By Mike Patterson
The Trinity Mission Episcopal Church was built in Spur, Texas, in 1912. In 1949, it was hauled 155 miles northwest to Hereford and renamed St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church.
When the congregation in Hereford outgrew the building in 1955, it was moved 118 miles south to Brownfield and renamed again as the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.
And in mid-September, if all goes according to plans, it will be lugged another 40 miles northeast to Lubbock and revert to its original name, Trinity Mission. If you’re counting, the building housing Trinity Mission, St. Thomas and Good Shepherd has covered 313 miles in its service to the Episcopal Church.
“This building has gotten around more than a medieval saint,” said the Rev. J. Edson Way.
When it arrives in Lubbock, Good Shepherd will be welcomed as the newest historic structure at the 19-acre National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University and used to explain the role churches played in the settling of the West.
“Faith was such a central theme to the migration west,” Executive Director Jim Bret Campbell said in a telephone interview. “Churches had a central focus around their faith as well as serving as a central place for ranching communities to gather together.”
The Ranching Heritage Center has long desired to add a church to its collection of 52 structures depicting ranch life ranging from 100 to 177 years ago, Campbell explained. Way, a retired priest living in Lubbock who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology, has been an instrumental figure in working with the center and The Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas to move the church to the center from Brownfield.
The saga of Good Shepherd began about 1910 when residents living around the sprawling Spur Ranch, 70 miles east of Lubbock, approached their bishop about establishing an Episcopal Church. Many ranch investors and immigrants came from Scottish and English backgrounds, with a faith rooted in Anglican worship. Within two years, they had raised enough money and obtained enough signatures to start a congregation and build Trinity Mission in Spur, the town named after the ranch. They also found a priest willing to serve the congregation.
The small church with a pitched roof and arched red door trimmed in white paint still retains many of the fixtures from 1912, including pews, choir stall, pulpit, and altar. These will remain with the building and included in the restoration work done by historical preservation technicians at the center.
From its opening in 1976, the Ranching Heritage Center and Ranching Heritage Association, a non-profit member organization that supporters the center, had wanted to acquire a church, Campbell said. Over the years, there had been a couple of prospects but they fell through. Way’s father-in-law was one of the original founders of the association.
Some quarter century ago, an association board member who happened to be an Episcopalian suggested that Good Shepherd in Brownfield eventually might become available. Discussions with the diocese and at board meetings ensued but were forgotten in the haze of time and board meetings.
“Then in early 2019, the diocese called and said we’re ready for you to come pick up the church,” Campbell said.
The response was, What church?
While the call was a surprise, the Ranching Heritage Center agreed to take the church if it could raise funds to move and restore it. That mission was accomplished with a word-of-mouth campaign that raised $120,000 from donors across the United States and the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas, which donated the building. Any funds remaining after the move and restoration will be placed in an endowment to support its preservation “far into the future,” Campbell said.
At the center, Good Shepherd will be placed in the Proctor Historical Park area where it fits chronologically in the development of other ranch structures. Educational materials will tell the story of the church itself as well as “a general story of faith on the westward expansion and how churches filled a role as a community gathering place, community center and sometimes as a school,” Campbell said.
How Good Shepherd came to be built in Spur is a story in itself.
Originally organized as the Espuela (Spur) Cattle Company in 1883, the ranch eventually grew to more than 569,000 acres. The Spur Ranch was sold in 1907 and the new owners had more of a desire to populate the area with people rather than cattle. It was in this setting that the town of Spur was carved out of the ranch lands.
The ranch owners cut down on the cattle herds and by 1915 the last of the Spur branded cattle were removed. In 1938, ranch manager Clifford B. Jones was elected president of Texas Tech University, signaling the virtual end of the Spur Ranch.
After Good Shepherd is restored to its pristine original condition early next year, it will be open to the public, assuming the risk from Covid-19 is diminished and approval is given to reopen the center, now closed to visitors.
Good Shepherd will not be de-consecrated. In an agreement with the center, it will continue to function as an Episcopal Church and will be available for some religious functions in coordination with the Ranching Heritage Center after the bishop blesses it in the new location.
Good Shepherd’s decline as a vibrant church in Brownfield resembles a story witnessed by other churches in rural America. Populations age, young people move to larger cities and attendance and financial support dwindle away.
“Everybody moved,” said Suzanne Snodgrass, a long-time member who herself moved from Brownfield to the Texas Hill Country to be closer to her children and grandchildren.
Attendance at Good Shepherd eventually declined to the point to where two women took turns reading Morning Prayer to each other on Sunday. The last service was held on Christmas 2019, Way said.
Right now, “We’re in the process of getting the church ready to move,” including disconnecting electricity and plumbing and trimming large box wood shrubs around the building, Campbell said.
The journey from Brownfield to Lubbock across the tabletop flat South Plains will take two days and entail coordinating with three counties and power companies. Power lines must be raised along the route so the 24-foot-tall building on the trailer can pass underneath.
“It will be a fairly significant operation,” Campbell said.
When the restoration is complete and Good Shepherd gleams like its old 1912 self, one item from Brownfield won’t make an appearance – the electric organ. There was no electricity in the church in 1912.
Mike Patterson is a free-lance writer in San Antonio. He attends St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Blanco, Texas.