Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Rare Feat: Saving the Union Church in Kerrville

The Union Church, Kerrville, on the campus of Schreiner University
around 2003, after a snowfall.
Fifteen years ago, on Christmas Eve, 2002, the Friends of the Kerr County Historical Commission dedicated the restored Union Church. The church building had been moved from its second location, a lot on Lemos Street, to the western edge of the Schreiner University campus, where many months of labor had produced a wonderfully restored historic building.
The Union Church, in its
original location,
Clay Street
The program featured representatives of the four original congregations that shared the building when it was first used Christmas Eve, 1885, including Rev. Warren Hornung of the First Methodist Church; Dr. Sam Junkin of First Presbyterian Church; Rev. John Petty of Trinity Baptist Church; and Rev. David Fischer of First Christian Church.
Dr. William Rector, president of the Friends of the Kerr County Historical Commission, and Dr. Mike Looney, of Schreiner University, also participated. Special music was provided by Theresa Gregory.
Several years ago I wrote this sketch about the Union Church:
The old Union Church has found a new home, thanks to a gaggle of people and a far-sighted group who would not let her be torn down, this symbol of unity and strength through diversity.
Walking through Kerrville today it's hard to travel far without hitting a churchyard; 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.
The Union Church building as it
appeared on Francisco Lemos Street,
1885 sounds like a long time ago, but remember: Kerr 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 made trades 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. (A convenience store stands on the original site today, opposite Clay street from Pioneer Bank.)
The Union Church building, 1998
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. Another source says the building was constructed for a total of $190.
Now why would a structure be called the Union Church, especially in the post-Civil War south, where ‘Union’ was a particularly loaded and harsh word?
The main reason for this name was several congregations shared the building, and all denominations could use the building by permission. It was agreed '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 (1925) when it was deeded to the Christian Church, 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."
The Union Church, on Clay Street, in Kerrville,
around 1914
I hope this last statement, probably formulated to ease the collection of funds from a reluctant and church-free citizenry, remains an operative mission statement of the old lady in her new home.
I've attended many functions at the old church since its dedication fifteen years ago, including the wedding of my eldest nephew, Kenton Farish, who married Sarah Guderian there. It was a lovely wedding in a beautiful building.
Historic preservation is possible in our community, and for the past 15 years, the Union Church has been a wonderful example of what people interested in history can do when they work together.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who has most of his Christmas shopping done. Whew. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times December 16, 2017.

There are still a few copies of Joe's second book available.  Click HERE for more information.

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