Over one hundred seventy five years ago, Galveston became a city in its own right instead of a pirate stronghold. Texas had won her freedom from Mexico, and Galveston almost at once became the gateway to the newborn Republic with a bustling population of some 300 people. Until this time, the only religious life known to the people, and that rather sketchily, was Roman Catholicism. The preaching of Protestantism was prohibited. But in the same year that these momentous events were becoming history, 1836, the first Protestant sermon was given in Galveston in the open air near the old Navy Yard located on the flats at the foot of 24th Street — and it was Presbyterian. The preacher was Rev. Henry Reid of Hopewell Presbytery, Georgia.
The next authentic Presbyterian sermon was preached in the same place two years later by Rev. W. Y. Allen of the Presbytery of South Alabama. In 1839 he brought to Galveston Rev. John McCullough, who began to preach whenever and wherever he found a convenient place, eventually centering his work in a City Company house on the northwest corner of Church and 19th Streets, which became known as “The Academy,” or Galveston University—evidently recognized as a seat of learning, as well as of religion.
At this time, Galveston had a population of 3000 people but no church. On December 1, 1839, a meeting of citizens was called to consider ways and means of meeting the need of a churchless town. Rev. McCullough preached a sermon and the meeting was called to order with the Presbyterian minister in the chair. Mr. Gail Borden, later of condensed milk fame, was secretary. It was then and there decided to proceed with the building of a Presbyterian church toward which $3,000 had been subscribed. Nine trustees were chosen to contract for the building and to superintend its construction.
This action was taken not only because the only minister in the city was a Presbyterian, but further, over three-fourths of the church-going people were of the same persuasion. The First Presbyterian Church became an organization on January 1, 1840, with fourteen charter members and Rev. John McCullough as pastor. It was the fifth church in order entered on the rolls of the Brazos Presbytery at the time of the latter’s organization on April 3, 1840.
The First Presbyterian Church building, completed in 1843, was the first church constructed on the Island, followed soon after by the first Catholic Church which was completed in 1847. Of frame construction, the building was erected on the southwest corner of 19th and Church Streets, where it stood for 30 years until it was displaced by what eventually became the present magnificent structure. This building, dedicated on February 24, 1889, was called “Bunting’s Folly” because Dr. R. F. Bunting, known as the “Fighting Parson” as a result of his Civil War record, was the moving spirit in the great undertaking which required sixteen years to complete and cost $90,000. It has been recognized by architectural experts as being the finest example of Norman architecture in the Southland, if not the whole country. It was the first major architectural endeavor of Nicholas J. Clayton, who supervised its construction. Clayton was the first professional architect in Texas and later earned fame as the designer of many prominent commercial, religious and residential buildings throughout the State.
An unusual feature of the church building which attracted much attention, but was eminently practical considering the church’s location and the date of its construction, was the room off the left of the narthex which was fitted up as a mortuary where bodies could be placed after funeral services and held until it was convenient for friends or relatives to arrange for burial. In subsequent years as the need for this facility diminished, the room was converted to other uses.
The sanctuary is enhanced by many gifts of past devoted members. The pipe organ, a gift of Mrs. George Ball, was constructed for the church at a cost of $7,000 and includes pipes from other organs. The communion table, two chairs and offering plates were carved of oak by a young girl, Virginia Stowe Hutches, around 1894. She married Rev. Henry Austin in 1896. Symbols carved into the communion table include an alpha superimposed on an omega signifying the infinity of God; a loaf and a cup of the Lord’s Supper; lilies, symbolic of the resurrection; the Star of David, showing the lineage of Christ and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Moses and his people of the coming of the Messiah; a crown of thorns, a symbol of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins; a descending dove, symbolic of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Of the ten stained glass windows, three are outstanding examples of Tiffany’s work. Five of the windows are memorials to former members: Sarah Catherine Perry Ball, who was 15 years of age when the church was organized and was one of the first young people baptized in the church; Sarah Barker Perry, mother of Sarah Ball; Anne T. Trueheart, a prominent member of the early church and organizer of a mission Sunday School in the west end of Galveston which eventually evolved into the present Westminster Church; and beloved members Agnes Davie Kilough and Nellie Pitt.
The ten overhead lights were made by member L.O. Sharp in 1939 from designs prepared by his daughter employing the designs from the ceiling beam points which were inverted.
The present church building has stood unshaken, but not undisturbed, through the years. In the great fire of 1885 which swept forty blocks of the city, the church escaped because it was practically fireproof. At that time, it was offered to the school board for use to meet the emergency of the loss of the school.
The church has stood the test of many hurricanes, and has suffered damage from time to time. In the 1900 storm, it was a place of refuge for many homeless, and the mortuary was used for many killed in that storm. Twenty-two members of the church lost their lives in that tragic disaster which claimed over 6,000 victims. The most extensive damage to the church resulted from the ravages of Hurricane Carla and her attendant tornadoes in 1961. This threatened the very existence of the church, but thanks to a wisely patient committee, and the efficient and faithful supervision by Adolph Johnson, a contractor whose membership and heart’s interest were in the Church, the restoration was completed even to the virtually priceless stained glass memorial windows.
Most recently, Hurricane Ike in September, 2008, caused a storm surge that flooded the first floor of the church and educational building causing extensive damage. The Education Building and Fellowship Hall (known as McCullough Hall) were restored first. The Sanctuary was restored to its original grandeur, including gilding, stenciling, and refinishing of its original pews, pulpit and communion table. The pipe organ was recently restored.
The ministry of the First Presbyterian Church of Galveston, Texas has been marked by its loyalty to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the Holy Scriptures, and its pulpit has been graced and blessed by the preaching of outstanding preachers of the Word. By God’s grace, the First Presbyterian Church of Galveston stands to continue this ministry for generations to come.
In 2015, Galveston’s First Church celebrated its 175th anniversary with community outreach activities, concerts, a tree planting, a time capsule and a special dinner and worship service with The Reverend Dr. Tom Long.
2015 also brought our present preacher, The Reverend Ed Wolf, his wife Shellie and their daughter Abi to lead our flock at 19th and Church Street.