Christ Church Cathedral
Founded on March 16, 1839, Christ Church Cathedral was Houston’s first religious congregation and is the only one still worshiping on its original site from the days when Houston was capital of the Republic of Texas.
Its founders had come out from the United States to build a new nation. Most were young, and many had had distinguished careers back in the States. Work to build Houston began in early 1837. The city had a theater at the end of its first year, grand balls were given, and the Jockey Club races had entrance fees up to $500. But Houston had no church.
Visiting Episcopal priests wrote to The Spirit of Missions about this promising mission field. The letters ran under the caption “Foreign Correspondence” amid reports from West Africa, Constantinople, and China.
From its founding, Christ Church served people of many religions and races. The first rector conducted funerals for Roman Catholics, weddings for Jews, and taught the catechism to children of the servants. The first Bishop of Texas, the Rt. Rev’d Alexander Gregg, was a Southern aristocrat who believed that blacks and whites should worship under the same roof. Christ Church had black members before and after the Civil War, and their children attended the Sunday school. Friday Carr, sexton, was among them and is commemorated in a plaque in the entrance to the Cathedral.
From the days of the first rector, who helped found the church in LaGrange and was one of the three founding members of the Diocese of Texas, Christ Church has been active in encouraging new parishes – Trinity, St. Stephen’s, Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Mary’s, and Palmer among them. Christ Church has always been part of the fabric of downtown Houston. Its Ladies Parish Association, founded in 1871, spearheaded much of the charitable work done in Houston at that time. When new congregations of other denominations were forming, including the first Jewish congregation in Houston, Christ Church offered its building for services. DePelchin Faith Home was founded by a former Christ Church organist.
In 1925, when Christ Church was offered $750,000 by the Hogg brothers for its half block on Texas Avenue, the Rev’d Peter Gray Sears, beloved rector at the time and grandson of the founder, urged that the church be sold to gain money for Christian missions.
The whole city became involved in the controversy, and in the end the congregation voted to remain on its historic site. When an adjacent six-story building caught fire in 1938, flames swept through the chancel, and the roof collapsed over the altar. One fireman, a Roman Catholic, sprayed the rood screen with his fire hose, determined to save it.
The screen stands today, with only minor charring visible from the altar side. All Houston rallied to the rebuilding and contributions came from people of many denominations, many faiths. William Ward Watkin and Carl A. Mulvey were architects for the restoration. Replacing the organ destroyed in the fire, an Aeolian-Skinner, revolutionary in design for its period, was installed in 1939, just before Easter. It was slightly enlarged in 1957 and again in 1967. The instrument presently has 77 ranks and a total of 4,470 pipes. In 1991, an antiphonal division of 561 pipes [including a Trompette en chamade] was added to the organ by the Schantz Organ Company. A restoration of the organ was completed in 1998.
Six rectors of Christ Church have been elected bishops of the Episcopal Church, including one who became its presiding bishop: Charles M. Beckwith [rector, 1886-92], Bishop of Alabama, 1902 Henry D. Ayes [rector, 1892-1904], Missionary Bishop of Mexico, 1904 James P. DeWolfe [rector, 1934-40], Bishop of Long Island, 1942 John E. Hines [rector, 1941-45], Bishop of Texas, 1955; Presiding Bishop of the United States, 1964 Hamilton H. Kellog [rector and dean, 1946-52], Bishop of Minnesota, 1956 Milton Richardson [rector and dean, 1952-65], Bishop of Texas, 1965 William Henry Marmion and Charles Gresham Marmion, brothers who grew up in Christ Church, became bishop, respectively, of the diocese of Southwestern Virginia and of the diocese of Kentucky.
In 1949, Christ Church, the mother to many Episcopal churches in Texas, became the cathedral church during the centennial celebration of the Diocese of Texas. The Rt. Rev’d Clinton S. Quin was bishop, and the Rev’d Hamilton Kellogg, rector, became its first dean. In 1950, work began on the diocesan office and the Latham Memorial Building, as well as renovation of the Guild Hall. The Chapel of the Christ Child, designed by John Staub, was opened the Sunday after Christmas, 1953. Cleveland Hall was built in 1961. The Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones building, a three-level education facility, was completed in 1989. The enlarged and renovated Great Hall was reopened in 1990. In 1995, the Cathedral was closed for major renovation. Over the summer months many improvements were made.
A hardwood floor was installed, all the mechanical systems were improved, the wood surfaces were either cleaned or refinished, and acoustical improvements were made. The Cathedral was rededicated on September 17, 1995, by the Bishop of Texas, Claude E. Payne. Christ Church will observe the 160th anniversary of its founding and the 50th anniversary of its designation as the Cathedral of the Diocese of Texas in 1999.
Christ Church Cathedral must at the same time be appropriate to its heritage and relevant to its geography and generation. The cathedral is in the unique position of having three distinct ministries: parish, diocese, and city. Christ Church provides a full parish program of education and mission. The Cathedral is the symbolic center of the diocese and seat of the Bishop. As cathedral, Christ Church hosts diocesan meetings and events and offers leadership to the variety of diocesan programs.
Situated in the center of one of the nation’s most dynamic cities, the Cathedral ministers through its weekday programs to the downtown community. These include the daily Noon Eucharist, the Cloister Restaurant, art shows, Brigid’s Place, the Religion and the Arts Council, the Cathedral Bookstore, and AA. The staff is a resource for both direct help and referral for those in need.