Capitols & churches: for whom the bell tolls in Austin, Texas

first methodist church austin texas

First United Methodist Church of Austin/photo by Gary Flanagan

By Gary Flanagan

Before you jump to any conclusions, I would like to remind you that this article is not about a poem from John Donne, a book by Ernest Hemingway, or a song by Metallica. My experience in this city was slightly different from the common theme in those three creations.

Baton Rouge was in my rear view mirror and soon I entered the Lone Star State in search of its capital. From a mileage perspective, Austin is the most difficult continental capital to reach from another state’s border.

Arriving on a Monday afternoon, I find the city buzzing with activity related to SXSW, an amazing festival of technology, music, art, and a million other cool ideas. The Capitol building is in the center of the city just a few blocks SW of the University of Texas.

The beige exterior of this Italian Renaissance Revival style Capitol grabs and fills your field of vision immediately. When it was created in 1888, it was billed as the seventh largest building in the world. Once again, fire plays an important role in a Capitol history. This building is a replacement for the second Capitol that was destroyed in the great Capitol fire of 1881. A little over a century later, in 1983 another fire almost destroyed the structure. At 360,000 square feet of floor space, 400 rooms, resting on 2.25 acres of land, that is not an easy task. It is certainly a building worthy of the size of the state it represents.

As I walked around the statues and monuments on the 22 acres surrounding the Capitol, I would ask for directions to the nearest church. Sure enough, the closest street to the west contained the current day structures of First United Methodist Church of Austin. The Rev. John Haynie from Knoxville, TN was the first preacher in 1840 the same year that Austin was named capital of the new state of Texas. Worship started in a log house, but was abandoned for two years during the Mexican and Indian invasions. After a short time, preaching in the halls of the Capitol, a new structure was built in 1854 that reached a membership of 231, including 135 slaves.

The third and current site has grown to over 3000 members since 1923. As I photographed the church with the Capitol in the background, a youth group was meeting on the front steps to plan a breakfast for the homeless the next morning. As I observed in Richmond and Atlanta, the homeless population in America often finds refuge near the churches of America. Little did I know at that moment what was soon to be.

Quite satisfied with my discoveries of the day, I was ready to return to my car and continue on my journey. I had my Capitol and I had the closest church in Austin. Walking back in front of the Capitol in the late afternoon, I could hear a loud bell echoing between the tall buildings of the city. Hmmm, is there another church close by? I let my ears guide me two blocks south, then one east until before me stood St. Mary Cathedral. It is tall and was hidden behind rows of scaffolding and construction. The attached school was also worn down and had a closed sign hung on the door.

Looking about, I noticed two other buildings on the same intersection. To my left was a Fox TV station and across the street was the Jefferson State Building. One block in the distance was the front of the State Capitol. Jefferson was in the separation between church and state.

Discovery leads to more discovery. Entering the TV station lobby, I asked the security guard if anyone knows the status of St. Mary’s Cathedral. A postman arrived with the mail and I also notice a man crossing the street walking back towards the church. I explained my project of searching for the closest churches to the capitols. The security guard and postman start to debate about where the closest churches are. Finally, the postman tells me that the church is open, “You should go inside. It contains many symbolic references to Catholic doctrine. The sanctuary is shaped like a nave and when full resembles a boat full of fish. You can get in through the door under the scaffolding.”

Thanks to both gentleman, discovery lead to more discovery, back across the street and up the steps to the front door. I reach for the handle and a voice on my right says “You just missed it. They close the door at 5 p.m.” I look over and a man in a maroon sweatshirt and plastic sunglasses is there. A black coat or blanket is on the ground behind him. I thank him for the information and turn back down the steps as another young man with a skateboard comes up the steps. The information is relayed and he turns and leaves.

Once again, I turn to the man in the corner and he asks “Can you spare a dollar or two?” I reach in my left pocket and found eight dollars. I hand him my offering and he accepts with appreciation. I turn and take two steps down to the street and his voice stops me again. “Sir, can I ask you for another favor? My backpack was stolen by some college kids last night as I slept. I could really use another shirt and pants.”

Discovery leads to more discovery. I pause, turn and dig out two 20 bills from my wallet, walk back up the steps and hand it to him. Then I ask, “You seem to be familiar with this church. Do you know what the story is with this construction?”

“Actually, I’m part of the reason it’s under construction.” I ask his name and then to tell me the story. I mentioned that he must be the caretaker of St. Mary’s.

Daryl was a regular parishioner the previous fall and was exiting mass on Sunday. As he came down the steps, he assisted a woman with a  baby in front of him. As they stepped down, a 30 pound chunk of rock fell from the bell tower crashed down on the step behind them. The woman told the priest that Daryl had saved her from the rock. The TV station interviewed him, a local parishioner that was a big contractor stepped up to repair the tower and this construction is the result. Daryl then told me that he had fallen on bad times since, made some bad decisions, but was trying to correct them.

We conversed some more. I shared why I was passing through Austin and told him it was time for me to move along. He allowed me to use his story and take  his picture with me on my journey.

My research on the history of St. Mary Cathedral is spot on with information shared by the postman and Daryl. You can delve deep into the amazing history and theology of these scared buildings at SMCAustin.org and FUMCAustin.org.

I will close the Austin, Texas chapter of my capitols and churches journey with this thought: take a Capitol stroll to where the church bells toll. It will only cost you a few steps to a great story.

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