“A History of the Congregational Church of Austin”
by Pat and Mel Oakes
Sources include: Histories by Hildegard Kuehne Everett, Ralph Bickler, Annie Doom Pickrell, Additions by Matt Wilding, Mathis Blackstock and Brenda Tingle
First Congregational Church of Austin, Ninth and Colorado
The history of the Congregational Church of Austin, Texas, begins in the early part of the 20th century. The minister, Rev. Ritchie J. Briggs (at right), of Tenth St. Methodist Church (located at what is currently Brazos and Mulberry (Tenth) Streets), ceased believing in a literal hell and had other problems with the Methodist hierarchy. Twelve followers signed Articles of Incorporation on March 21, 1901, and filed them with the State of Texas on April 2, 1901, to become an independent church named The Methodist Church of Austin. Dr. Briggs then agreed to become the pastor of the group, and preached the first sermon on Easter at the Odd Fellows Hall at the northeast corner of East Ninth Street and Congress Avenue. Under his leadership, church membership grew rapidly during the following four years.
Funding the new church was difficult, and the members decided to affiliate with the Congregational Conference of Texas and changed the name of their church in 1904 to First Congregational Church. The conference made low interest loans available. Arthur Osborn Watson (1864-1935), an architect and member of the church, designed the building, shown above, which was completed in 1906 at Ninth and Colorado St. Stained glass windows in the present building are a heritage from that building. Watson also designed the courthouses in Dewitt, Llano, Milam and Val Verde Counties. An entry in the Texas State Historical Association web site states, “The church was an imaginative stout masonry building with a large center hall spanned by an iron trussed roof. Its style was quite unusual at that time. The gentle Gothic-revival All Saints (Episcopal) chapel in Austin was also designed by Watson. Watson was active in the First Congregational church, the Boy Scouts, and later was a member of the congregation of St. David’s Episcopal Church. He and his wife Minnie (Pope) Watson had one son.”
Reverend Dr. Briggs held four academic degrees and had served as a Methodist minister in a number of states. Rev. Dr. Briggs was a brilliant scholar and gifted and forceful pulpit orator and beloved leader of the total community. He ministered to many persons who were rejected by other ministers. Over the next ten years, the influence of church and Sunday School increased and the membership attained a membership of two hundred and fifty members. There were a total of nine Sunday School classes with a membership of ninety.
Reverend Briggs became ill in 1914 and had to have assistants to aid him. Assistant ministers included Reverends John Harbeson, Dr. P.C. Burhans, A.D. Shaw and A.O. Stevens. The inability of Reverend Briggs to preached resulted in a serious loss of membership. The next few years became a period of transition as the leaders of the church decided in 1921 to move to a location nearer the University of Texas.
The land at 23rd and San Antonio was purchased, and a new building designed by Hugo Franz Kuehne , an architect member (shown at left), was dedicated on Dec. 9, 1923. Mr. Kuehne incorporated many of the stained glass windows from the former sanctuary when designing our current church. Some of Kuehne’s other buildings in Austin include the Austin Public Library (now the Austin History Center), Steck Building(1932), the Commodore Perry Hotel (1950), the International Life Building (1952), the American National Bank, and the Texas Department of Public Safety building (1952).
The Rev. Almon Odell Stevens (1968-) was the assistant who became pastor on Dr. Briggs’ death on June 18, 1923. He and his wife, Laura B. Waters (1867-1948), had three children, daughter Lucia C. and sons Ralph and John M. He was educated at Bucknell ’91, and U. of Chicago and was ordained in 1895. Reverend Stevens, had served churches in Oakland, CA (Plymouth Av), Pontiac City, MI, Elkhorn, WI and Beloit, WI. He resigned on July 1, 1924 because of ill health. Apparently his health improved as he served a church in Stearns, KY in 1930. Rev. Stevens and his wife wrote poetry; here are examples of their poems which won prizes in Beloit; Poems.
The Rev. Ruel P. Snider (shown at right) assumed his duties as minister in January of 1925. He had graduated from UC Berkeley in 1920. He emphasized work with students at the University of Texas. Many members of the University faculty and their families as well as students, became members of the church. The Congregational Conference of Texas considered establishing a Bible Chair but never accomplished this goal. Mr. Snider left on Dec. 2, 1928 for a church at Hilo, Hawaii. He later served churches in Granville, N. D. and Pocatello, Idaho. It should be noted that some time during these years after World War I, several German families left the local churches due to discrimination after the war. They were holding church services in individual homes, when the Congregational Church asked them to join their church. Among those families were the Schoch and the Kuehne families.
On Sept. 1, 1929, Rev. S.E. Frost became the minister. Emphasis on student participation continued with an open house on Friday with dancing, which caused dissent from older members. One of the mature members who supported the youth and student activities was Hallie Barrickman. She supported a young women’s calisthenics/dancing class in the fellowship hall. To prevent young men from being tempted to peek in through the windows, Mrs. Barrickman told the women to open the top windows only. The problem with this suggestion was the men’s dormitory was just across the lot from the Fellowship Hall, and the men could go to the second or third floors and watch the women to their heart’s content. The church also sponsored coed dances approved by the Dean of Women at the university, using a gramophone for music. The Fellowship Players was organized and gave four one-act plays each year. When other churches in the area had similar groups, competitions were held. The church invited UT students who had no other church affiliation to attend services and established a special student membership category for them.
Rev. S. E. Frost was succeeded by Rev. S. Marcus Houge, who continued student ministry with an average attendance of 45 in the Fellowship Club. A group called Campus Critics, which discussed books on social, economic and political issues, was added to the program. Mr. Houge read Lenten Meditations on KNOW Radio and was asked to continue by popular demand. The Easter service that year was highlighted by the refurbished chancel and the addition of a Junior Choir in new vestments made by the women of the church. The church began a unified church service which was performed at an annual picnic with the San Antonio Congregational Church. A united service with University Presbyterian Church was started. Meetings in the church were concerned with civil liberties, natural resources, taxation, amendments to the Texas Constitution, U.S. non-involvement in the next war, and extension and encouragement of Militarism (which led to campaigning against the establishment of an R.O.T.C. unit on the campus). The young people of the church started going to church camp at Craterville, Okla. Leadership was given to co-operative student groups.
There is an anecdote regarding Reverend Houge’s beginnings in Austin. The story goes that he arrived in Austin from Chicago, Illinois by train. When he arrived at his room and opened his luggage, he realized he had luggage belonging to a nun who had since continued on her trip, along with his belongings. Fortunately, Will Trenckman, a church member, took him to Scarbrough’s department store and he was nicely fitted in a Scarbrough suit. He arrived the Sunday morning in a white linen suite with matching shoes and sat in the back of the church and observed. He was the subject of much after church conversation, as he was quite a dashing figure at 6’3″ tall. It should also be noted that he married Hildegard Kuehne and Rizer Everett on June 26, 1939. Hildegard was a descendent of one of the German families who had joined the church after World War I.
Another member of the church who benefited from the church family was Mr. Robert “Bob” McNeely. He was studying to be a dentist at U.T and his funds were low. His was allowed to live in a small place in the basement of the church if he would keep the furnace stoked.
The Rev. Houge left in the summer of 1940 for Westwood Congregational Church in West Los Angeles.
Rev. Milton Maxwell was called in 1940 and continued the program already begun with steady growth and development. Unitarian, Community, Quaker, Union and Protestant students were invited to a special dinner. Some topics of discussion were: 1. Support of the Committee for War Victims, 2. Research on ways and means of raising the nutritional level of residents of Austin and Texas, 3. Search for more adequate medical care for residents of Austin and Travis County, 4. Study the recommendations made by the Governor’s Commission on Improving Public Education in the State of Texas. Some social projects were: 1. A low cost diet class of ten sessions held in the church kitchen, 2. The Pilgrim Fellowship held joint meetings with students from Tillotson College, 3. A Community Canning Center was established in the kitchen; however, a Sunday American-Statesman article attracted too many participants. Church interest was indicated by an average attendance of 99 with an oversubscribed budget in 1944. Reverend Maxwell served as mentor to young members of the church. Mathis Blackstock said, “Milton’s sermons were the antithesis of ponderous or self-importance; they were ‘catchy’ and would make you chuckle occasionally. The ‘meat’ in them fed me in my spiritual life as a college student.” Reverend Maxwell served the church part time and was also a graduate student in sociology at the University of Texas. Following receipt of his Ph.D in 1945, Rev. Maxwell, his wife Charlotte, and their sons, Douglass and Ross, left in August to teach at Washington State College.
The Rev. Fred Cole began as minister on Jan. 1, l946, after graduating from Vanderbilt Seminary. He continued the strong student emphasis with Unitarians, E and R, Congregational, and those with progressive backgrounds working together. A large turnover of the faculty at UT in a faculty-administration struggle deprived the church of some of its major financial support, and payments to the Church Building Society were suspended and outside aid was received. A 1948 study of University Community Church (name changed under Mark Houge in June of 1959) was made with these findings: “The Austin Church is the most liberal of Texas churches and has a much more transient membership and attendance than our average church. The average attendance of 90 in 1947 is above average for a church of this size. Church school attendance of 75 had 30 in the children’s department, with 45 in the two students and adults groups.”
A basement was excavated under the Fellowship Room (then the Student Lounge) with volunteer workers removing the dirt by buckets and wheelbarrows. A room of about 27′ by 27′ provided additional space for church school and fellowship dinners. Pilgrim Guild, a second women’s group, was formed for women who could only meet at night. Fred Cole left to pastor the Congregational Church in Coral Gables, Fla., where he served until his death a few years ago.
The Rev. A. Bert Miller arrived on July 1, 1950, after graduating from Yale Divinity School. A new parsonage had been built on a lot donated by J.M. Kuehne and the Millers were its first occupants. The Lutheran Campus Ministry began in the old parsonage beside the church, but the building was later used for a child care establishment. Rev. Miller taught at Huston-Tillotson College and was executive secretary to the Austin Council of Churches.
The name of the church was changed on March 28, 1951 to The Congregational Church of Austin. Some members left the church to start a separate Unitarian church. A member of The Congregational Church of Austin left a legacy to the Unitarian church which paid for its present building. Student work and social emphasis continued and the church became financially self-supporting with some funds being furnished for student work. The Millers left in 1957 to pastor North Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury, Vt.
The Rev. William B. Mathews was the minister of the church from Nov. 1957 until January 1959. He arranged for leaders of the denomination to talk with the members about what changes could be made. The name change of Pilgrim United Church of Christ was rejected. Three Congregational leaders, Dr. Philip Widenhouse, Dr. Stanley North and Dr. John Scotford suggested worship area changes. These included painting the woodwork the same as the walls, removing the globes under the fans for floodlights located near the ceiling, and bringing the pulpit out of the recessed area to a place in front of the wall at a lower level. The members did not approve these suggestions, and drawings of renovations to the sanctuary were submitted to the Building Society which disapproved of them at first. However, by the time approval was received, church school space had become a priority. This was a difficult time of challenge and learning for the church in that the members learned that idealism and desires cannot always overcome basic difference. With the resignation of Reverend Mathews in 1959, the church experienced a life-infusing, joyful experience through the temporary ministry of Dr. Das Kelly Barnett.
Reverend Dr. Das Kelly Barnett, who taught “Church and Society” at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest was an energetic and devoted friend to our congregation. He supplied the pulpit, and Reverent Frank Horak, who was working toward a degree, provided student leadership. Dr. Kelly Barnett gave us a six week series of sermons that must have changed us significantly in our pastoral search. He was a child prodigy preacher from a Baptist Church in rural Arkansas as well as a consummate orator who could shout or whisper to our congregation, which would become totally absorbed in his ideas. Reverend Barnett also said to us, “there’s a young pastor whom I knew in Seminary at Yale who now serves a church in Green River, Wyoming. I have an idea it’s a good time for him to consider a move. Thus, Reverend Towery became pastor in September 1959. His wife, Eleanor Towery was the “unofficial” though essential part of the ministry. Together they showed us what Christians look like. Their home was always open, no matter whom the guest might be, including strangers. Again, Mathis Blackstock says, “I remember a time when many of us were ‘uptight’ over, who knows what the issue was? John was the one person present who was calm and at peace; his equanimity gave us the calmness we needed at the time.” The parsonage was a bit small for the Towery family, and the present parsonage was purchased in 1961 and eventually sold to Reverend Towery. During this period work with the university students was done by students from the Episcopal and Presbyterian Seminaries. African American membership rose to about 11% of the church membership during the 1960s. It should be noted that the first black member of the church joined during Reverend Miller’s pastorate.
Work with the university students was done by students from the Episcopal and Presbyterian Seminaries. Black membership rose to about 11% of the church membership during the 60’s (the first black member of the church joined during Rev. Miller’s pastorate). The parsonage was a bit small for the Towery family, and the present parsonage was purchased in 1961 and later sold to Rev. Towery.
A legacy of a building on Lavaca St. by E.J. Krohn in the early 60’s provided a basis for the new educational wing. A long study under the leadership of Richard P. Swallow, UT Professor of Architecture and member of the church, resulted in plans for renovation of the old building and construction of the new wing. A Building Fund campaign over-subscribed the goal of $25,000 by over $4,000. Spiraling construction costs caused an abbreviation of the project. No renovation work on the old building was accomplished and only three floors of the new wing were completed. Dedication services were held on Sept. 28, 1969.
The church school grew for a period of time before leveling off in recent years. Donations to Our Christian World Mission increased with the church leading the Conference in per capita giving for many years. Short drama productions by the young people have replaced plays but continue an old tradition. Meetings on special topics have evolved through the years, with a guest speaker and a “talkback” session after the sermon. Working with a university psychology class, a program for runaways was housed in the church. The People’s Community Clinic took over this space and developed a medical service to the community.
In recent years the church members have done much of the work of painting, repairing, and cleaning and have now realized their earlier hopes with the complete renovation of the pastor’s study.