Waco’s historic First Baptist Church has undergone a $4 million renovation that brought renewed attention to a treasure called The Cross Tapestry that hangs near one of the church’s main entrances.

The wall-mounted, 30-foot-high piece displays crosses that have been created and used by Christian churches over the last two millennia, according to a brochure prepared by First Baptist to recognize the tapestry’s significance.

“It’s kind of an interesting, one-of-a-kind piece that tells people right off the bat what we’re about: the cross,” First Baptist spokesman Jay Netherton said. “Beyond that, it leads into a conversation about our sanctuary, which when viewed from above is in the shape of a cross. It’s a good conversation starter.”

John A. Wood, who served as pastor of First Baptist from 1981 to 1991, envisioned the tapestry and chose the 31 symbols it displays. The Weldon Youngblood family paid to have it crafted by a North Carolina company using a looped needlepoint pattern.

Crosses from the past

Wood, reached at the office of his John Wood Ministries, said he recalls his search for a Christian symbol to occupy space in a church lobby. His first thought, he said, was the cross.

“I started researching the actual, valid historical representations of the cross, not what you might find on James Avery jewelry,” he said. “I made the big Latin cross as the background, and then I put the others in an arrangement I thought was artistic.”

The Baptist Standard wrote a story about the tapestry and placed it on the cover of its Easter edition, Wood said.

“I’ve had scholars and people from far and wide come and look at it and study it,” he said. “Every representation of the cross is from actual history, and I am proud of the finished product.”

Wood said he originally planned to allow women of the church to apply their own needlepoint skills to producing each of the more than 30 crosses featured on the tapestry.

“I was advised against that for two reasons,” he said. “I was told it would not be heavy enough to hang right and I also was told that every woman has a different stitch, some tighter than others.”

When the tapestry was completed by the North Carolina firm, First Baptist unveiled it after a morning service with help from former Baylor University President Herbert Reynolds.

It has had a prominent place in the foyer leading to the worship center of First Baptist Church, South Fifth Street and Webster Avenue, since the early 1990s. It was taken down during the church’s renovation, which started last April and lasted almost a year.

During the course of the makeover, church leaders took a fresh look at the tapestry and what it means to the congregation.

“It’s a beautiful piece of art that demonstrates the central image of our faith as it has been depicted for years,” said the Rev. Matt Snowden, pastor of First Baptist. “During the renovation, we took it down and cleaned and refurbished it.”

The church also is printing 1,000 brochures that tell the history of the tapestry and the lineage of each cross it features.

For example, the Tau Cross is one of the earliest forms used by Christians immediately following Jesus’ resurrection. It is seen on signet rings discovered in early Christian sites.

The Greek Cross, meanwhile, features symmetrical arms that symbolize “the perfect balance and simplicity that the Greeks demanded in literature, art and even physical culture,” according to the brochure’s description. “This reclining crux quadrate with four equal branches is set in a square. The surrounding square signifies finiteness, while circles are symbols of infinity.”

The Anchor Cross is the Cross of the Catacombs, according to the brochure.

“One of the most interesting crosses in history, the persecuted Christians, holding their worship services in the catacombs beneath Rome, wanted a religious symbol whose significance would be hidden, the cross in its original form being too bold to use,” the brochure states. “As a disguise, they adopted the anchor, which was the design of the fishermen but also contained the crossbar. Symbolically, the anchor means life eternal, and the cross, salvation.”

Possible tours

First Baptist, wanting to showcase its new interior and the tapestry, is considering offering tours of the church starting in mid-May.

“We’ve had a significant number of requests for these, and I’ve talked with David Ridley at Waco Tours about including a stop at our church,” Snowden said. “We want to make it available for people to come in and think, pray or rest.”

First Baptist opened its doors in 1851 and elected to stay downtown after the devastating tornado of 1953 that leveled much of the central city’s business district and claimed 114 lives.

Today the church finds itself in the midst of a renaissance downtown, with the arrival of loft apartments and new retailers and dining establishments. Among those leading this change are Chip and Joanna Gaines, whose Magnolia Market at the Silos at Sixth Street and Webster Avenue attracts between 25,000 and 35,000 visitors a week, operating just down the street from First Baptist.

“They are good neighbors and certainly have increased foot traffic downtown,” Snowden said.

The church has since started offering paid parking space for visitors and has hired parking lot attendants.

Attendance on any given Sunday at First Baptist hovers around 500, Snowden said. Between 850 and 900 people attend fairly regularly but not all at the same time.

Longtime member Rita Hull served on the committee that researched the best approach to giving First Baptist its first major renovation since 1986. The committee process “took thousands of hours,” and recommendations were turned over to RBDR Architects and then Mazanec Construction, said Rita’s husband, Dan Hull.

“Receiving the most attention were the preschool and Sunday school areas and the main sanctuary,” Rita Hull said. “The preschool area basically was gutted, and contractors installed new bathrooms, new windows and a new roof and redid the entire entrance. They also installed a computerized security system throughout the preschool area, so there is a lot of oversight when parents drop off and pick up their children.”

The sanctuary received new carpeting, fresh paint and new pews. Older coverings for the stained-glass windows gave way to clear glass, Dan Hull said.

The church is planning another brochure devoted to the images portrayed in 16 windows, he said.

A new lighting system features energy-efficient LED fixtures, and the entire First Baptist corner received fresh landscaping.

But Dan Hull said he is most excited about the tapestry.

“As we approach Easter, we focus on the cross,” he said. “It does not have anything to do with being Baptist. It has everything to do with reflecting on what the cross has meant for centuries.”

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