Churches across the Texas Annual Conference are celebrating Black History Month, a time to reflect and celebrate. This year, Cross Connection explores two churches in the Southeast District – both with the same name, St. Paul UMC and each with a powerful story of faith, devotion and perseverance to tell.
St. Paul UMC Port Arthur
The history of St. Paul UMC Port Arthur was palpable when Rev. James Berry first stepped inside, after being appointed pastor three years ago. “I was awestruck,” he recalled. “I was amazed by the history – and this was a church where members had the love of God in their hearts.”
Lay leader Jacqueline Gunner grew up attending the church. “I knew it was great, and that it had a back story,” she said.
It was not until she started diving deeper, talking to members, that the story began to fully emerge. Gunner explained that St. Paul’s roots go all the way back to 1915, when Rev. S. D. Hackett introduced Methodism to the westside of Port Arthur.
“He started the Hackett Chapel with seven members, who had migrated from other areas, mostly Louisians,” she said. “There was no Methodist Episcopal Church in Port Arthur at that time.”
The congregation became St. Paul Methodist Episcopal Church in 1920. Gunner described the early members as a “prayer band” who met at members’ homes and then a community hall. “Then, they outgrew the space where they were meeting,” she said.
A land grant allowed construction of the first church building, which opened in 1926. Then, in 1964, the church moved. A former Black union hall was renovated to house the congregation. “And we’ve been there ever since October 1965,” Gunner said.
In 1968, St. Paul became part of the United Methodist Church. Gunner said that the congregation stands as a testament to community leaders who forged a predominantly Black church in the segregated South in the early 1900s.
She said the pews have been filled with doctors, lawyers and educators. “It’s a multi-generational church – with a rich history,” she added. “Our members taught us that as long as you have faith in God, and you do your part in church, you will be blessed.”
Rev. Berry said St. Paul continues to lead in Port Arthur, pursuing local outreach, including a monthly meals program and tutoring for area youth, as well as clothing, food and school supply drives throughout the year.
The church has weathered storms from the Great Depression to the COVID pandemic. A historic marker was added to the campus in March 2020 – after Gunner committed to research and developing an application. “I was pretty much at the church full time getting everything together,” she said.
St. Paul celebrated the occasion with a jubilee. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime movement,” Gunner said. “We were able to rejoice in it.”
Now the Texas State Historical Marker is joined by another Historical United Methodist designation at the church. When Gunner sees the two signs, she thinks of all the members who built the congregation.
“They weren’t thinking about legacy then,” she said. “They were just giving glory to God.”
St. Paul UMC Double Bayou
Anahuac resident Regina Lewis is more than familiar with the history of St. Paul UMC in the Double Bayou Community of Chambers. It’s also the story of her family, of her great-great grandfather, a freed slave named Solomon Gill, who founded the church. “I was brought up hearing it,” she said. “It was passed down to us.”
The former slaves who banded together to establish the church in 1869 had been freed for several years and needed a place to worship. The congregation became the Methodist Episcopal Church in Double Bayou.
Lewis explained that one of the founders was Martha Mayes Godfrey, born a slave in Tennessee around 1812. Godfrey was brought to Texas in 1830 by her slave owners, the Mayes’ family, who settled in Double Bayou.
A year after the death of Godfrey’s husband Zechariah on Aug. 31, 1877, the land for the church and cemetery was donated by the trustees of St. Paul. Founders included Gill, as well as Dolph Mayes, George Rivers and William Rivers. The cemetery is named in Martha GodfTworey’s honor.
Lewis said that Gill came to Texas from Louisiana. She explained that after building St. Paul, which is more rural, “he went into town to establish St. James.”
Gill also served as educator in the area. “He taught people to read and write,” Lewis said. In fact, the church served as a school in the community until 1920.
The church became United Methodist in 1968 and joined the Texas Annual Conference in 1970, from the Gulf Coast Annual Conference.
A historic marker was placed at St. Paul in 1982. The church grew over the years, including an addition to the building in 1955. In the 1970s, carpet, a restroom, air conditioning and pews were added.
In 1995, Brother Ocie Jackson donated one acre of land for additional parking. Then, in 2002, the pastor’s study, a bathroom and a computer room were added.
“It was a total family church,” Lewis recalled. “Now, kids grow up and leave to find careers. Back then, we knew everyone was going to be at church.”
Rev. Mary Shotlow has served as pastor for St. Paul and St. James for 15 years. “It’s a family who treasures their heritage,” she said. “They are a loving and caring people.”
Shotlow remembers first starting and meeting all of Solomon Gill’s relatives. “It was a humbling experience, like walking into history,” she said. “And they are rich in history.”
Shotlow was at the church’s helm when Hurricane Harvey wrecked the area in 2017. “It was awful,” she recalled. “It tore up the cemetery, and the church was busted right in the middle.”
The storm devastated the Double Bayou community, with some homes reporting seven feet of water, flowing through like a river. As soon as the water receded, church members gathered to clear the sanctuary and went to work remodeling.
Donations poured in to cover the cost of rebuilding. “God was good to us,” Shotlow said.
Lewis explained that the entire community rallied to help. Essentials were brought to the church and stored in members’ barns and homes, ready when needed. Residents donated their time and the use of their vehicles to transport building materials.
“We were hit really hard by Harvey,” Lewis said. “We were blessed to establish and put it back to what it was. It was a lot of hard work.”
That first worship back in the church was Christmas Eve of 2018. “It was a beautiful service,” Shotlow said.
Another major challenge came in 2020, when the COVID pandemic shut worship down. “We closed down for a while to protect our congregants,” Shotlow said. “We went online.”
Luckily, the pastor explained, Regina Lewis’ daughter Danita had started a website in 2008. The church already had an online presence, which allowed worship to move to that platform easily.
The congregation also set-up online giving. Church members delivered food and necessities to the doorsteps of the aged, the sick, shut in and those with no income.
Early devotion was offered by text each morning – a tradition that continues today. The building reopened in 2021.
St. Paul is one of the oldest churches in the area – and has weathered many storms, Lewis explained. She often feels like her great-great grandfather has charged her with keeping the family legacy alive. Now, her daughter Danita has become church secretary and even more active in the congregation – and that gives Lewis hope for the future of St. Paul. “I feel that it just might survive another generation,” she said.