St. Mark’s Episcopal Church On the Move to Non-Traditional Space

By LORETTA FULTON

A new banner for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church proclaims, “St. Mark’s is Not a Place, But a People,” and as if to emphasize the point, the banner currently is on the move from one place to another.

Effective July 12, the banner will be stretched across the front of Abilene Community Theatre’s Black Box Theatre, 809 Barrow St. The Black Box Theatre is located next to the main theatre. The first service will begin at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, July 12. All are welcomed.

On June 21, the congregation of St. Mark’s, former members, and friends met in the original nave for a Service of Thanksgiving & De-consecration of a Building, presided over by the Rt. Rev. J. Scott Mayer, bishop of the Diocese of Northwest Texas.

“Tonight we gather with mixed emotions, including excitement, a sense of adventure, and a sense of vocation–a calling,” Mayer said. 

The people of St. Mark’s have made a courageous and faithful decision with the upcoming move, Mayer said, a decision motivated more by a sense of mission than survival. 

“You have chosen life over survival,” he said. 

The new home on Barrow Street is just one of St. Mark’s new places to be a people. The church’s primary ministry is the Baby Room, which provides everything that infants need, from diapers to car seats, for free. The St. Mark’s Baby Room, founded by deacon Peggy Valentine, opened July 1 in its new home at Grace Lutheran Church, 1202 S. PIoneer Drive. 

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church opened in 1960 at 3150 Vogel Ave. It is now moving to the Black Box Theater next to Abilene Community Theater. Photo by Loretta Fulton

Although the Baby Room is located at Grace Lutheran, it still is operated by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, with Valentine as its director. Hours are 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesdays. The Baby Room is closed on fifth Wednesdays. 

The St. Mark’s columbarium, which houses cremains of deceased members, has been relocated to the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, 602 Meander St. 

St. Mark’s opened in 1960 as a mission of Heavenly Rest. The church grew steadily before reaching a peak in the mid-1980s and then began a decline in membership. Eventually, the building complex became unsustainable and a decision was made to sell the property and relocate. 

New Hope Church, led by Chuck Farina, purchased the property and will move its church plant, Transformation Church, into the former St. Mark’s church. Transformation Church has been meeting in the Cinemark on East Overland Trail since it opened in 2017.

At the June 21 service, Bishop Mayer noted that those present probably were experiencing a sense of loss and a sense of failure, both normal emotions to be expected. 

“Even as we look to the future with a sense of adventure, we may be experiencing a level of grief,” Mayer said. “I’m mindful that at funerals, we declare that resurrection does not deny death, but transforms it. That applies to grief, as well.”

The move that St. Mark’s is making to a nontraditional space is not unusual. For the past two decades, nationwide and locally churches have been opening in, or relocating to, buildings that were built for another purpose. Sometimes those buildings are empty and the church takes over the entire space. In other instances, like with St. Mark’s and ACT, the space is shared.

The latest example in Abilene, besides St. Mark’s, is The Well, which originated in a space previously occupied by The Leaf, a cigar store downtown. Now, The Well is restoring the old Timex Building at 709 N. Second St. and will soon relocate there.

The Timex property will provide 22,500 square feet of space, with room for 12 children’s classrooms, seating for 550 and — maybe most important — a large lobby, which the storefront location on Cypress Street lacks. Pastor Austin Lawrence said in a November 2019 Reporter-News article by Loretta Fulton that at the current location, people step from the sidewalk into the worship area.

“We’re most excited about a lobby,” Lawrence joked.

Last year, First Christian Church sold its downtown property to neighboring First Baptist Church, which is renovating the buildings for expanded missions. First Christian is meeting temporarily in the Enterprise Building while considering future options. 

In the fall of 2019, Rise Church, an upstart nondenominational church, relocated to a shared space with Elmcrest Baptist Church on North Pioneer Drive. Attendance at Rise was on the rise and Elmcrest was declining in numbers. Leadership of the two congregations found a way to make an unusual situation work. 

On Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, Radiant Life opened in the renovated Westwood Theatre on North First Street, with 613 in attendance. Radiant Life sprang to life from a small group of people who used to worship at University Baptist Church, located at the corner of Grape Street and Ambler Ave. The congregation relocated temporarily to the Abilene Convention Center.

Growing, and tired of moving, the congregation took on Project Redemption to transform the vacant Westwood Theatre into a church. Among the perks is the large size. 

“There’s a lot of room to grow the church,” said Kevin Peters, pastor. 

At the June 21 service of thanksgiving and de-consecration, Bishop Scott Mayer told a story about a friend from seminary, John, who was asked to explore a new call to serve a congregation that had been devastated by a split in the church. During the interview process, he asked the vestry members whether they believed in the resurrection. Of course, they instantly replied.

“I don’t mean resuscitation–resuscitation to the same old body” John said. “I mean resurrection to new life as a new body.” 

The vestry members pondered the question for a few days before inviting John to be their new rector. He accepted. 

“They chose life over survival,” Mayer said in her sermon. “They chose something more than resuscitation. They chose resurrection.”

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church highlights, provided by the Rev. Mary Glover, current rector

  • In 1959, land was given by Jim and Jeri Skinner, once part of the Mack Merchant Hash-Knife ranch.
  • St. Mark’s started as a parochial parish out of Heavenly Rest in 1960 and became a Diocesan Mission in 1961.
  • Original membership was from families at Heavenly Rest and Dyess AFB personnel – membership fluctuated greatly (between 40 and 90) as Dyess personnel were relocated  during the Vietnam era.
  • There were at least two confirmation services per year for the first several years, with around 10 people per service…increasing membership to over 100.
  • The first nave was built in 1960 and the first service was held on September 11, 1960, led by Bishop George Quarterman. Bill Eastburn came as Vicar in 1961, and the first building was added on to at that time.
  • In 1970, St. Mark’s became a parish and Eastburn became Rector.
  • Original ministries included Christ House daycare center, the St. Francis Food Pantry, folk masses, and joint events with neighboring St. Vincent Pallotti Catholic Church. 
  • In 1979, ground was broken and in 1980, the new nave was completed and dedicated by Bishop Willis Henton. The old nave was dedicated as Pinkerton Hall, after some original members. Eastburn left in 1981 and Charles Chatham became Rector in 1982. Ruby Caldwell was the first woman Senior Warden, elected in 1985.
  • Bernardo Martinez offered Spanish masses and classes in 1989. Elizabeth Newnam,  choirmaster, became the first woman seminarian in the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas and later served in Canyon.
  • In 2000, St. Mark’s celebrated 40 years–and burned the mortgage of the nave building.
  • Due to declining numbers and the expenses of meeting in the nave, the congregation returned to the original nave/parish hall over time…but semi-permanently by 2018.
  • The Baby Room has operated continuously for over a decade. Continuing annual events include St. Mark’s Feast Day in April and the Blessing of the Animals on St. Francis’ Day in October.

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