Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a continuing series about the reinvention of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. Other stories in the series can be found here.
[Episcopal News Service – Decatur, Texas] The story of the Episcopal Church of Wise County is rooted in Ellen and Mark Whitley’s search for a good place to worship. As Ellen tells it, the couple moved to the area north of Fort Worth, Texas, just before the diocese’s 2008 split and found the local Episcopal congregation. However, when she asked if she could be a lector, she was told, “the men would have to agree to it.”
“We left and I had a sour taste in my mouth,” she said. “And I didn’t look (for another church) for quite a while.”
But at the end of 2014, she wrote to then-Bishop Provisional Rayford High, saying God had “smacked me up the back of the head” and told her to do something about the lack of a place for Episcopalians to gather in Wise County. High came to their house to discuss the need and the Rev. Tracie Middleton, a deacon with the diocesan staff, helped support their effort.
“Within a year, we were here,” she recalled, during a November 2016 interview with Episcopal News Service in the sanctuary of what is now the Episcopal Church of Wise County.
In between, there was morning prayer and Eucharist at the Whitleys’ house and, when there got to be too many people for that, the budding congregation moved to the community center in Boonville in March 2015. Episcopalians in Wichita Falls donated prayer books, an altar book, a Gospel book and two candlesticks. St. Stephen’s in Hurst sent hymnals.
That same month Sweetie Pie’s Ribeyes restaurant entered the story. Episcopalians and other interested people gathered there for lunch and to talk about finding a more permanent place. After lunch at the Decatur restaurant, the group took a short trip of a few blocks to see the historic Episcopal Mission of the Ascension, which was then functioning as a wedding chapel.
They peered in the windows, liked what they saw and gathered for noonday prayer in the small grassy parking lot next door. Soon, the Episcopalians came to an agreement with the owner of the building that dated to 1889 when the Rt. Rev. Alexander C. Garrett, the noted missionary bishop of northern Texas, founded it. The small white building had been deconsecrated in the 1940s, sold and used as a mattress factory.
The church was dirty and cluttered the first time they walked in but “we knew this was where we wanted to be,” Mark Whitley said. The congregation banded together to spruce up the place. In addition, Whitley, who was about to be confirmed, built the altar with no screws or nails, instead fashioning pegs to hold all the pieces together. He also made the Paschal candleholder, credence table, baptismal font and altar bookstand.
When the Episcopalians began worshipping in the building just after Ascension Day in May 2015, representatives of the Episcopal Church of Wichita Falls, who brought along some more prayer books as gifts, joined them.
“This place is an outward and visible sign of God’s action in your life as a community of faith,” said the Rt. Rev. J. Scott Mayer, during a November 2016 Eucharist to reconsecrate the building. Mayer was elected the Diocese of Fort Worth’s fourth provisional bishop in May 2015.
And that community of faith reaches beyond the small church with the white pews and the flyswatter hanging on the wall next to an Episcopal calendar in the tiny narthex. It has instituted what it calls “Mission of the Month,” highlighting a different organization to help each month. Examples of the members’ efforts include helping a battered women’s shelter, collecting food for the school children who will not be eating at school because of holidays and weekends, and helping a pet shelter collect supplies.
“Even though we’re a very small community we’re being recognized as a worshipping community that is reaching out to the people here in Decatur and in Wise County in general,” said the Rev. Anthony Hiatt, priest-in-charge.
Two leaders inthe congregation have been elected to serve the wider Episcopal Church. Senior Warden Jill McClendon was recently chosen as the diocese’s lay trustee for the University of the South and Hiatt is first clergy alternate in the diocese’s 2018 General Convention deputation.
Hiatt, a bi-vocational priest who also designs rail cars for Trinity Industries Inc. in Dallas, has been with the Wise County church since Aug. 1, 2015, in what is his first solo assignment.
The members make wise use of social media for keeping in touch with their communities and each other, including having an internet-based book club.
The Wise County Episcopalians can show the rest of the church “what we can do from the ground up, building from nothing by people who are committed,” said Hiatt, adding that they are learning that what they receive in return from giving is great. “That’s what seems to keep us going and keeps us coming back and keeps us doing more.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.