The history of St. Stephen’s U.M.C.
While the history shown below includes the pastoral leadership and the changing shape of our campus, more importantly, we must also acknowledge the faith, love and hope of our past and current congregation to willingly seek God and spread the Good News throughout our neighborhood and beyond.
Among God’s blessings on our faith community, the Johnson Memorial School has been serving pre-schoolers for over 50 years. Our Bible Village is an integral part of our annual Vacation Bible School and one of the many reasons we are filled to capacity each summer. Since 1950, thousands of our brothers and sisters of all ages, race and abilities have come to know Christ through countless hours of Sunday school classes, Bible studies, worship services, potluck lunches, Scout camping trips…and simply loving and caring for each other, as Christ loved us.
We have heard God’s call to make disciples of Jesus Christ by supporting and sending missionaries to the four corners of the earth and UM ARMY teams to areas closer to home. Whether we are filling boxes of food, gathering school supplies or dimes for Kairos, we are striving to show Christ’s love to all of our neighbors.
Our history reminds us how we have grown as a faith community. We’re not finished, so watch where the Holy Spirit is leading us next. God has plans for St. Stephen’s as a mission outpost in this community. Join us and watch God’s miracles unfold.
*The following history of St. Stephen’s was researched and compiled by Joan Hardulak in 1998 with updates by Steven Fisher.*
St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church was founded in May, 1950, through the Board of Missions and Church Extension. The Reverend Bernard Hatch, a semi-retired Methodist Minister, met with a small group of interested persons to help organize. The name chosen was St. Stephen’s, after the first Christian martyr, a “man full of faith.” The small group meeting then was also full of faith.
On May 21, 1950, the group met in the only available space, a single floor garage, designed to hold one small fire engine. This building was located in the Oak Forest Park, facing Piney Woods Drive near the corner of Judiway Street. A piano was moved in, and a lectern and a wooden cross made by one of the members helped give a worshipful atmosphere. Music has always been a big part of the life of St. Stephen’s and this first group had a pianist, Evelyn Tolbert, who later became the organist. Four wooden park benches were moved in on Sunday mornings. A church school class met out under the trees in nice weather. Rainy days moved it to a member’s home. The first Sunday School class had four children, ranging in age from four to eleven years.
Dr. Steward Clendenin, our District Superintendent, and Reverend Bernard Hatch served as ministers until June when they secured the services of a local student minister, Paul Blanton, from Duke University. In the Fall, he returned to Duke and Ed Moore, a local lay preacher, took over as the minister.
A house was rented at 1339 Ebony Lane for $115 a month. A breezeway and detached garage had been converted into a den and became the sanctuary. The living room and bedrooms of the house were the church school rooms. On Saturdays, members met and cleaned up the house and the yard.
Ed Moore stayed until March when First Methodist loaned us their associate, Bill Wright. The membership was growing and in May we were assigned our first conference minister, Reverend William Bull. Bill Bull served faithfully for eleven years.
In the house, the membership grew to a total of thirty-two, which forced us to move again. To take on a greater debt was a big concern. Many times we had to struggle in order to pay rent and utilities. Around this time, an older couple came to St. Stephen’s. The couple included a retired Army Colonel who pledged the tremendous sum of $100 a month. This was indeed a gift from Heaven for the young, struggling members of St. Stephen’s.
Through the assistance of some church members, we were able to secure the use of the Garden Oaks Theater. Various classes were held in spots all over that building. For example, the lobby had become a nursery – now the most needed class of all. Wooden toys and furniture were built by Lawrence Gillingham and his helpers. These items and the playpens had to be moved to and from the church in the trunks of members’ cars so that the theater could open at 12:45 p.m. every Sunday afternoon. A typical Sunday in the Garden Oaks Theater would find 88 members and 912 empty seats.
Mr. Frank Sharp, a developer of the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest area, donated a piece of property on Ella Boulevard. Realizing this didn’t quite meet our needs, the property was traded for the land where our church is currently located. Here the first building was constructed in 1952. The sanctuary built in 1952 has since gone through various remodeling phases, but is still in use today as our Fellowship Hall.
Soon after construction, this new facility became insufficient for our needs and so began the construction of our second building. The Education Building was designed to extend the church 169 yards along the back property line, extending West. This unit held the church office, the library and various classrooms. In five years of existence, the membership had grown to 600 members and assets increased from $0 to $150,000.
By 1962, the church building was not sufficient to hold all of the worshipers on Sunday mornings and keep up with all of the activities going on at the church. The present sanctuary and adjoining office space were built to address the problem. The church continued to grow with the youth program becoming the largest section.
Time went on and Reverend Bill Bull’s career called him elsewhere. Jack Shoultz came bringing his down-home East Texas humor and continued the caring ministry begun by Bill Bull. As Jack Shoultz moved on in his career, he was followed by Leslie Scott, Bryant Young, Bruce Krause, Roger Shuemate and Mark Lewis. During these years St. Stephen’s gained renown for the start of the Society of St. Stephen, the brainchild of Woodrow Seals, one of the most capable Lay Leaders who has served our church. St. Stephen’s was named as a “Church Alive” in the Interpreter, a prominent United Methodist publication. Success was found in every corner.
On Christmas Eve, 1984, however, an unexpected crisis struck St. Stephen’s. During the night, the Education Building burned in a devastating fire, possibly due to arson. Christmas morning brought the view of blackened timbers, piles of ashes and soot, and the smell of smoke everywhere. The fire wall kept the blaze from destroying the Fellowship Hall while the sanctuary survived as a small playground at the end of the Education Building acted as a firebreak. Faithful members sifted through the ashes to rescue records and the few unconsumed items which remained. The task of clearing the debris and dealing with insurance claims was monumental. Sunday School became known as “meetings in the sheets” as all children’s classes had to be held in the Fellowship Hall with sheets as makeshift partitions. Any spaces left and the Scout House across the street were used to capacity. Committees began working hard to plan a new facility, visiting churches all over town for ideas on the best way to rebuild. An agreement was reached, and with the approval of the conference, the new Education Building began to take shape. No one was more proud than our preacher, Mark Lewis, when the building was dedicated.
Soon after St. Stephen’s celebrated another “first,” the leadership of female clergy. Phyllis Riney was appointed as an associate minister under Mark Lewis and Robbie Robinson.
As she moved on to fulfill her service in the church, Tom Bain was welcomed as the new associate pastor, with his outgoing personality, great sense of humor, and great caring for his parishioners. Bill Roberts, St. Stephen’s part-time associate, completed the caring team.
After Robbie Robinson moved on, we welcomed Jesse Harris as the new pastor. Jesse Harris had tremendous energy and a way of making people laugh and feel good around him. He made certain that he visited all the incoming new members as well as church members who were homebound. In due time, he retired and the church awaited the arrival of our new pastor.
On June 1, 1997, St. Stephen’s welcomed Ray Holt as our new leader and pastor. A year later, our associate pastor, Dr. Tom Bain moved to a larger Methodist church in Katy, Texas. Royce Scott immediately replaced him as the associate pastor. During Ray Holt’s tenure, St. Stephen’s added a Contemporary Service in 1999. This service took place earlier in the morning than the Traditional Service and also added new contemporary music to worship at St. Stephen’s.
On May 7th, 2000, St. Stephen’s celebrated a Golden Jubilee for its 50th anniversary at Bear Creek Park. Current pastors were joined by pastors and leaders from the church’s history. One month, later in June, 2000, Cramer Johnson became the first female Senior Pastor at St. Stephen’s. Under her leadership, a campaign to remodel the Fellowship Hall was successfully completed in early 2008. Cramer Johnson faithfully served St. Stephen’s for twelve years before moving to another Methodist congregation in Houston. Kevin Otto replaced her in 2012 as the senior pastor.
A number of improvements and repairs to the church buildings have taken place since 2012. The Scout House across the street from the Fellowship Hall was given a face lift on the outside and some much needed repairs were completed inside the building. During 2014, Firehouse 13 leased the Scout House parking lot from us while they renovated their aging building. In 2015 a major renovation was completed in the church’s sanctuary. Primarily, this work was undertaken to make the building more accessible to those with mobility issues and disabilities. Some pews were shortened to allow for the use of wheelchairs, the altar area was rearranged for a new choir loft and an ADA-compliant ramp was built to improve access.. In addition, an ADA-compliant ramp was built outside of the church offices to add another accissible entrance to the sanctuary and offices.
Pastor Kevin Otto became the Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Carthage, Texas on July 1, 2017. Reverend Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe replaced him as Senior Pastor of St. Stephen’s.