Trinity Episcopal: As neighborhood changed, so did its church

Historic Trinity Episcopal inspires people with its beauty, its commitment to the arts, social justice, the homeless and LGBTQ youth

Written by Lindsay Peyton, freelance writer based in Houston for the Houston Chronicle.

December 30, 2017

The neo-Gothic structure that is Trinity Episcopal Church rises above the corner of Main Street and Holman Avenue like a testament to the cathedrals of yesteryear. Smooth-cut limestone forms pointed arches and buttresses. A 97-foot high tower stretches heavenward over the church’s gabled roof. “Trinity was designed to resemble a 13th- to 14th-century parish church, historian Gayle Davies said. Though the physical space of the church has changed little over its roughly 100 years, its mission and character has shifted dramatically. The once small countrylike church now sits in an urban area near downtown, hosts country music Mass, exhibits works of artists and cares for homeless people.

Its evolution has gained renewed focus as Trinity Episcopal Church recently hosted its Cornerstone Centennial Celebration. The congregation gathered Dec. 17 to commemorate the day, 100 years ago, when construction crews laid the first cornerstone of what has become a landmark building in Midtown. Davies has been a lifelong member of Trinity – and wrote a book about the church’s journey starting at its roots as a mission. At the time, Midtown was known as the Fairgrounds Addition neighborhood, named for the Texas State Fair, held in the area from 1870 to 1878. This is not the only 100-year anniversary that Trinity has celebrated, Davies said. The original mission, from Christ Church, was founded in 1893, became a parish in 1902 and moved to its current location in 1910 – all milestones that have already reached their centennials. The Cornerstone Centennial Celebration, however, is an important anniversary for its nod to the auspicious architecture of the building, Davies explained. Trinity is the only church designed by Ralph Adams Cram in Texas, she said. Cram was partner in the elite Boston architectural firm Cram and Ferguson – noted for its design of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, Rice University and Princeton University. The list of notable buildings designed by Cram is extensive. Davies said the architect also advised president Franklin D. Roosevelt. There have been volumes written about him, she said. William Ward Watkin, a member of Cram’s firm, came to Houston to work on the Rice project – and then became an instructor at the university. He assisted with Trinity’s design and joined the congregation.

The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and was granted a Registered Texas Historical Landmark in 1988. After the structure was completed, the Trinity congregation continued to grow – at one point becoming the largest Episcopal church in the state – and the sixth largest in the nation, Davies said. It has a really distinguished history, she said. It started out as a little, almost country, church. Houston just grew around it and past it, and it’s become an urban parish. It also suffers the ills of that happening. At the same time, instead of losing its focus, it gained a renewed focus.” Davies explained that at one point Trinity was surrounded by residences. “Trinity used to be a neighborhood church, she said. People would just walk to Trinity. There was no parking lot, because people lived close by.” When Houstonians began moving to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, the membership of the congregation declined. Trinity rose to the challenge – and strengthened its focus. Its outreach efforts became increasingly important as the need rose in the area. “If you walked into the sanctuary today, you would find very little that has changed from 60 or 70 years ago, Davies said. Other than the building itself, things have changed dramatically.” For example, at the helm of Trinity now stands its first female rector, the Rev. Hannah Atkins. She celebrated her first decade as leader of the church in October and recalls being initially drawn to the position for two reasons – the beauty of the sanctuary and the congregation’s commitment to outreach. “I loved the fact that people were committed to beauty – both old and new, Atkins said. Trinity has been committed to that neighborhood for 100 years.” At Trinity, Atkins found a dedication to traditional liturgy along with an open-minded congregation, ready to embrace diversity and to tackle issues in Midtown.

Before she started, the church already was ministering to the homeless through its Evening Prayer Ministry, services for those in need followed by distribution of sack meals. The church also had established Lord of the Streets in 1990, which offers a sit-down breakfast and a service on Sundays. The commitment to helping homeless neighbors has only grown since her time at the church, Atkins said. “Sometimes people feed and work with the homeless outside or in another part of the church, she said. At Trinity, it’s not like that at all.” Everyone is welcomed in the sanctuary, where homeless neighbors sit in the pews alongside established members, Atkins said. “We continue every day to invite folks in for respite and prayer and food, she said. And we’re going to continue to do that.” She added that the church partners with Homeless Gay Kids-Houston, a nonprofit helping LGBTQ youth, ages 13 to 24, with safe places where they can thrive. Atkins said Trinity has numerous partnerships that support worthy causes in the neighborhood – from working to end human trafficking and assisting veterans to providing mentors for youth and helping with emergency aid. As Midtown has been increasingly redeveloped, the church has found new ways to help. “We’re committed to serve our most vulnerable and marginalized, Atkins said. The need is still there. Instead of pushing them away, we’re continuing to welcome them.” She said that Trinity’s vow to make outreach a top priority is an essential part of the church. “It’s a fortitude that’s a symbol of our deep abiding faith, she said. That’s always been part of what makes Trinity a special place.” Atkins also wants the church to reflect the artistic neighborhood in which it’s located. Midtown is home to Houston Community College, MATCH and Ensemble Theatre, as well as galleries, music venues and art studios.

“They’ve allowed me to do some really creative stuff with music, she said. We have a country Mass every year and a jazz festival.” The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has even recognized Trinity for its Merle Haggard Mass. In addition, the church’s chapel doubles as a gallery featuring Texas artists, including Kermit Oliver. Trinity also hosts Jazz Education Inc. – a musical education program – during the summer and offers free jazz master classes during the year. “We’re committed to the arts and youth in our area, Atkins said. Art reflects the creative nature of God. Beauty is here in art, the architecture and the human spirit.” The rector believes that personal transformation can be inspired by the church’s beauty, its commitment to social justice and its offering of friendship. “Trinity is historic, she said. We also have become a church of a second chance and of a new beginning. The people who are attracted to Trinity are willing to walk with people. They have a lot of compassion.” Now, she’s ready to help the church continue to grow and thrive, serving as a spiritual home for people from all over the city. “We’re not a huge church, she said. We’re not a small church. We’re just right.”

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