A 97-year-old church building just outside the Falls County community of Marlin speaks to the artistic soul of photographers and artists from around the country who pause to capture its image.
But St. Paul United Church of Christ has a secret that passersby know nothing about, something that threatens its future, has rallied its small congregation to action and has become an obsession for Waco architect B.J. “Billy” Greaves, who thinks he was meant to come to the church’s rescue.
Shifting ground now firmly hugs the walls of the building’s basement, squeezing them like a vise and putting the entire wooden structure in jeopardy. When the soil becomes wet from rainfall, water seeps through cracks in those walls. But without those faults, pressure would build to a point at which the barriers likely would explode.
A pump removes moisture that builds up in the basement, the process begins again, and decades have passed without a permanent solution.
Most Sunday mornings, 10 to 15 people show up to worship at St. Paul United Church of Christ which was founded in 1894 by German immigrants. But now that small group must raise more than $300,000 to rescue their longtime spiritual home, their beacon on the hill, as they call it. Armed with bake sales, quilt raffles, letter-writing campaigns and grant requests aimed at entities such as the Texas Historical Commission, they vow to get it done for themselves and for St. Paul’s past.
After all, these are descendants of the church body that saw lightning splinter a church steeple in 1914 and raised money after World War I to repair it.
“We’re going to do this. We can not let this building go down,” said Eileen Vanous, 84, treasurer of the fundraising campaign and a lifelong member of St. Paul. “Some say it would never fall down, but we can’t take that chance, and there is no way we were going to abandon it.”
The exterior of St. Paul remains illuminated at night, and a guest book resides inside for those who can’t resist recording their visit.
“A woman from Hawaii traveling to Beaumont stopped here over the weekend, and some who sign the book keep in touch with us over the years,” Vanous said. “About six years ago, we placed a lighted cross on the church, and we have enough money to take care of regular maintenance and paint jobs.”
But installing a system to support the building’s structural integrity is another matter, one that requires divine intervention and an angel such as Greaves. For the past three years, he has taken it upon himself to study the problem from every angle and recruit the help of builders and engineers to prepare a game plan.
“A couple I go to church with at First Baptist Waco were just riding around in the countryside, spotted the church and went over for a closer look,” Greaves said. “They ran into a couple of members of the congregation, got to talking to them about the church and asked how it was doing. They were told there were significant issues with the building and they really didn’t know what to do or who to turn to for help. My friends told them they knew an architect who might be of assistance.”
Enter Greaves, who set up an appointment to tour the church, which he soon discovered was home to a congregation with limited financial means but a lot of heart.
“Being a person of faith, I don’t put much stock in coincidences. I think things are guided to happen, and I felt this was a worthy project for me to get involved in,” he said. “I talked with a local contractor, Don Barrett, who has worked with me on projects at the Dr Pepper Museum for 25 years. I asked him if he was interested in getting involved in another older, historic structure, and he was agreeable. It was then we began to brainstorm.”
They recruited the assistance of John Rogers, a structural engineer in Waco, and Greaves met last week at the church with Michael Robb, a representative of the Texas Historical Commission. Greaves said he gave Robb the grand tour and hopes he can assist St. Paul in finding funding sources.
“This is not something unfolding quickly, and it’s not a small endeavor by any means,” Greaves said. “The building is too important to just ignore and let collapse.”
The expensive fix
The consensus is to excavate around the perimeter of the building and install a new wall to absorb the pressure the ground is exerting. Crews also could install a subsurface drainage system to move water away from the building, and install a new load-bearing wall inside the basement to support the flooring of the sanctuary.
“You can see areas of the building where the walls have bowed out; it’s not plumb from top to bottom. Not much has been done to stabilize the structure,” Greaves said. “An engineering report from back in the 1970s really does not mention the basement. It mentions some problems in the attic and the need to strengthen the trusses.”
But for now, he said, the basement demands attention. And putting it on the path to stability will cost more than $300,000.
Greaves said he has accepted no money, though the church has graciously offered it, but the task requires additional expertise and manpower he lacks.
“I presented the congregation the information, and it discussed two options,” he said. “They could try to raise the money and move forward stabilizing the building, or they could tear it down and build a new structure that obviously would meet modern codes and be accessible to persons with disabilities.”
Members opted to proceed with raising money, “which is very commendable, in my opinion,” said Greaves, “and we told them we’re on board with them.”
Robb, with the historical commission, said the church already has a plaque signifying its standing as a piece of Texas history.
“It has enough architectural significance and integrity that I certainly hope there is a way to drum up funds,” Robb said. “The building certainly is in dire condition. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wall bow out like that so severely. And basements are rare in this part of the country, especially in churches.”
Robb said he is “steering” backers of the project toward pursuing a Texas Preservation Trust Fund grant, and has scheduled another meeting with Greaves.
The current building was constructed in 1920, and has witnessed generations of baptisms, weddings and burials in the nearby cemetery. It saw an era when women sat on one side of the sanctuary, men on the other, and those who challenged the tradtiional seating arrangement might catch daggers from the pulpit.
Beautiful stained-glass windows throw color, and Greaves said wind causes the old church to creak and moan and sway. In its heyday, 120 people would gather there to worship, but changing times have pulled many away to larger churches and communities, though they return on special occasions.
In 2003, the building made the cover of a book titled “Rock Beneath the Sand: Country Churches in Texas,” and this year it was featured in the book “Lone Star Steeples: Historic Places of Worship in Texas.” It recently was chosen as the subject for a statewide student photography contest, according to chairwoman Carol Dieterich, 68.
Ludy Manthei serves as pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ, driving there from his home in Bryan every Sunday morning.
“At age 70, I’m a youngster there. They’re all Germans, just like me,” said Manthei, a carpenter for 45 years who changed careers after nearing retirement age.
He described the congregation as compassionate and giving, holding special offerings a dozen times a year to support local and even international causes.
“There is no doubt the church needs repairs,” said Manthei, but he chuckles when asked about the feasibility of raising more than $300,000 to get it done.
One might ask if emotion has run amok, if a congregation that barely reaches double digits in attendance some Sundays can pull off a miracle.
But, 83-year-old Leona Papendorf said, “Daunting is the word for it, but we have nothing better to do with our time.”