St. Mary’s, Hillsboro, Texas

Bishop James Scott Mayer visited St. Mary’s for its 150th anniversary celebration. | David Skelton photo

In Search of Growth

Not Defined by a Building (or Lack Thereof)

By Christine Havens

In discussing their parish, Roberta and David Skelton remember the laughter of the Rev. Hunter Ruffin, one of the priests who has helped them in recent years. They offer a simple description of those attracted to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hillsboro, Texas: “Happy people.” This phrase came not just from the Skeltons but also from other members, who took time during one of their Lenten Soup suppers to discuss their church.

This seems to be St. Mary’s personality as a whole — an infectious buoyancy combined with resilience and a determination to be instruments of God’s grace despite losing their worship space twice in the church’s 150-year history. The first time occurred in 1894, after a tornado destroyed the first church building.

For a while after that, as a 150th anniversary history relates, “services were again held in Sarah Margaret Sturgis’ parlor,” where St. Mary’s began in 1872. She started Sunday school classes there, and services were soon added, followed by a church building in 1886. After the tornado, the congregation worshiped in a temporary space until 1911, when a new building was completed.

The second loss was much more intimate and more painful, but is nonetheless an integral part of St. Mary’s current growth. In 2008, when most churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth left to join the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), St. Mary’s members were divided. As the church’s history notes, “for the next twelve years, St. Mary’s was the only church in the embattled diocese to share space with the other side. We shared space: Episcopalians had their service at eleven o’clock, while the other group had an earlier service. We shared flowers at Easter and Christmas.”

At the conclusion of lengthy litigation, ownership of their shared space was awarded to the ACNA congregation, now known as St. Mary’s Anglican Church. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was uprooted again, and after 110 years, members are again in a temporary building — a former drive-through bank located near the center of Hillsboro, about an hour south of Ft. Worth. This experience is akin to becoming a forced church plant, with the temptation to become stunted and bitter. Instead, St. Mary’s is growing and asking what new opportunities God might be opening up.

Members of St. Mary’s gather where bank tellers once helped drive-through customers. | David Skelton photo

In the last three years, the congregation has doubled from 11 members to 23, which parishioners said came as a complete surprise. In addition to the split, St. Mary’s experienced the normal attrition from members dying or moving away. However, the pandemic led to one new member, and family connections have helped attract others.

The man who became St. Mary’s junior warden was motivated by his sister-in-law to watch online services from an Episcopal church near Houston. He had not been active in a church before then. Once in-person worship was available again, he searched online for a local church and both St. Mary’s appeared on his computer’s screen.

After a phone conversation about the differences between Episcopal and ACNA beliefs, he chose to visit and has not missed a Sunday since. Other new members include relatives who moved to Hillsboro or who already lived in the area and saw how much their wife or mother enjoyed fellowship and they joined. New members have meant a baptism this year, a blessing of a same-sex marriage, and a confirmation service in April.

St. Mary’s is a lay-led congregation for now. David Skelton has been the bishop’s warden essentially since the congregation divided. Junior Warden John Fitch doubles as treasurer. Their wives serve as the altar guild with occasional help. Most of the congregation’s families are represented on the Bishop’s Committee, but they make most decisions by consensus of the congregation.

The church’s music director, Sandi Farmer, leads Bible study before services. St. Mary’s also has an active Daughters of the King chapter. When they don’t have a priest, they read Morning Prayer and members sign up to read the lessons or the sermon (from Sermons That Work).

Many supply priests have served this small, hardy congregation. Supply priests have helped the church for 14 years. At one point after the division, St. Mary’s had one priest in charge for about six months.

“She was marvelous but was called away by the Seminary of the Southwest,” Skelton said. The Rev. Hope Benko, who is now the seminary’s vice president of enrollment, calls St. Mary’s “committed and loving.” Fr. Hunter Ruffin, of the fondly remembered laugh, supplied there often and thinks highly of the people he encountered. He is not surprised that they’re growing.

The congregation attributes much of St. Mary’s growth not only to being located on a main street of town and recently putting up a large sign, but also to being very active in the community, both corporately and individually. They are too small to administer a new, area-wide program, but they help with a variety of community services.

Most significantly, the church has given away 40 percent of its offerings since 2009. That doesn’t take into account the time and talent it has given. Members partner with area churches and other entities, including Hill County Kids, which provides weekend food packs for children receiving free breakfast and lunches through schools, and the Hillsboro Interfaith Ministry food pantry, which feeds about 600 families a month.

What was, briefly, the Diocese of North Texas has reunited with the Diocese of Texas, and it’s too soon to know what effect that may have on St Mary’s growth. Members are hopeful, as the Diocese of Texas “has abundant resources and opportunities,” David Skelton says. “We are trying to find how to find a plate at the table.”

In the meantime, the underlying factor in St. Mary’s growth is simply its members’ faith in God. “We are the church,” the history of St. Mary’s says. “The church is wherever we are, just as God is with us wherever we are. In good times and in bad, through tornadoes and human-made destruction, the church, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, continues to celebrate God’s love and to be Christ’s voice, hands, and feet in the world today.”

Christine Havens is a writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest. She is training to be a spiritual director in the Diocese of Texas. Her work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and Mockingbird.


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