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Waco’s Historic Houses of Worship

A Mayborn Museum special exhibit is spotlighting where residents find solace in the divine

A community’s history can be assessed by countless metrics, but some of the most poetic and profound explorations often originate from the spaces where residents find solace in the divine. The Mayborn Museum’s special exhibit, “Waco’s Historic Houses of Worship,” provides visitors with an excellent survey of the city’s religious evolution via the exhaustive documentation courtesy of Baylor University’s own Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe.

“One of the thrusts of the exhibit is to encourage people to ponder that Waco was not as provincial as we sometimes imagine it was, and that they were drawing on the expertise of architects throughout Texas,” says Hafertepe.

The Department of Museum Studies chair’s new book, Historic Buildings of Waco, delves into the city’s many architectural stories, but it is the release’s very first chapter that provides a basis for the special exhibit.

“It’s been an interesting process,” he reflects. “It’s kind of [also] encouraging people to learn more about why their community looks the way it does, why the church buildings look the way they do, and what was the influence of the architects who were hired.”

Hafertepe is quick to highlight the temporary exhibit’s many contributors who helped turn his “beautiful pictures and deathless prose” (said with a laugh) into an exhibit-grade experience, including Baylor graduate and Mayborn Museum Exhibits Development Manager Trey Crumpton.

“This was really a team process,” says Hafertepe.

It’s a process that could only be born out of Baylor’s own educational opportunities.

“We’re a pretty distinctive museum studies program, in that we are housed within an excellent museum that focuses on natural history and cultural history,” Hafertepe says, speaking of Mayborn. “The objective of the department is to turn out museum professionals who can hopefully go out and change the world.”

Unlike Hafertepe’s past exhibit in the Mayborn Museum based on his previous book, Historic Homes of Waco, the new collection can “push beyond” the previous limitations to provide visitors with historic photos of still standing and demolished buildings, architectural renderings, and in some cases, even historic postcards of Waco churches.

“Waco’s Historic Houses of Worship” begins with an archival aerial rendering of a bird’s-eye view of the city, creating “a sort of Where’s Waldo? of the churches, encouraging [visitors] to think about the diversity of Waco congregations,” explains Hafertepe.

To Hafertepe, “Waco’s Houses of Worship” is particularly indicative of the city’s decades’ long diversification process — including Waco’s First Norwegian Lutheran to First Baptist Church, to Rodef Shalom synagogue.

“[It] is actually sort of a Frank Lloyd Wright-ian influenced building. There are very few churches that are very modern-focused,” he says of the Reform Jewish congregation’s building. “They tend to be traditional in one way or another — be it Gothic, Neoclassical, Colonial Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, you name it.” According to Hafertepe, Rodef Shalom’s architectural foundations “seeing them make, for Waco, a bold statement by embracing modernity in a way that most Waco churches had not” feels “quite remarkable.”

Picking a favorite among the collection still proves difficult for Hafertepe, however.

“How do you choose between your children? What can I say?” he asks with a laugh. When pressed, he opts initially for the congregation he knows best — the Gothic Revialist St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “I’ve been a member since 2000, and have sat in the pews many, many Sundays,” he says. “I know that one pretty well and can write about that one with a more-than-average expertise, shall we say.”

In terms of the most culturally awe-inspiring, however, Hafertepe points to St. James United Methodist and New Hope Baptist, two magnificent, historically Black churches built during the 1920s.

“Both Black churches were built less than 10 years after the infamous Jesse Washington lynching, which had occurred on the town square immediately behind City Hall,” he recounts. “It was a horrific and tragic thing, and to find Black congregations building these imposing buildings really speaks to their courage and determination to make the statement, ‘We are still here, and we are not going anywhere.’ That’s really remarkable, as well.”

One of the most striking bits of trivia about St. James United Methodist is who, exactly, designed the beautiful building. In this case, the honor went to Adams & Adams of San Antonio, Hafertepe says, who also designed the King Ranch’s iconic Main House, as well as the Alamo Cenotaph.

Although both St. James and New Hope both remain in excellent condition, their congregations have dwindled somewhat in the ensuing decades. In the case of St. Francis on the Brazos, however, this appears to be far from the case. Following the Mexican Revolution and subsequent influx of immigrants to Waco, the Catholic Church approved the establishment in the 1920s of a second parish featuring Spanish language services.

Interestingly, the Franciscans decided to work alongside local architect, Roy E. Lane, who opted to recreate the “Queen of the Missions,” Mission San Jose — which, Hafertepe recalls, posed a bit of a problem.

“When he went down there, San Jose was a ruin,” he explains. “The roof had collapsed in 1880, and the dome had come down with it.”

After several decades of failed attempts, San Jose was “still completely unusable” at the time of Lane’s survey. “It was kind of a visionary thing to recreate a mission when the mission itself was not even taken care of,” Hafertepe explains, adding that it wasn’t until the 1930s that San Jose was restored — after St. Francis on the Brazos itself was completed.

Similarly, one of the exhibit’s most satisfying aspects, says Hafertepe, is that “Waco’s Houses of Worship” is one of the Mayborn’s first instances of using all bilingual labels. He remembers attending the opening, and seeing a young woman peruse the installation alongside her three children. “She was holding a little boy on her hip, and she was reading to him one of the labels in Spanish,” remembers Hafertepe. “She was engaged with the Mayborn Museum that day. It was her museum and her little boy’s museum. That was exciting to see.”

“Waco’s Historic Houses of Worship” by Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe is on display at the Mayborn Museum through August 31.

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