Wesley United Methodist Church has kept the faith for 150 years
One of the leading East Austin churches has no intention of leaving its home on Sugar Hill.
At times during its 150 years, Wesley United Methodist Church was known for its ethereal calm.
“I remember it being very stoic, very quiet,” says Machree Gibson, a sixth-generation Wesley congregant whose great-grandmother, Mattie Sattiewhite — affectionately known as Mama Sattie — was a pillar of the church. “I remember the senior choir singing for the First Sunday service. It was all very sedate.”
The Austin church — whose local roots go back to 1840, though it was officially founded in March 1865 — didn’t always ring with the joyful noise that one might hear at some other historically African-American congregations.
“Once, it was a shouting church,” says church historian Arlene L. Youngblood, citing the late Helen Glasco Lee,a decadeslong congregant. “Then it became more of a silk-stocking church in the 1950s and ’60s.”
In recent decades, more traditional gospel sounds have returned to the multiple Sunday services.
“Things started to evolve,” Youngblood says. “The youth choir started singing gospel songs. Some folks weren’t ready for it. But Rev. (Freddie) Dixon liked inspirational music, jazz, a little gospel.”
No matter the style, music and, at times, dance was woven into Wesley’s essential fabric.
“Music is an integral part of the black church,” says Lamonica Lewis, Wesley’s music ministry director. “That is what we were born and raised on. It’s part of our culture. You think back to slavery songs. We talked about the ‘freedom songs.’ It’s important that we instill in our children what church was all about and why it was important to us.”
Split, then reunited
Early on, whites and blacks didn’t worship together in Austin’s Methodist community. But they prayed under the same roof — whites in the sanctuary, blacks in the basement.
Very soon after Austin was founded, the Rev. John Haynie formed a fellowship of 14 white Methodists who gathered at temporary sites until 1847, when a wooden church was erected at Fourth Street and Congress Avenue. A series of brick buildings called Tenth Street Methodist Church followed at Brazos and 10th streets. In 1921, the predominately white First Methodist Church moved to its current domed, neoclassical home at 12th and Lavaca streets.
“They are celebrating 175 years,” the Rev. Sylvester E. Chase Jr., pastor of Wesley for the past 20 years, says about First United Methodist Church. “Wesley was an outgrowth of their church.”
In the Tenth Street’s basement, a white missionary, the Rev. Joseph Welch, and a black Methodist minister, the Rev. Isaac Wright, founded Wesley on March 4, 1865.
By 1867, Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church was planted at Ninth and Neches streets. A new building, known subsequently as “Old Wesley on the Hill,” was constructed there in 1882.
“By 19th-century standards,” reads the published church history, “it was an impressive edifice.”
Early on, classes for Samuel Huston College, transferred from Dallas, were conducted at Wesley, which became the mother church of the West Texas Methodist Conference. Huston was later merged with Tillotson College and eventually became the still-thriving Huston-Tillotson University.
But by the 1920s, Wesley’s leaders were being urged to purchase a corner lot facing San Bernard and Hackberry streets in East Austin, a relatively upscale district known as Sugar Hill. The Austin school district sold Wesley the land for $17,500. The buff masonry structure, last renovated 15 years ago, cost $50,000 and opened in 1929.
How did congregants raise the money?
“We were blessed with church members who were day laborers, house servants and teachers — from all walks of life — who could seek help from the communities they served,” Youngblood says.
Although quite handsome, the building could use some work.
“Now it’s time to do some of the renovations over again,” Chase says. “When you build something in 1929 and try to bring it up to today’s code …”
During the civil rights movement, many of the country’s segregated Methodist congregations, including Wesley, merged into the United Methodist Church in 1968.
“As the nation changed, so the church changed,” Chase says. “Just like the schools were separated, then integrated, so was the church.”
Three black denominations — the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church — remain independent.
“There has been talked about them coming in,” Chase says, “but so far only talk.”
Education, service, music and faith
Founded during a time of social uplift associated with the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Wesley has extended its reach beyond its impressive buildings. Besides ongoing ties with Huston-Tillotson University and the Austin school district, it was instrumental in the founding of the Austin Area Urban League.
“We’ve always been looking after the down-and-out, the oppressed, those who are hurting,” Chase says. “The church, as a body, gives money for those causes on local, national and global levels.”
It also has quietly acquired more property on Sugar Hill — one bungalow hosts the African American Cultural Heritage District offices — helping stabilize a quickly changing neighborhood.
Among the church’s members have been Oral Elliott, Austin Council Member Ora Houston’s father; William Charles Akins, a leading educator and the Austin high school’s namesake; Betty Redd Washington, longtime librarian; the late Virgil Lott, prominent attorney; the late Theodore Youngblood, head waiter at the Driskill and Stephen F. Austin hotels, also grandfather of the current church historian; and King family members, leaders in the community and associated with King-Tears Mortuary.
Some of the Kings have been particularly active in Wesley’s music program.
“The choir sang mostly hymns from the hymn book,” says Marjon King Christopher, daughter of John T.Q. King, former president of Huston-Tillotson and owner of King-Tears Funeral Home, and the late Marcet Hines King, Wesley’s former organist. “Kids used to say: ‘Mama, why do you know all of those songs?’ I said because that’s all we sang. My mother was the organist, and my daddy sang in the choir, so we used to go to the choir rehearsal and sit on the front pew. I asked my mother one time before she passed, I said: ‘I know it’s a lot different from when you were growing up and you were on that organ bench.’ She said: ‘Music is music; it’s beautiful, and I love it.’”
The view from the pulpit
Nobody is more pivotal to a congregation’s tone than its pastor, who, in the United Methodist Church, serves for renewable one-year terms, appointed by denominational leaders, who receive strong input from congregants.
Chase grew up in Columbus, attended Texas State University and then the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
“I had a little calling all along but didn’t realize it,” says Chase, who chooses his words judiciously and softens them with a small smile. “In a small town, as African-Americans, the only thing we had to do is go to church. That’s where I spent all my time. The last year in college, I got the actual calling.”
Chase served at smaller churches before taking the helm at prestigious Wesley. Its peak membership probably hit 350, while attendance now hovers around 175. Chase notes that some black churches are leaving the area to be closer to migrating congregants.
“Some are going to move out,” he says. “Wesley will stay put until the end. We know we are not going to move.”
Some members travel to services from distant homes.
“We have church family members who commute from Cedar Park, Bastrop, Leander,” Youngblood says. ‘They enjoy the worship service here. It’s always been that way.”
There is a catch to that trend.
“We find that once they get home, they don’t want to come back in the evening,” Chase says. “It’s too far. I see churches having a campus here, and there, a satellite church. First Methodist is having the same problem.”
But some things never change.
“It’s still about spreading the good news of the gospel and having a personal experience with the Lord,” Youngblood says. “I’ve always loved my home church, the worship experience, and how it helps the lost. The Methodist Church is known for helping the least, the lost and the left out.”
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