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Buyers of landmark St. James Methodist building hope to preserve history

Buyers of landmark St. James Methodist building hope to preserve history

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> MORE: Dwindling flock of St. James Methodist Church keeps the flame burning 91 years

Buying a landmark church building was never a dream of Lane and Amy Murphy.

But that dream has grown on the young Waco couple since December, when they learned St. James United Methodist Church’s building in downtown Waco was for sale.

Last week, they closed on the 13,000-square-foot building, which had become a financial burden for the dwindling, historically black congregation that has worshipped there since 1924.

“There were tears at closing,” Amy Murphy said. “We were so thankful that they would trust this place to us, and we hope we can honor that.”

The Murphys’ vision for the building is still evolving, but it involves multiple uses that could include their antiques business and a restaurant. The spacious sanctuary, with its balconies and stained glass, could serve many uses such as special events, performances or church services.

“We’re not exactly sure what that use would be, but it has to be something special,” said Lane Murphy, a Baylor Magazine news editor and English lecturer.

The Murphys said they would be interested in leasing out parts of the building for businesses that would add to downtown’s vibrancy and sense of community.

“I’m thinking someone might have a great idea that they want to do downtown,” Lane Murphy said. “We like being close to the farmers market and everything going on. We like the idea of helping other people start a business and grow something.”

Amy Murphy, a social worker, said her vision is a place for fellowship, food and culture.

“When I close my eyes and think of this space, I think of Mahalia Jackson and Etta James and incredible food like waffles and grits,” she said, standing in the sanctuary Friday. “This space feels so sacred. If these walls could

talk, they’d tell of all the prayers of people who worshipped here. That’s what makes it so powerful.”

Selling the building was not an easy decision, but the members saw no other choice, the Rev. Vivian Campbell said. Only about 30 members remain, and they struggled with poor accessibility and high upkeep costs.

The congregation Oct. 16 will observe a “deconsecration” ceremony and last service at the building at Second Street and Clay Avenue. In the short term, the congregation will worship as St. James United Methodist Church in a chapel at Austin Avenue United Methodist Church.

“Right now, that’s where the church body is. They’re wanting to remain St. James,” Campbell said. “Where God leads is something we don’t know right now.”

The congregation is one of Waco’s oldest, founded by former slaves in 1874. The current Tudor Gothic brick edifice, designed by Texas architect Carleton Adams, opened in 1924 and is a state historic landmark.

That status would not have kept a buyer from tearing the church down, which is what church leaders and local historic preservationists feared. The property is across from Hotel Indigo and part of a booming downtown land market.

“(Church members) didn’t want to see it torn down and a hotel come up or a parking garage,” Campbell said. “This is what our forefathers built. It’s a glowing testament to those who struggled to put that building up.”

The buyers and sellers declined to disclose the sale price of the building, which had been listed at $495,000, but Campbell said the proceeds will help the congregation find a new home.

> MORE: Dwindling flock of St. James Methodist Church keeps the flame burning 91 years

She said the congregation trusts the Murphys in their stated intentions to preserve the church building and repurpose it as something positive for Waco.

“Whatever God leads them to do, whether it’s retail or even a restaurant,” she said. “We’ve had meals down there for years. I could see somebody doing plays in that place.”

Focus on the positive

Jimmy Ewing, a church member and volunteer caretaker for the building, said he’s trying to focus on the positive.

“Maybe God is trying to lead us to something bigger and better,” Ewing said. “The past really and truly won’t be forgotten. . . . I feel very good about the sale and the attitude (the Murphys) exhibit. They’re not going to let someone come in and tear it down.”

He said the Murphys have even offered to set aside a space to preserve the church’s exhibit of photos and artifacts, which date back to the 19th century.

The Murphys said the first steps will be building accessibility ramps on the side of the building and making some minor repairs to the stained-glass windows. They may flatten out the sloped floor of the sanctuary but don’t intend to make major visual changes to the interior of the sanctuary or the exterior of the building.

“People say, ‘But you’ve got Jesus in all those windows,’ ” Lane Murphy said. “Well, whatever we do, we want Jesus to be OK with it.”

The Murphys, who have three young children, met at Baylor University, where they both earned advanced degrees. Amy Murphy, who is from northwest Houston, said she never thought she would live in Waco, but she has found herself drawn to the community.

The Murphys said they learned from a newspaper article in December that the church was for sale but didn’t jump at the opportunity. They had been scouting smaller places downtown for their antique business, Lane Murphy said.

“We weren’t thinking that big,” he said.

But they started taking a closer look at St. James when they saw that no one had snapped it up, he said.

“We thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone bought it?’ It’s really an amazing space,” Lane Murphy said. “We felt like the location was a plus. In fact, it was so good, someone might just want the land and not the building.”

Fiona Bond, executive director of Creative Waco and leader of the successful effort to have the state designate a Waco Cultural District, praised the Murphys as part of a “new generation of courageous entrepreneurs.”

“I think the potential is immense,” Bond said. “It’s a building of incredible historical value and great beauty. What I love about the Murphys’ vision is that they really want to honor its unique history and breathe a new life and purpose into it. . . . Waco needs people with that kind of vision and courage.”

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St. James United Methodist Church will move out of its historic building in October.

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