BELTON — Members of the 1874 Church Restoration Committee will oversee the partial demolition of the Old St. Luke’s Episcopal Church building today.
The structure at 438 N. Wall St. is the oldest standing church in Bell County but is considered structurally unsound.
“The north and south walls are 10 inches out of plumb and the face stone of the walls has separated from the inner layer,” the city of Belton’s website stated. What little foundation the building has, has shifted and settled during the past 140 years.
“The problem is that it was built without a foundation,” Restoration Committee Chairman Mike Cooper said. The building’s limestone walls have “started to sink into the ground,” Cooper said.
Master Builders, the contracting firm hired by the committee, will brace the roof today and begin the process of disassembling the southern wall.
The total cost of the renovation and repair work is unknown at this point, Cooper said.
“We have to wait until we’ve pulled some of the wall down to see what’s going on,” he said. “But we’ve got enough money to cover this first phase.”
Since its formation in 2010, the committee has raised $17,500 to pay for an ambitious slate of repairs to the building, which includes pouring a new foundation. Even in its current state of disrepair, the building remains a Belton icon.
“It’s the oldest public-use building standing on its original ground in Bell County,” said Bernetta Peeples, a longtime Belton resident.
Despite being the first building in Belton to be added to the National Registry of Historic Places, it has faced difficult times.
“It’s been closed most of my life,” Peeples, 96, said.
The building’s struggle mirrors those of the congregation that once called it home.
In 1999 local author Elizabeth Silverthorne wrote “A History of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Belton” that detailed both the history of the building and the church.
Despite the church’s being founded in 1860, it wasn’t admitted to the rolls of parishes of the Episcopal Church in Texas until 1863. During its early years, the congregation of St. Luke’s used the meeting space of other area churches.
In 1871, W.W. Patrick, a reverend in Waco, was appointed to minister St. Luke’s one Sunday a month with John C. Moore, a lay reader, performing services the other weeks. Under Patrick’s guidance, the congregation of St. Luke’s raised the funds necessary to construct their own building.
Patrick signed a contract to construct a 27-foot by 39-foot “rock house with a recess channel, semi-gothic in style.”
At the time, the cost for the endeavor was $3,000 — about $57,000 adjusted for inflation — and the stones were to be cut from Bell County quarries. The congregation raised about half of the needed money from the community and half was donated from other Episcopal churches throughout the country.
Although construction of the building was completed in 1874, the new church was not consecrated by Alexander Gregg, the Episcopalian bishop for Texas, until April 18, 1875.
After the completion of the church Patrick relocated from Waco and became St. Luke’s first full-time minister.
However, by the 1960s things had picked up to the point that the congregation had outgrown their original building and on Sept. 10, 1968, a groundbreaking was held for a new church.
Construction on the building lasted until early 1969.
The new building was consecrated on March 23, 1969 — Palm Sunday. Shortly afterward, the 1874 building was deconsecrated.
After its deconsecration, the building was sold to the Belton Fine Arts Association for $3,000, about $14,000 adjusted for inflation, Peeples said.
“We used it as an art gallery until the late 1980s,” she said. The building remained under the control of the Belton Fine Arts Association until 2010.
“The city was going to condemn the church and tear it down,” Cooper said. Members of Belton’s historic preservation committee had decided to let the demolition happen, Peeples said.
“Hank Sweet stood up and said, ‘I’m forming a committee; anyone who wants to save this building meet me in the lobby,’” Peeples said. “About 40 people followed him.”
The Belton Fine Arts Association gave the building to the committee, Cooper said. Committee members then set about trying to raise the funds to repair the old church.
“We sold calendars of elderly ladies on motorcycles and Belton’s historic places,” Cooper said. The committee raised about $2,500.
They received a $15,000 donation from a trust controlled by shampoo magnate John Paul Dejoria and former Playboy Playmate Eloise Broady, daughter of longtime Belton resident Ann Broady.