St Stephen's Church History

The date was Palm Sunday, 1836. The locale was the quadrangle of the fort- Presidio La Bahia, In Goliad, Texas. On that warm spring day musket shots echoed throughout all of Texas. Their sound meant death to Colonel James Walker Fannin and the 341men under his command. Colonel Fannin properly negotiated the surrender terms for himself and his wounded troops thinking that their Lives were to be spared and that they would have to leave the Texas territory.

The terms of the surrender had hardly been agreed upon when orders from the Mexican dictator General Jose Lopez de Santa Anna were sent to Presidio La Bahia that the prisoners be shot. The orders were ill received by the Mexican officers holding the prisoners within the fort. Colonel Fannin and the other wounded were executed outside the walls of Our Lady of Loreto Chapel, and the remaining Texians were marched outside the walls of the fort In three different directions and massacred. General Urrea in his diary entry for that date deplored this despicable massacre directed by Santa Anna.

It was not long there after that the Texans from Gonzales to San Jacinto were marching with the battle cry: ”Remember Goliad, Remember the Alamo”! Those famous words resounded at San Jacinto-when General Sam Houston and his men defeated Santa Anna and won Texas its independence from Mexico.

One cannot search the archives for a history of the Diocese of West Texas without ”Remembering Goliad”. It was only twenty-four years after the massacre at Presidio La Bahla that an Episcopal mission was started in Goliad by the Rev. John Towles. No record is available of hls work there. We are told that for music the mission was dependent upon an old-fashioned harmonium that could be folded up and carried under the arm. The player held It In his lap and blew the bellows by rocking it back and forth across his knees. Apparently the music it rendered was not duly appreciated by the boys in town who somewhat irreverently referred to it as the ”Comanche Baby”.

We have Little information about the church In Goliad. Services were not held there with any degree of regularly until 1861 when the Rev. W. R. Richardson took charge. Rev. Richardson later became Dean of St. Marks Cathedral, San Antonio.

Once again, however, we lose trace of the life of the church. The Rev. Francis B. Starr was put in charge by Bishop Elliott, the first Bishop of the Missionary District of Western Texas, in the spring of 1877. He made his first visitation on Aprll 27th, holding services in the Methodist Building that night and also on the Saturday night and Sunday following. At his first celebration of the Holy Eucharist, eight persons received. Arrangements were made for services every filth Sunday as well as the Friday and Saturday nights preceding and the Monday night following.

These services were held for over a year when in December of 1878, Mr. Starr was able to make visitations every fourth Sunday. The meeting place was changed to the Goliad College where Professor Brooks had been instrumental in securing a room which served as a chapel.

In March, 1879, a Church School was organized with six officers and teachers and twenty-six pupils. Although visiting Goliad once a month, Mr. Starr was able to report a low but steady growth in membership. The mission was formally organized on June 26, 1881, and adopted the name ”St. Stephen's” In honor of the great and saintly Stephen Elliot, first Bishop of Georgia, and father of the first Bishop of Western Texas. The first officers elected were Messrs. E. R. Lane, Warden; W.W. Wicks, Secretary; E. Seeligson, Treasurer, T. R. Nott, and W. P. Wilkinson.

It was under Mr. Starr's direction that the first church building was built in 1882. Bishop Elliott secured $400.00 from the Society of the Double Temple, New York, to supplement the $2100.00 raised among the little handful of members.

In the June, 1885, issue of the ”Church Record” we find an account of the consecration of the church: ”On Monday morning the Bishop, Dean Richardson, Rev. Mr. Tichnor, Rev. Mr. Burroughs, Rev. Mr. Cabaniss, the two young ladles from San Antonio, and one from Cuero, started for Goliad via Victoria, taking the cars to the latter place, they were given a good breakfast by the hospitable Mrs. Robert Thomson. Then the party In two hacks and a buggy started cross country to Goliad. As had been anticipated on account of the heavy rain the night before, they were brought to a halt when about half way there by the Coleto, a stream small enough in dry weather but now wide, deep and rapid. After a picnic of a few hours under the live oaks, the hospitable shelter of a neighboring farm house was sought and the party stowed away for the night. The next day they were able to proceed on. They were not far behind time when they reached the pretty town escorted by a number of the citizens who had come out on the road to meet them.”

Dean Richardson who preached at the Service of Consecration, gives us an insight into the early life of Goliad when, in his sermon, he descries conditions when he first went there In 1881:”......Goliad was then, I may say, Just fairly emerging from its rougher frontier days; but a year or two before had been the so-called Mexican cart war; and, in connections with it, that sometimes seeming, but always fearful necessity, when lawlessness seems to have gone beyond endurance, and when yet the law seems so powerless the vigilance committee; so liable always to make its fearful mistakes; so sure, as It almost always Is, to fall sooner or later Into the wrong hands and minister far more to private revenge than to public Justice. Men told me with bated breath of strange fruit these ancient live oaks which adorn your plaza had been known to bear in a night. School children passing to their morning tasks looked at them askance and in the twilight hour a ghostly dread seemed to hang about them.

”But that had passed, and when I came among you the throes of a mightier convulsion through which the land was passing had over-shadowed all other considerations, and dwarfed and pushed aside all local differences except once as a prisoner, and no hostile gun awaked the echoes that had been sleeping since the bloody tragedy of La Bahla, still every pulse thrilled responsive to the waxing or waning fortunes of brethren on far-off battle fields; and every ear was strained to catch from the passing gale some tidings of the raging conflict-until at last came peace, blessed peace, not as we had hoped, but as God willed and welcome anyhow-but this was more than a year after I left you.”

”It Is now over twenty-one years since having received a call to another field, I bade you farewell, not knowing whether I should ever see your faces again It would only be after so long a period. Within that time children have been born and gone on to a man's or woman's estate. Some of the little flock I left here are still spared, an d are, I know, among your most faithful workers in the church.”

”A few words further as to the condition of the Church in Goliad, on my arrival in the middle of April, 1862. The first service of our branch of the Church Catholic ever held in Goliad was on April 20, 1860, on a visitation of Bishop Gregg, accompanied by the Rev. John Towles, of Virginia. A parish was temporally organized, and services held for a few months by Mr. Towles, who then returned to Virginia. I found twenty communicants, but when I left In December, 1863, the number had been reduced by death and removal to eight; the removals having been caused by the unsettled state of the country owing to the threatened invasion by the Federal Army by the way of Brownsville and the Rio Grande.”

”We had, of course, no church building, but were indebted to the kindness and courtesy of the county authorities for the use of the courthouse, which however, as unfinished, not having any sash in the windows. That of course was pleasant enough In the summer, but so mild was that winter also, of 1882-1863, that notwithstanding the open condition of the room, it was not once cold enough (at least on the Sundays of my appointments) to render even a fire needful. I constructed a vestry room in the corner of the courthouse by utilizing with the permission of the authorities, some new unmounted window blinds. And we had one of the best quartette choirs I ever heard in Texas.”

”One thing I have noted In looking over my private memoranda of services, and events connected with my sojourn in Goliad, and It Is one worthy of attention: It has been the fashion to speak of the South and of the Southern Church as neglectful of duty in spiritual things as well as in temporal, to the Negro, their former slaves. If the brief experience of one minister is worth consideration I would state that on the twenty-nine baptisms administered by me in Goliad, sixteen were of Negroes; and in the field in which I subsequently labored for four years, more than four-fifths of my baptisms, or some thirty in all were of Negroes.”

In 1884, the Rev. Charles E. Cabaniss was in charge. In the parochial reports of 1885, the following description is given about the work in Goliad: ”The progress made in this parish, organized and received into union with the convocations one year ago, is remarkable and the prospect of further growth is very fair. The Parish Aid Society is in active operation and the members of the church one and all are earnest supporters of the cause of the Blessed Maker. We have sustained an irreparable loss In the death of the universally beloved Mrs. Julia R. Nott...”

One can sense the strong evangelical character of these early missions as one reads accounts of Confirmations. In the Church Record of May, 1885, the following account appears: ”St. Stephen's parish, Goliad, has again been made to rejoice by the annual visit of our beloved Bishop, and indeed the heart of our dear rector was made glad when he was able, through his prayers and the divine help of God, to present to the Bishop for the holy rite of Confirmation a class of eleven persons. Some of them had long struggled with the monster sin, but the Good Spirit from on High had at last shown them the true and living faith, and they were not partly but wholly persuaded that to follow Jesus Christ was the only happiness we can obtain here below. It was a season of great rejoicing to see gray-haired men, who had struggled so many years, at last take upon themselves the armor of pure and undefiled religion.”

The turn of the century has seen St. Stephen's rise above difficulties that may well have proven too much for a less consecrated group of churchmen. It has won its place of respect in the community and it faces the future with high hopes under the splendid leadership of its present rector, the Rev. Theodore Branch.

Published in the Church News
October 1946
Churches of West Texas
By the Rev. 3oseph L. Brown
Managing Edltor, the Church News

The first three paragraphs of this article have been edited for historical accuracy. Corrections were made by Newton M. Warzecha, Director of Presidio La Bahla, May 10, 2005.

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