Part of the intentions of Spain in its occupation of lands they ruled in America, which includes Fort Bend County, was to spread the beliefs of the Catholic Faith. From the early 1600s to the 1800s Spain made attempts to colonize the area. They finally gave up on their efforts to civilize the local Native Americans and Mexican immigrants in the area and turned to the American pioneer spirit to populate these lands. American pioneers had proven their ability to convert wilderness into productive enterprise and news of the prospect of free land spread through the South.
In 1823 the Mexican government, now independent of Spain, but still concerned about the future of settlement in their territory, continued the process. Charters were granted to individuals including Stephen F. Austin to bring American households to the territory, and applications for land grants flooded in. There were some qualifications for these settlers along with a minimal cost of clerical and survey work. The head of household must indicate that he would accept the Roman Catholic Church. This requirement was seldom enforced and although it was a source of irritation among some of the colonists they brought their hard work ethic and religion to settle this land.
The first religious service in Fort Bend County, according to written histories, was held in 1834 under a live oak tree on Oyster Creek Bank near Stafford’s Point. Parson Woodruff, a Baptist preacher from Brazoria County, gave a sermon after the conclusion of the first court session in Fort Bend County at that same location. This lends credence to the fact that church is not a place but a body of believers, the fabric of the community, seeking to be faithful to God’s commission to extend the gospel to the ends of the Earth. A Baptist preacher once commented that the Methodist “circuit riders”, traveling preachers, got to this frontier before the “Yankee clock peddlers”. Early Fort Bend marriage records lend truth to this comment as they indicate the presence of numerous ministers of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The buildings and sanctuaries would follow, driven by the strong commitment and beliefs of the settlers of Fort Bend County.
The buildings become landmarks and remind us of this part of the fabric of our lives each time we pass by or visit. Sometimes the buildings have a long life and sometimes they don’t, but the fabric of the community remains. Richmond’s first church, the present St. John’s Methodist, was founded on January 22nd, 1839, by Reverend Jesse Hord from Tennessee, an early missionary to the Republic. Early members included some of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300” colonists. In 1857, Richmond Judge W. E. Kendall organized the Calvary Episcopal Church. The quaint chapel built by that group in 1878 was still standing nearly 100 years later on the grounds of what is now the Oak Bend Hospital in Richmond (formerly Polly Ryon Hospital). Members have included statesman Mirabeau B. Lamar and many descendants of early Texas colonists. The congregation’s rich heritage provides a significant link to the early history of the Episcopal church in Texas.
In Missouri City, services were held in the homes of settlers before any church building existed. The Methodist Church was the first church built. The Baptists and Methodists built the church together, but the 1900 Hurricane (yes, That Storm that ravaged Galveston) destroyed this church. The Catholic Church in Missouri City was built after the 1900 Storm but was destroyed in the 1915 Storm. In September 1932, John Lampson, Julius Lampson, and James Jebbia donated a building, previously used as a theater and dance hall, to be used for the Catholic church. From there the parish community grew into the Holy Family Parish we know today.
George Dunlop wrote in an 1895 issue of The Texas Coaster newspaper out of Richmond that “Church advantages in Fort Bend County are equal to any in the state. There are about twelve preaching places in the county, and at all these places, the different denominations are well represented.”
In 1914 Sugar Land, the Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and the Baptists worshiped in a little frame building which was also used as a school on the corner of Wood and Second Streets. That building was blown down in the 1915 Storm and another frame building was built between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Sugar Land was a company town at the time and the Imperial Sugar Company and Sugarland Industries encouraged the building of churches, gave land to each denomination to build on and gave them financial support from time to time. The records of St. Theresa’s Catholic Parish date back to 1918.
Sometimes the landmark may not be the church building itself. In the early days of the Sugar Land Catholic Community of St. Laurence Parish, services were held in a commercial space by the “O” houses, as my son would call them. (These are the townhouses off of Sweetwater Blvd where the chimneys have brick tops that look like an O.) That congregation grew into a substantial presence on the corner of Austin Parkway and Williams Trace. And the large presence of the Sugar Land Baptist home on the Southwest Freeway is a reminder for me of that community’s growth as they moved from site to site for accommodation. It is always a reassuring sight every time I see it.
Religion has always been a part of the Fabric of Fort Bend from the beginnings. We will continue to build on this strength every day as we strive to make living better in Fort Bend County.