Mission-shaped Architecture

By Ken Chitwood

The neo-gothic architecture of St. Martin’s Church stands in contrast to the office towers and multimillion-dollar homes in the Great Uptown neighborhood of Houston. This largest congregation of the Episcopal Church, at 8,600 members, dedicated two new facilities December 2, welcoming the Most Rev. George L. Carey, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, and actor Sam Waterston. They read the lessons at a Festival of Lessons and Carols that preceded the dedication.

The project broke ground in April 2011 and building began a year later.

The Island and Scout Center, which will serve youth groups within the parish and in the broader city, are dedicated to longtime members President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush. The parish’s youth ministry attracts more than 300 members. The Scout Center will be used by the parish’s own troop and by Yellowstone Academy Boy Scout Troop, a program for at-risk boys.

The Hope and Healing Center includes meeting space for 22 support groups, a 100-plus seat auditorium and an outdoor meditation and reflection garden. The center will offer professional help on parenting, adolescent struggles, family systems, marriage and divorce counseling, mental health, illness, death and grief, dementia and advanced caregiving.

The buildings, which comprise 18,000 square feet, are the culmination of the congregation’s $25 million Building for Life campaign, which celebrated the parish’s 60 years in ministry.

The Rev. Russell J. Levenson, Jr., rector, said he hopes the new buildings “will open up new opportunities” as St. Martin’s enters its next stage of ministry.

“God sends each person here for a reason,” Levenson said, “and these facilities open up new possibilities for us to relentlessly pursue the souls presented to our care.”

Lord Carey, a regular visitor to the congregation, said that every time he calls there is something new going on.

Lord Carey understands that culture is rapidly secularizing, many people in the West are rootless and without a religious tradition, and that the church is sometimes focused more on buildings than on people.

Why do some churches grow while others die in an increasingly secular culture? “Those that are growing are living the gospel in a relevant way with energetic leaders who adapt, good lay leadership and dynamic preaching,” he said.

“Mission comes first here,” he said of St. Martin’s. “They are not just building for the sake of building. The mission has shaped the architecture and not the other way around.”

Kathy Johnson, a member of St. Martin’s, said the warmth and vitality of the new buildings reflect the dynamics that brought her to the parish and continue to attract new worshipers.

“All of the buildings extend the care and support that characterize our church,” she said. “Everything about the new space makes you feel as if someone at St. Martin’s cares for you.”

Johnson volunteered to guide tours on the opening weekend of the new buildings. “The whole church is excited and enthused for another new period in ministry,” she said.

Lord Carey sees a pattern in St. Martin’s: “The politicians, the businesswomen, the housewives, the elder members: they are all united and inspired for ministry. This church has said No to the downward trend, but they have not said, Imitate us. Instead, they want their story to be an encouragement to say that with strong lay people and a focus on the gospel, any church can turn it around.”

Ken Chitwood is a freelance writer for the Houston Chronicle.

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