daughter), S. B. Rees, A. L. Barnett, Captain Charles Schreiner, Mrs. Scott, Bilmer & Co., F. M. Moore, and R. H. Burney. The largest donation was $150, quite a sum in those days.
Now why would a structure be called the Union Church, especially in the post-Civil War south, where Union was a particularly dirty and harsh word?
The main reason was that several congregations shared the building, and all denominations could use the building by permission. It was agreed that 'the Methodist Episcopal Church South shall have use of the building on the first Sabbath of each month and ensuing week. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church shall have use of the building on the second Sabbath and ensuing week; the Missionary Baptist, the third Sabbath and ensuing week, and the Christian Church the fourth Sabbath and ensuing week." Many attended services there every week, slipping easily from dogma to dogma.
The building was never dedicated as a church, until much later when it was deeded to the Christian Church in 1925, because it was to be "used for educational and other purposes of general interest to the community 'not antagonistic to Christianity nor for private profit.'"
I hope this last statement, probably formulated to ease the collection of funds from a reluctant and church-free citizenry, remains an operative mission of the old lady in her new home.

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