A History of St. Francis, 1961-present
“The time came for the big move to our beautiful new building up on the hill. What an exciting time!” Hill said.
On Oct. 14, 1962, the first service was held in the new church building situated on “a little knoll among the trees” at the current site of St. Francis, 4242 Bluemel Road. A Rieger pipe organ was custom built in Schwarzach, Austria,and installed in the new building, which had been funded in part with a grant from the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.
The church was designed by architects Peter Callins and Cyrus H. Wagner, and built on a wooded hillside, to give the impression of a structure that’s an integral part of the natural landscape, with the use of native rustic stone, rough sawn cedar and split cedar roof shingles.
By the time a dedication service was held at the church and televised locally on WOAI on Dec. 2, 1962, St. Francis had 140 communicants. The service included a sermon by Bishop Jones, an order of confirmation and the singing of the anthem, “We Wait for Thy Loving Kindness, O God.”
The first official gathering of the St. Francis community was a Palm Sunday service held in the home of William and Margaret Atkins, 1030 E. Sunshine Drive, on March 26, 1961.
At the time, this new faith community made up of about 16 initial families called itself Northwest Episcopal Mission. The Rev. Brendan Griswold delivered a sermon titled “The Power of the Cross” to about 40 worshipers during an evening prayer service.Margaret Atkins was the organist and choirmaster, having held those roles at Trinity Episcopal Church in the Jefferson-Woodlawn area.
The mission, which sought to serve San Antonio’s rapidly growing Northwest side, was formally chartered on May 17, 1961, by Bishop Everett Jones. For a while, services were held at a large one-story house on Cambray Street known then as the Glenoaks club building, near Babcock and Callaghan roads.
traditional worship service.
But attendance at the services quickly grew, forcing the mission to move to a new temporary home at the 300-seat Town Hall at Wonderland Shopping Center, which years later was renamed Crossroads Mall, in Balcones Heights. Griswold,the first priest in charge, also doubled at times as a pianist.
Kay Lynn Hill, daughter of charter congregants Tom and Velma Hill, remembers moving in June 1961 from the Dellview neighborhood east of Wonderland to an area considered “the country” when she was a girl. She had just been confirmed in the Episcopal Church at another parish.
“My parents had decided to join a new congregation that was much closer to our new home. This was the beginning of our longtime membership at St. Francis,” she said.“I was 11 years old,so most of my memories of the early years at St. Francis seem to revolve around Sunday school, the places we met for Sunday services, and the earliest members.”
“The first Sunday service my family attended was held at a community center in Glenoaks. It was a fairly small group of adults and a few kids. Since my parents had five children, we provided quite a boost to the Sunday school enrollment. My class met out under a tree in the backyard. I had two wonderful Sunday school teachers during these first years…” she said.
In those early days of the church, when preparing for Sunday morning services in the Town Hall at Wonderland, parishioners would have to clear away beer cans and whiskey bottles from parties held the night before. Many of the church furnishings were stored in a closet and wheeled into the room for worship services.
Folding chairs, foam kneelers and an altar on wheels were used each Sunday, said Carolyn Hoffmann, granddaughter of Ray and Peggy Denison, who were among the early congregants of St. Francis.
“The dance studio where they had Sunday school next door belonged to Betty and Glenn Herring, who also became members of the church,” Hoffmann said, recalling stories her grandparents told her.
The Denisons had all four of their children confirmed at St. Francis, including two who were in the first confirmation class. Like Tom and Velma Hill, the Denisons would still be devoted parishioners when St. Francis celebrated its 50thanniversary year in 2011.
By January 1962, St. Francis had nearly 90 communicants in an area that was on the outskirts of San Antonio, prior to a strong period of growth in the mid- to late 1960s. Construction of a new church on a hill gave the founding group a sense of exuberance about the future.
The bishop’s declaration was as follows:
“By virtue of our sacred office in the Church of God, we do now declare to be dedicated, and forever set apart from all profane and common uses this House of God,all the Vessels, Vestments and Furnishings, under the name of St. Francis Church, San Antonio, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
During those early years,the nave was smaller than it is today,and the offices and Sunday school were in an adjoining area. Some classes were held in the basement, Hill said.
“I have many wonderful memories of the people who did so much to set St. Francis on its path toward the future, doing God’s work and celebrating His Goodness -- Lossie Lynch, the matriarch of our church; John and Jane Merrill; Bill and Margaret Atkins; the Piantas, the Rudeses, the Badderses, the Gollys, the Hillegasses, the Richters, the Griswolds; my parents, Tom and Velma, and the list goes on and on.”
“It was a wonderful church to grow up in,so I suppose that is why,50 years later,I am still a member here,” Hill said.
The Women of the Church organized at St. Francis in 1964, and began to hold programs and fund-raising activities to support the church and its charitable causes. The women held a bridge party as their first fund-raiser. A 1964 photo of the church shows the roof covered with a dusting of snow. A cedar tree that would grow tall and wide in front over the years was only about 3 feet high!
A new parish education and activities building was constructed on the grounds in 1965, and was immediately used for Sunday school.
In 1966, when St. Francis became self-supporting and was granted parish status, the Rev. Griswold became the first rector. To make room for additional pews in the nave, the rear interior wall of the church was moved back that same year.
Griswold resigned to accept a teaching post at St. Mary’s Hall in 1967, and was succeeded by the Rev. Joseph Miller, who came to St. Francis from Kingsville.
During this period and years that followed, the area surrounding the parish experienced explosive growth, including construction of USAA’s campus to the immediate north, and continued development of the sprawling South Texas Medical Center about one mile to the west. Interstate 10 as it exists today was fully developed to the east, and the Laurel Heights neighborhood and businesses were built to the south.
An educational building was constructed at St. Francis in 1970, and a day school for children ages 4 to 5 began operations. Over the years, many hundreds of children involved in preschool or daycare classes, afternoon “latchkey” programs, Vacation Bible School and other youth activities would study, play and roam on the grounds of the parish.
Highlights during the period from 1973-76 included two “Faith Alive” weekends facilitated by visiting Episcopal laymen and about 35 lay persons from out of town, and attended by about 200 St. Francis parishioners. The purpose of these weekend retreats was to bring “nominal Christians” into a deeper relationship with God, and an awareness of “their need to love and to minister to their neighbors.”
The Faith Alive movement led to creation of several weekly evening Bible study groups. Some observed that St. Francis parishioners “became more loving and communicative” after the Faith Alive weekends.
Over the years, the parish would accommodate countless worship services, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, retreats, mission trips and many colorful experiences. Longtime St. Francis parishioner Bob Wells shared this memory:
“In the mid-1970s when the Rev. Joseph Miller was our rector, a men’s breakfast group was formed. One of the members was Bob Hood. His work took him to the Far East from time to time. On one of his returns, it was decided to give him a homecoming breakfast party,” said Wells, a parish congregant since 1967.
To provide a “Far East environment” at the homecoming, a belly dancer was hired for entertainment.
“This was the most electrifying breakfast, we ever had! Oh yes, the breakfast was great, and Bob enjoyed it,” Wells recalled.
In 1982, the Rev. Miller accepted another call. After a 12-month search, the Rev. Dr. James “Jim” Mitchell became the next rector. During Mitchell’s term, the nave was expanded and renovated, and the area that had been a patio was enclosed to form a narthex. In a 1985 letter to the congregation that was part of a capital drive brochure, Mitchell addressed the “substantial growth” and the need for additional facilities at St. Francis.
“We build for our children and for our children’s children. We build to bring the love of our Lord to others through His Church. And, we give to make excellence of ministry more possible,” Mitchell wrote.
The parish celebrated its “Silver Jubilee year” in 1986with “special services and feasting,” and a patronal festival celebrating the passion of St. Francis of Assisi, according to church records.
A large, new parish hall was built at a cost of about $500,000 in the late 1980s and dedicated in 1990. A columbarium was added on the west side of the parish grounds in the early 1990s. The first interment in the columbarium, completed in 1993, was Katherine Grace Albertson, a 6-year-old girl who died tragically in an auto accident on Bluemel Road, in front of the church.
According to a parish profile from this period, the St. Francis congregation viewed itself as a “diverse group of people” who are “caring, friendly and approachable.”
“Members have a strong sense of ownership in the ministries of the parish and in the physical plant,” the profile stated. “The congregation sees itself as functioning as a family whose spiritual home is the church. The parish comes together well as a family, regardless of which of the three Sunday service they attend.”
Father Mitchell, who retired in December 1997, was succeeded by the Rev. Doug Storment as rector at St. Francis in 1998. The “Weed Whackers,” a group that had formed a few years earlier to help maintain the church grounds, received a “Beautify San Antonio” award that same year. The first edition of the Hilltop Herald, a monthly church newsletter, was published by Holly Zook and other parishioners in March 1999.
During his tenure, Storment advocated a focus on community-building that included the use of covenants, the “iceberg model” and the “RESPECT Guidelines” developed by the Rev. Eric Law; newcomer ministry and a concentration on outreach to serve others outside the parish. A portable youth building was purchased and added to the church campus.
The Rev. Storment was at St. Francis on Sept. 11, 2001, when the terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania shocked Americans. On that Tuesday morning, the church’s Newcomer Ministry Team called off its meeting to watch the events on television.
“At some point, we stopped and prayed, and then folks just went on home to follow it on their own TVs. I think we did a parish-wide telephone call to let folks know that we were going to meet and pray,” Storment said.
The carpeting in the narthex had just been replaced a day earlier, recalled Holly Zook, a parishioner and volunteer staff member. The church prepared for a service to be held the next day, on Sept. 12.
“So we all went upstairs and moved furniture, while opening every door we could because the carpet glue smelled so awful,” she said.
The parish’s monthly reading group gathered that night, as it typically did each second Tuesday of the month, Zook said.
“It was the only time since the group started 1996 that we haven't talked about the book at all, but we all (probably 10 of us) needed to be with other people that night. I don't remember how many people were at the service the next night, but I remember the church seemed pretty full,” she said. “And the service included a beautiful litany hastily published by the National Church to remember those who had died. The phone tree worked very well for that occasion -- everyone wanted to do something.”
The following year, St. Francis held a noontime prayer service in memory of the events, followed by a free sandwich lunch under the trees outside the narthex.
“I'd guess 50-75 people were there, and perfect strangers ate lunch with each other and shared their memories; it was pretty amazing,” Zook added.
In later years, after the initial shock of 9-11 had faded and attendance at an annual memorial service on the Sept. 11 anniversary had fallen, the church staff left the nave open for people to come by and pray at various times during the day, Storment said.
As the makeup of the surrounding neighborhood has changed through the years, St. Francis has had to adjust from being a suburban parish to an urban faith community. The congregation considered the possibility of relocating to the northern edge of the city in 2005, but chose to stay and continue to do God’s work at its original site on Bluemel Road. A new, larger organ purchased through a major donation helped with the growth of the traditional worship service.
In 2005, at Storment’s recommendation, St. Francis changed its mission statement from “Celebrating God’s Love” to “Celebrating God’s Love with Others.”
After Storment retired in 2006, the Rev. Dr. C. Patrick Ormos accepted a call to come to St. Francis from Valparaiso, Indiana, to serve as rector. Ormos has made worship, lay ministry and outreach his focus at St. Francis, and has worked with the congregation on a visioning process that emphasizes four major areas: care and compassion; stewardship; fellowship and inclusion; and Christian formation.
At Ormos’ suggestion, the parish amended its mission statement again in 2007to “Celebrating God’s Love with Everyone.” St. Francis instituted a parish nurse program and a Godly Play curriculum for young children. It also revamped its new member ministry and pastoral care activities such as Community of Hope.
Much of the neighborhood surrounding St. Francis has changed. Low-income apartment areas once plagued by youth gangs and crime in the 1990s are now heavily occupied by refugee families from the Middle East, Africa and Asia who were relocated to San Antonio through international humanitarian efforts. In recent years, St. Francis has expanded its partnerships in the community with Family Service Association, the University of Texas Health Science Center, the San Antonio Food Bank, police, city and school officials and others, to provide a wide range of support to those in need.
Today, St. Francis offers spiritual support, health clinics and other forms of outreach, from warm coats for children to kitchenware and blankets, through its programs of compassion and care. During 2011, the parish became a food bank distribution point and broke ground with local partners on an “International Community Garden,” where refugees from Burma and Bhutan have begun growing their own vegetables.
Ormos said St. Francis still presents a positive image of a congregation passionately involved with its neighborhood, city and region, as an extension of the mission it began a half-century ago.
“We love because Christ loves us,” he said. “As we continue to grow in the future, it is that experience of being a loving, caring and serving community which continues to draw others from all walks of life to work with us.”