By Rachel Totten Keith
A stone building reaches high and tall above the tree-line as you make your way up the hill. As you get closer, the building stretches into pinnacles and pointed arches, expanding in all directions. Eight acres of green trees, a manicured lawn, and flower beds make for a park-like setting and a proud concrete sign announces your destination at St. Stephen Presbyterian Church, a crown jewel of the city of Fort Worth.
Called simply St. Stephen’s, the church building has only been around since 1950, yet has the imposing look of a medieval Gothic cathedral or even castle. The exterior is made of sandstone and shell stone trim adorned with long, stained glass windows, and broad, heavy dark wooden doors with iron hinges. There are three main sections to the building itself: the Parish Hall (which was the first sanctuary), the education wing with offices, and the “Southwestern Basilica,” which is the current sanctuary and where worship services are held today. The sanctuary holds 1400 people and has the design of a traditional gothic cathedral complete with narthex, nave, side aisles, a main aisle, transepts, crossing, chancel, and apse (see fig. 1). The sanctuary has a high, bright atrium in a pointed arch with transverse ribs down the spacious nave. During the day, no interior lighting is needed because of the large, colorful stained-glass windows that line the side aisles and triforium, which is the part of a cathedral where the angled roof joins with the walls of the nave. The windows cast a warm and bright pleasant light throughout the spacious sanctuary, with most of the light streaming from the three largest windows at the front of the sanctuary.
Fig. 1. Example of a typical gothic cathedral floor plan, as is the floor plan of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church sanctuary. Image acquired from Altrock, Chris; “Evangelism by Romance”; True North… A Teaching Ministry of Chris Altrock; Chrisaltrock.com, 16 Sept. 2014; Web; 17 Oct. 2015.
St. Stephen’s has a unique history that parallels the development of the city of Fort Worth, Texas. Fort Worth is known as the original “Cowtown,” home to the Fort Worth Stockyards, and was a gateway to the western frontier in the nineteenth century. Settlers would make Fort Worth their final stop for resupply before continuing on into the unknown wilds of the western trails to California. Because of the location and booming business, many people also made Fort Worth their home and the population grew fast. It was during this time that the St. Stephen’s church body was born. Originally known as the First Presbyterian Church, the mission church built the Broadway Presbyterian Church across from the Broadway Baptist Church in the south side of the town. During the 1909 Southside Fire, that church and many other buildings including the original Broadway Baptist Church were completely destroyed. In the 1930’s, “the church began to dream of building a tremendous gothic cathedral-style building. They acquired property on a hill near [Texas Christian University], where it looked like the city was expanding” (Ritsch). The site has remained intact on eight acres with plenty of parking space and the church sits on a hill overlooking an affluent neighborhood surrounded by full, green trees, and lavish greenery and plant life.
The church also has many features that make it extraordinary. There is an extremely large basement underneath the sanctuary (remember, it holds 1400 people) and when originally constructed, it was used to inter church members that passed. Eventually, that practice was outlawed and the bodies have long since been relocated. But, the basement is still used for extra rooms and storage! Another neat aspect of the church is that it has its own meditative labyrinth in the shade of the sanctuary and trees with a pretty stone Celtic Cross. The labyrinth is open to the public at anytime, although checking in with the church office is preferred. It is a semi-secluded and peaceful place for spiritual reflection. Also onsite is the Parish Hall, which is where the original sanctuary was located while the larger one was being built. It has its own choir loft and a curtained stage for small theater-type performances. Even the Parish Hall looks as though it could be in a castle, as it resembles perhaps a King’s banquet hall with a large commercial-sized kitchen attached.
You would think its beauty alone would be the reason many local organizations choose to hold their special events at the church, but its aesthetic beauty is only part of St. Stephen’s charm. Many universities elect to hold choral and orchestral concerts at St. Stephen’s because the sanctuary is home to a grand, full-size pipe organ that was recently revamped. According to St. Stephen’s website,
[t]he organ now has a much broader sound with many 8’ ranks providing a smoother ensemble. The pedal organ has been enhanced by the addition of a 16’ Open Wood, a new 16’ Principal, as well as full-length 16’ and 32’ reeds. A clarinet. . . [a] wooden Doppelflote, and a large-scale Open Flute have been included in the rebuilt organ. Most of the flues in the organ have been rescaled and all Möller pipework [have] been rescaled and revoiced. A new Tuba Mirabilis and revoiced Trompette en Chamade complete the ensemble. The console was completely rebuilt and the combination action assembly replaced by a Solid State Logic, Inc., multi-level memory system [and there is now] a programmable full organ and crescendo.
In other words, this is one gorgeous and powerful organ! When you pull out all its stops (literally), you can feel the organ in your heart from the pews far below the choir loft. Professional recordings have been made using this exquisite organ. Can you imagine walking down the aisle at your wedding to that fanfare? Only if you want to feel like a princess! Local scout groups also call St. Stephen’s home because of their own cabin-like scout hut that can be completely secured on-site and is staffed full-time during the day by the church’s office staff. Dozens of local 3-4 year-old children attend pre-school at St. Stephen’s as there is a Christian day school that operates three days a week in the education wing. They have their own outside play area that is shaded from the harsh sun by the pretty trees that surround the church. The Parish Hall is also used to provide the homeless with a warm place to sleep during the cold months of our Texas winters and church members take turns preparing hot meals in the kitchen. With so much to do, it is a good thing the elder church members had the foresight to select such a safe and central location when rebuilding post-fire.
It is now known that the original gothic cathedrals were built so extravagantly for not only religious reasons, but because according to Rohit Tropathi, “[a] large church in a locality would easily attract people passing by. . . and generate revenues for the people. Churches were not only centers of religion but also of economy and culture.” The architects of St. Stephen’s were wise to build not only a beautiful church in the style of the medieval cathedral, but also in scope and purpose. St. Stephen’s is attractive to the eye and to the heart and is a place that brings our city’s people together for many reasons. Whether it is housing the homeless, uniting couples in marriage, educating young children, or providing a beautiful venue for students to perform their talents, St. Stephen’s is a true, magnificent tribute to the gothic cathedrals and is a religious and cultural center where all are welcome; a true jewel in the crown of our great city.
Ritsch III, Dr. Frederick. F. “A Brief History of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church.” St. Stephen Presbyterian. St. Stephen Presbyterian Church, 2015. Web. 15 October 2015.
St. Stephen Presbyterian Church-A Welcoming Community. St. Stephen Presbyterian Church, 2015. Web. 14 October 2015.
Tropathi, Rohit. “Romanesque and Gothic architecture.” Oocities. n.p., December 2001. Web. 17 October 2015.