Protestant Worship Comes to Early Harlingen

Part II: Continued Protestant church growth

By NORMAN ROZEFF, Special to the Star

It would be in the year 1916 that the First Baptists secured three lots at Jackson and 3rd Streets and erected a church building on the southwest corner at a cost of $2,500 to $3,000, $400 of which is donated by the State Mission Board. Church member Andrew Goldammer constructs it for the 58 members. After being placed in use, the old church on Van Buren becomes a parsonage and was used as such until 1923 when a new one is built at 609 E. Harrison.

In 1926 the Jackson Street lots of the First Baptist Church are sold and lots purchased at the northeast corner of Van Buren and 5th Streets. The following year a large brick sanctuary at 501 E. Van Buren is erected by S.G. Stringer and Associates at a cost of $90,000 to $100,000. (An aerial photograph of Harlingen shows the church with its roof still under construction on 9/11/27.) It seats 1,285 and also has classrooms. This comes about under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. W.W. Lee. It is formally opened and dedicated February 5, 1928. In this period the congregation numbers around 394. The debts for this building are paid by 1943. It is in 1937 that this edifice is to receive a pipe organ given as a memorial by Dr. and Mrs. N.A. Davidson. The gift is ably used for the next 28 years by the talented and inspirational musician, Foster Tebee.

It is also in 1926 that Mrs. J. M. Mothershead and her attorney husband take up residence in Harlingen. She will organize the Dorcas Friendship class at the First Baptist Church and teach Sunday School there for 23 years before departing for Brownwood in October 1950.

Pastor H. Meyer of San Benito begins ministering to the Lutherans of Harlingen in 1919 by conducting services in their homes. The Rev. H. Lueker, who had arrived in 1921 in San Benito continues to serve Harlingen Lutherans after Pastor Meyer’s departure in 1922. It is decided to make both Harlingen and Brownsville a field separate from San Benito. At this time Harlingen’s Lutheran group has 48 souls, 31 communicants, and 11 voters. At the end of this year H. Atrops arrives to take charge of the field. He remains until the end of 1924, however in January 1923 the Lutherans, at the home of Ed Miller, take the first step toward an organization. On 4/29/23 its Constitution was signed by H. Engelbrecht, Otto Ingendorf, A.W. Laabs, F. Schmoker, E.W. Hoffman, Henry Hoeldtke, Jake Schmoker, Ed C. Miller, John Post, John Mahres, and Henry C. Meyer.

Early in the year 1925 a doctrinal disagreement arises among the Lutherans here. Some charter member then left to form another congregation, namely that which would evolve into the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. This group would be serviced by traveling missionary, the Rev. Dr. H.W. Emil Listman.

By August fourteen Lutheran families have organized to establish a Lutheran Church of America mission. In the initial group are members of the Hoffman, Matz, W.W. and Clara Altus, Miller, Schmoker, Borchardt, and Laabs families and individuals Mrs. Sanders, Mrs. Elizabeth Bothwell and Ernest C. Barth. The property at 318-322 E. Jackson is purchased then later sold to E.O. Matz. In 1926 its mission was in the small, white, wood frame building on the northeast corner of 4th and Jackson. This was the building which has seen numerous previous uses by the community and various religious denominations. Pastor Nathaniel Sheffer is the congregation’s first permanent minister, serving from 1/26 until the summer of 1931.

On 6/15/33 a two story parsonage has been built and dedicated to the rear of the sanctuary. Shortly after the church’s formation the women of the congregation form a group named the “Evangelical Lutheran Ladies Aid.” Mrs. Ed Miller is elected its president; Mrs. John Kretchmer, vp; Mrs Elizabeth Bothwell, secretary; and Mrs. A.W. Labb, treasurer. Other members are Mrs. Clara Altus, Mrs. Ida Voges, Mrs. Anna Matz, Mrs. E. Listman, Mrs. L. Hector, and Mrs. E. Hibbe.

Following the split among the Lutherans, St. Paul Evangelistic Church (Lutheran Missouri Synod) is organized. The Rev. A.W. Arndt will become its first resident pastor. First services are held in the Central Ward School. After a $4,000 loan from the District Church Extension fund is secured, four 25 foot lots on the corner of Third and Tyler are purchased and a parsonage is soon constructed largely with volunteer labor. Several months later an additional loan of $2,000 is obtained and in September the congregation votes to build a church. It is quickly erected and dedicated 12/6/25. The wooden structure was to be enlarged in the fall of 1931

It is also in 1925 that Church of Christ members purchase a lot at 3rd and Harrison Streets at a cost of $200 down and payments of $100 a year for three years. They build a stucco structure for $3,000. By 1931 membership has grown to 165. A remodeling takes place in 1938.

It is in November 1920 that Troy E. Wallace, Sr. of San Benito organizes a three-week tent campaign for the Church of Christ. The site is at the corner of 2nd and Jackson where Day’s Rexall Drug Store will one day be located. By 2/21 Wallace comes once a month to preach in Harlingen. Later the members will meet in the Christian Church building at 4th and Jackson and then in the Central Ward School. The first elders are J.P. Beck, R.E. Ewing, Jr., J.R. Grimes, and Claud Haugh, and R.E. Ewing. Deacons are W. T. Davis and D.C. Beck. Other families and individuals are: Sparman, Ira T. Baize, Murphy, D.C. Moore, Lee Moore, Holland (?), Bradford (?), Rapp, Bill Bihner, Pillman, Creed, and Steve Williams. Its 8th and Harrison sanctuary will be completed in 1949.

It will be in 1926 that he Christian Science Church is organized and, in the same year, the Rangerville Church of Christ.

Following the invitation of the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce, a Salvation Army Corps opens in Harlingen in February 1928 with a business office in the First National Bank. Cadet Captain L. Monk, who lives at 208 Polk, is its first officer.

It will be in August 1929 that The Rev. Z.E. King appeals to whites to donate towards a $300 goal to pay the note on St. Paul Methodist Episcopal Church (colored). Segregation of church members by race in the South was at the time a fact of life.

Harlingen, to this day, remains a community of religions. It almost seems that there is an evangelical church in every block of the city. And this does not even take into account the mega churches that exist.