A Centennial History of Bethany Congregational Church (United Church of Christ)



A Centennial History of Bethany Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Rev. John B. Culver, Pastor Emeritus

In response to the growing German population of San Antonio, the German Evangelical Synod of North America sent a home missionary and pastor to gather a new-church start, which was finally organized in February and March of 1904 as “die deutsche evangelische Friedens-Gemeinde zu San Antonio” (literally, ” the German Protestant Peace Congregation at San Antonio). By November of that year, a wooden framed church building, a parsonage and Sunday School building were constructed on the south side of Elmira Street, between Richmond Street and North Main Avenue. Early in the life of the church, there was a growing concern for the care of and ministry to the elderly. As a result, in 1910 the members of Friedens Church endowed and established the Protestant (Evangelical) Home for the Aged on South Presa Street. (Moving to New Braunfels, Texas in 1949, the Home is now known as the Eden Home for the Aged.

In 1911, one of the church’s benefactors presented the congregation with a tuned bronze bell, which was founded in St. Louis, Missouri and brought to San Antonio. The inscription cast into the bell itself reads: “Ehre sei Gott in der Hoeher” (“Glory to God in the Highest” Luke 2:14).

There being no Congregational church in San Antonio, the Home Missionary Society of New York sent a three-man delegation in October 1912 to determine the feasibility of establishing a Congregational Church. Finding a positive response from a number of families, worship services began in the Elks Hall. In 1913, a church was organized which was called “Central Congregational Church.” The new church hoped to minister to the growing military community in San Antonio, at Fort Sam Houston and other military installations. In its charter of 1917, the church was renamed “First Congregational Church”. After several years in temporary homes, the young congregation built a permanent meetinghouse on the corner of Carolina and  South Presa Streets in 1918. The famous Texas architect, William Giles, drew the plans for the new meetinghouse and incorporated into his design architectural aspects of church buildings found in seventeenth century Leyden and Delfshaven in the Dutch Netherlands, where our “Pilgrim Forebears” spent time as religious refugees from England before coming to America in order to establish the Colony of Plymouth Plantation. (Today, this building stands as a Texas historical monument.)

During the decade of the 1920’s, both First Church and Friedens Church grew and prospered. In 1926, a small group of people from Friedens Church, with the permission of the Texas Synod, established Community Evangelical Church on San Antonio’s east side on Canton Street. (This church is now Community Evangelical Church – United Church of Christ.) At that time, the Friedens congregation gave its approval to the Board of Trustees to sell the church and parsonage on Elmira Street and to build a new church building on property purchased on East Myrtle Street. So that other sisters and brothers in Christ might benefit from the church’s relocation, the congregation voted to send its oak pulpit, communion table and other worship furniture to the Friedens Evangelical Church in Three Oaks (Poth), Texas, and the carpeting to go to Luther Evangelical Church (now, Faith United Church) in Orange Grove, Texas and to Friedens Evangelical Church (now, Peace United Church) near Tynan, Texas.

When the congregation dedicated the new Myrtle Street facility in December 1927, there was only a parsonage, education wing and the church fellowship hall (basement). The sanctuary and bell tower were to be built later after the church had received funds from the sale of the Elmira Street church and parsonage. Because of an unfortunate financing scheme by the Board of Trustees to sell the old church property and the coming of the Great Depression, not one cent was ever realized, and the sanctuary and bell tower would have to wait for another day. The results were disastrous for the small congregation.

In 1936, because of events happening in Europe, after much discussion Friedens Church changed its name to Bethany Evangelical & Reformed Church, which would also recognize the denominational merger that had taken place two years before. With the help of the Synod in providing pastoral leadership to the small congregation, Bethany E & R Church began to grow dramatically in the post-World War II period to about 300 members. As a result, the church sanctuary was finally built on top of the existing structure and was dedicated in the spring of 1951 much to the joy of the congregation.

During the same post-war period, the First Congregational Church found itself with a declining membership as a result of demographic shifts in the city and the problem of finding adequate pastoral leadership. In 1951, the Congregational Extension Society in Dallas gave cash subsidies to help provide pastoral leadership and reduce the church’s debt. In 1953, the congregation sold its Carolina Street property and moved to the Dellview area of northwest San Antonio, where two acres of land were purchased at the east end of Dellview Park. The congregation changed its name to Pilgrim Congregational Church and had the City of San Antonio change the name of the street in front of the church to “Pilgrim Drive.” (As a result, Dellview Park is commonly known in the neighborhood as “Pilgrim Park.” As one of the first churches in the area, Pilgrim Church grew rapidly to just under 300 members within the first five of years. Seeing a need for ministry to young families in the church and neighborhood, the church started the Pilgrim School in 1954. The school grew to 88 students of which 29 were in the first grade. As a result of the growth and the school’s need for additional space, a new addition to the Pilgrim School was built and was dedicated in 1962.

With a denominational merger in 1957, both Bethany (1957) and Pilgrim (1961) churches voted their approval to become a part of the newly formed United Church of Christ. In 1963, the Texas Synod of the Evangelical & Reformed Church and the Central South Conference of the Congregational Christian churches united to form the South Central Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Beginning in 1957, Pilgrim Congregational Church developed an interest in supporting missionary work in Micronesia. As an expression of appreciation, the Mission sent a wooden cross for Pilgrim’s sanctuary. It was made in Micronesia from a tree in which are imbedded fragments from a bomb dropped by the United States during World War II. The cross was dedicated on January 16, 1963, as a symbol of the human quest for religious liberty.

During the 1960’s, both Pilgrim and Bethany churches experienced a decline in membership that resulted in financial difficulties. In the late 1960’s, Bethany Church began efforts to minister to the needs of the neighborhood. The Women’s Guild began an outreach program to the elderly in the Tobin Hill neighborhood several days a week. In 1972, Bethany Church began a nutrition program for the elderly of the Tobin Hill and Government Hill neighborhoods, which eventually came under a Title VII program of the San Antonio Office on Aging. Because of a bequest, Bethany was able to pay off its debts and remodel its sanctuary as well as create a commercial kitchen off the fellowship hall in the basement that would enable the church to serve about 100 elderly through the Title VII nutrition program. This program continued at the Myrtle Street facility for over 20 years. During the same period, literacy classes began to be offered at the church through the San Antonio Literacy Council.

With new pastoral leadership in 1975, programs began to be expanded. Bethany United Church began work in Hispanic ministry, which resulted in the first Hispanic new-church start for the South Central Conference of the United Church of Christ. The UCC liturgy was translated into Spanish, hymnbooks purchased, and Sunday School materials made available. A small congregation was gathered of adults, youth and children. Sermons were preached, and Sunday school taught in the Spanish language. The covenanted group took the name of its parent congregation: “Betania, Iglesia Unida de Cristo.” Hispanic pastoral leadership was found for this small group, and “Betania” grew. The South Texas Association made Bethany’s pastor the pastoral adviser to the lay and ordained ministers at Betania. Its Christian witness and enthusiasm was dynamic and Spirit-filled. At its height, 80 people were gathered into this congregation. This missionary effort on behalf of Bethany Church lasted for twenty years.

From 1976 to 1977, the sponsorship of low-income housing for the elderly was considered and would have been operated under the umbrella of either Eden Home for the Aged or the San Antonio Urban Council of which Bethany had earlier become an active member. From 1977 to 1978, Bethany Church facilitated the formation of the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association, its pastor becoming the first secretary of the Association. By mid 1978, however, the church’s energies began to be redirected from its plan for further involvement in the Tobin Hill area.

The years 1978 and 1979 were significant in the life of both Bethany and Pilgrim churches. In envisioning a common ministry together, the two congregations voted to unite under the name, the “Bethany-Pilgrim Union Church.” With the adoption of the church’s first constitution in 1979, the name was changed to the Bethany Congregational Church (United Church of Christ). Also, in 1979, the uniting congregation organized a non-profit benevolent and missionary society to operate the Pilgrim School and any other mission programs of the church. Following the union of these two churches, the congregation has become younger, more diverse, and prospered.

As the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) moved into covenant with one another in 1977, Bethany United Church and the Woodlawn Christian Church held joint meetings and study groups to learn more about each other’s history, traditions and beliefs. In 1982, Bethany Congregational Church served with the Hospitality Committee of the local Disciples of Christ congregations to host the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in San Antonio. During communion, the Assembly used Bethany and Pilgrim’s communion ware at the Table.

Blending traditions of both Congregational Christian and Evangelical & Reformed backgrounds together, plus those of their own, Bethany Congregational Church truly became a “United Church of Christ.” Two important celebrations marked the church calendar each year: the annual Thanksgiving Sunday worship service and potluck dinner, and the annual German Christmas Candlelight Celebration (die deutsche Weihnachtsfeier). Other traditions and customs were gradually blended together, and new ones formed.

In 1986, the congregation extensively renovated the church sanctuary and office area, slightly enlarging the former Pilgrim Church facility. In addition to new lighting in the sanctuary, stained glass windows were added, which followed the theme and design suggested by Bethany’s pastor. The parking lot was doubled in size and paved. A tower was also built to house the old “Friedens Bell.” It was really the first tower for the bell since it was removed from the belfry of the old German church on Elmira Street in 1927. In 1991, the congregation approved the construction of a new fellowship hall, which would be named “Culver Fellowship Hall” in 1998, to honor the former pastor and his wife. The new building contained a large new kitchen, a fellowship hall, Sunday school classrooms, and new restrooms as well as a porch for the entrance to the church. Adding to the décor of Culver Hall is an original acrylic painting by the famous Texas religious artist, Marianist Brother Cletus Behlmann from St. Mary’s University. Originally commissioned by the South Central Conference and later given to Bethany Congregational Church, the painting incorporates the logo of the United Church of Christ and is titled, “Accepting the [Holy] Spirit.”

Leadership within the church was actively involved with the San Antonio Community of Churches and the San Antonio Urban Ministries (Council) through which a network of emergency food pantries were established and other social services and ministries were offered to those who needed them. Through the SAUM, the Christian Base Community was also established as an ecumenical effort to help the poor to help themselves, based upon the Latin American model. With pastoral leadership, the Family Fellowship was established to provide fellowship and involvement for young families, couples and singles in the church. The Priscilla Fellowship was organized to enable those women who worked to gather in the evening once a month for study and mission projects. Also, a series of evangelism committees were organized towards planning effective outreach and the welcoming of prospective members and visitors to the church. In 1986, the congregation grew by 15% and had an average attendance of 80 to 90 people. Towards the late 1980’s, the Youth Fellowship and some of the women of the church became active in supporting the “Under-the-Bridge” project in downtown San Antonio to feed the homeless. In the 1990’s, members of Bethany Church helped others to get the Hospitality Welcome Lodge established and operating in order to provide temporary shelter to families from afar, who had a family member in long-term care at the Medical Center. During this time the BUDS (Bethany’s United Duos and Singles) was organized to meet the needs of young married couples and singles. Members of the church also served in leadership roles and on committees of the South Texas Association and the South Central Conference of the United Church of Christ.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Pilgrim School was reorganized with improvement of curriculum and accreditation in mind. A Christian education curriculum and periodic chapel services as well as a vacation Bible school were introduced into the program. Work was done to improve the appearance of the aging school facility. The Society’s Board and the school administration began to do some long-range planning as it related to the school’s program and the accreditation process, as well as upgrading the school facility. In 1994, new fencing was put around the playground, which was expanded to the western edge of the church property, and new playground equipment installed. New trees were also planted, as living memorials to loved ones of church members. The National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, which is a division of the National Association For the Education of Young Children, accredited the Pilgrim School. The Pilgrim School is licensed by the State of Texas, and is registered with the American Missionary Association of the United Church of Christ.

In the early 1980’s, the Todd Family left a bequest of mineral rights to a small portion of their Oklahoma ranch. In the late 1980’s, the Hilmar and Edith Rittimann Tessmann Trust was established to provide scholarships for those college graduates who seek an advanced degree in teaching, Christian ministry, public service, or environmental science. When the Tessmann estate was finally settled in 1997, due to a special bequest, Bethany Congregational Church became debt free and the trust fund fully endowed.

As a place of “coming together in Christ,” Bethany Congregational Church provides a spiritual home for people of all backgrounds as it attempts to minister to the San Antonio community. Through evangelistic outreach, greater mission involvement and renewal, Bethany Church provides a setting for greater spiritual growth in Jesus Christ in whose name we gather. As a people of God, members of the congregation are given opportunity to be involved personally in the church’s ministry to others. As new and younger people have come into the church from other parts of the country, new ways of worship have been introduced, and the nature of the congregation has further broadened and become increasingly diverse.

The Bethany Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) hopefully looks to a brighter and growing future and invites you to become an active part in that journey of “coming together in Christ.”