Halfway through a joyous celebration on the 80th anniversary of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin, Vessie Davis Tutt, daughter of the founding pastor, the Rev. S.L. Davis, stood to explain a crucial detail about the congregation’s birth in 1939.
During his previous posting — at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, also in East Austin — Davis had led as many as 100 worshipers at a time, by train, to religious conventions as far away as Washington, D.C. The church elders, however, disapproved of the biblical instruction given to the women in the group.
"That was the old time, when you men didn’t want women to learn!" Tutt, 93, said slowly, boldly and clearly before a full Mt. Calvary sanctuary on Sunday afternoon. "That’s why they let him go."
In the eyes of the current congregation, of course, David Chapel’s loss was Mt. Calvary’s gain.
Tutt and her sister Scottie Davis Ivory were among the 59 people who gathered at a private residence to initiate Mt. Calvary on Oct. 23, 1939.
The split-away faithful met first in the home of the Marshall family at 2103 E. 12th St. They moved from there to a community center at 1142 Angelina St. Then in 1941, Davis and his sons built a church on a hill above Coleto Street. That chapel was expanded into the current brick structure in 1950. It was also reoriented so that its simple white steeple faced north. Its address became 2111 Washington Ave.
In honor of the church’s founder, who served as pastor and community leader for 49 years, the street is now called S.L. Davis Avenue. His grandson, the Rev. L.K. Jones, was tapped to become pastor in 1988 after Davis died. He has served as the church’s leader for 31 years.
"We’ve been here for so long," said co-presider Sarah Pernell, who spoke from a microphone placed below the pulpit. "And more than that, we’ve had only two pastors. I’m not sure there are many churches that can say that. We should be rejoicing. We should be rejoicing."
Tutt and Ivory were joined on the front row by their surviving sisters, Barbara Davis Dotson and Teresia Davis Lewis. Lewis played the piano and chaired the event. All four were profiled in a previous feature story published in the American-Statesman on Sept. 7, 2018, under the headline "The high-spirited daughters of ‘East Austin’s Pastor.’" A year later, they had lost none of their high spirits nor their gutsy, often funny versions of family and church history.
"I’ve got five minutes," Ivory, 89, quipped about telling her story. "But I can’t get 80 years into five minutes. … I took care of my mom and dad while I worked the night shift. Sometimes I was so tired, I thought my shoulders would fall off. I didn’t want my parents to suffer. When their days were nothing but pain, I asked Jesus to take them. And he did."
She reminded the group that Davis’ seven girls and four boys could not, as the pastor’s children, get away with any mischief while growing up.
"One word was each other’s word," Ivory said about her parents’ parenting strategy. "In our household, there was only one word."
Dotson and Lewis were too young to be part of those who voted to form the church — Tutt and Ivory are the only surviving members of that group — but they also shared stories.
"I was young when we got started," Dotson said. "But I remember we had to clear out all this trash — mattresses, beer cans and other things — so my brothers could build the church."
By some standards, the church structure is not large, but it is sturdy, tall and filled with light. A balcony hangs over the back pews, and a banner above the choir reads, "One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism." Window units kept the congregants cool on the warm, cloudy afternoon, but some attendees also made use of hand fans and printed programs.
The theme for the event, chosen by Jones: "For 80 years, your labor has not been in vain."
Folks (many also had attended morning services earlier) wore gold silk flowers on their lapels for the celebration. Dignitaries sat upright in tall wooden seats beneath the choir loft, where two sets of singers — including a guest ensemble from Rehoboth Missionary Baptist Church — sang more than a dozen songs.
After a prayer by T.L. Garner, a guest minister from Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, congregant Fay Manor shared a history of the church.
"On Jan. 15, 1940, we had our first disagreement," she said, to peals of laughter. "The church board questioned the budget. Fifteen dollars a week for the pastor? Too much! Two dollars and fifty cents for the pianist? Too much! One dollar for the sexton? Too much! No, no, we refuse the recommendations."
Three female members of the L.K. Jones Praise Team, attired in white blouses and red bow ties, then pumped up the mood with a soulful interpretive dance choreographed by Erika Walker.
Jones talked about his preparations for this day and his choice of subject for the centerpiece sermon given by the Rev. Ray Hendricks, pastor at Rehoboth.
"I always consulted with God," Jones said. "It’s not my church. It’s God’s church. It’s a big day for this historical church, and he showed it to me."
Jones emphasized that since the days when the faithful of all races made pilgrimages to ask Davis about biblical interpretation, Mt. Calvary had "trained people, taught people, sent them out far and near."
A master of the pulpit, Hendricks, a former firefighter, first praised the Davis sisters.
"Someday I want to sit down in a room and hear your stories," he said, "where nobody will try to make you sit down after five minutes."
Hendricks, who needed no microphone but used one anyway, trumpeted his sermon to higher and higher levels of energy and eloquence.
"After 80 years, Mt. Calvary knows that God is awesome," he said. "You know, they say that you have to go through Mt. Calvary to get to Heaven."
While he lamented what he and the other ministers called the "great falling off" of church attendance, Hendricks returned repeatedly and with increasing intensity to a line from the spiritual "I Shall Not Be Moved": "Just like a tree that's planted by the waters/Lord, I shall not be moved."
"Mt. Calvary, obviously you have been planted on this rock that is Jesus," Hendricks said. "Stay steadfast. Hold your ground."
Lewis, the celebration’s chairwoman, helped wrap up the celebration.
"This mission of this church is first, last and always to save souls," she said. "Stick with the word. The word will take you a long, long, long way."
"Never would I have dreamed at age 13 that this would happen," Tutt said. "In church, we were taught to respect ourselves and to respect others. I’m glad. I have to think my mom and dad are looking down and are glad, too."