WILLIS — The light was hitting the church in just the right way.

That’s what captured Kathy Hammond’s attention first – a sunbeam piercing through the multicolored stained glass, reflecting across a clock tower straight out of the 17th century and glinting in the distance.

“It was kind of a drive-by-and-put-the-brakes-on thing,” she said.

The 65-year-old painter with the Galveston Art League stumbled upon the Thomas Chapel United Methodist Church — the oldest, continuously operating church in Montgomery County — while looking with a friend for inspiration to capture on canvas.

Hammond, who owns property in the county’s north central city of Willis, was enchanted by the Victorian Gothic architecture of the church on the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Holland Street. 

Ann Meador came across Hammond and her friend as they admired the church’s exterior a couple months ago, and quickly informed them that Thomas Chapel represented so much more than a neat building.

In addition to being older than the city of Willis itself, the historic church’s congregation was founded — before there was a building to even dream of — by Black men and women enslaved at the Greenwood Plantation in nearby Danville, Texas in the 1830s, Meador explained.

Following the end of the Civil War, the worshippers built a log cabin on the property in 1867, and in 1899 constructed the chapel that stands today.

Now, despite a Texas Historic Landmark plaque planted outside, the church is in dire straits, in need of about $35,000 in repairs.

Meador, a 79-year-old local historian and retired journalism professor at Sam Houston State University, is one of a dedicated handful fighting to save it. 

A fan with a portrait of a family along with a book of hymns is placed inside the church pews at Thomas Chapel United Methodist Church, an African-American Methodist Church whose congregation originated in 1867, Thursday, July 6, 2023, in Willis. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

‘When it’s gone …’

Phillip and Rev. Leroy “Lee” Culpepper’s names are etched in the cornerstone of Thomas Chapel.

The brothers — members of the first generation of African Americans born after the end of slavery in the United States — were on the church’s building committee and trustee board, respectively, and played a pivotal role in establishing the chapel.

Since then, generations of Culpepper descendants have served the church.

Their great-grandniece, Cynthia Stubblefield Walker, is determined to continue that legacy.

A Black genealogy enthusiast, Stubblefield Walker works with Meador on the Montgomery County History Task Force, a nonprofit that has borne the mantle of renovating Thomas Chapel and fundraising for repairs since 2021.

Stubblefield Walker’s cousin, Lorenzo Westmoreland, is president of Thomas Chapel’s board of trustees. Westmoreland granted Meador his blessing to restore the church after Meador took the time to earn the congregation’s trust.

The task force’s mission, Meador said, is ingrained in their motto: “History is a perishable commodity. And when it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

As a kid, Stubblefield Walker remembers receiving a brown bag filled with peppermints, nuts and oranges after Christmas service at Thomas Chapel.

“Even though we had fruit all year round,” she said, “there was something special about getting it during holidays in the brown bag with the peppermint … man, that was a big deal.”

Thomas Chapel was her grandmother’s church, and even though her grandmother married into a Baptist family, the chapel remained a spiritual and civic hub for her family and the Black community in Willis.

Over the years, the church evolved from a part-time school — back when Thomas Chapel was a log cabin and it was illegal to educate Black people — into a center for voter enfranchisement during the Civil Rights Movement, Stubblefield Walker said.

“It was an educational center,” she said. “It’s where you learned the news, ‘cause, let’s face it, a lot of us couldn’t read or write.”

Today, the congregation has dwindled to around 20 or so members, in part because the neighborhood around the church is aging as younger residents leave for better job opportunities in Houston or Galveston. 

“When people move out of the neighborhood and nobody’s there to take care of things, you can lose a sense of how important a place used to be,” Meador said.

The fear of losing that institutional knowledge has driven her to spearhead Thomas Chapel’s restoration.

Ann Meador gives a tour of Thomas Chapel United Methodist Church, an African-American Methodist Church whose congregation originated in 1867, Thursday, July 6, 2023, in Willis. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Repair costs

As a practicing Methodist, Meador said she felt called to restore Thomas Chapel in honor of her great-great-great-great-great grandfather William Stevenson.

Stevenson was a Methodist preacher decades before Texas was annexed by the United States, drawn to parishioners that defied Spain’s mandate that Catholicism be the state’s sole religion.

“So, I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna take this on for ol’ William,’” Meador said on a stuffy summer morning inside Thomas Chapel. “But after this, I’m getting out of the restoration business unless I win the lottery.”

Standing next to the altar, she pointed to the church floor’s slow incline to its front doors.

“It’s a stadium design. So, in any row, at any point, you can see what’s going on up front.”

These days, not much goes on up front, or anywhere in Thomas Chapel, aside from repairs. 

The remaining congregation, most of whom are elderly, has been meeting over Zoom since the pandemic began. 

Around that time, Meador, who also is a member of the Montgomery County Historical Commission, noticed the church was in disarray and formed the task force to raise money to restore it.

They started with the community room, an addition built onto the church in 1952.

Meador hired the Rev. Obra Toliver, a Willis resident, master carpenter and pastor of a nearby church, who replaced the addition’s aging accessibility ramp entrance, restored original windows and removed raccoon damage from the church ceiling, among many other tasks, at a significantly reduced rate.

It is the cost of the second phase of repairs that worries Meador.

The task force needs about $15,000 to replace 20,000 screws used in the original construction that now have become the source of water leaks, she said.

Replacing the wood siding on the front exterior of the church will cost another $20,000, Meador added, and that does not even account for cosmetic fixes on the wishlist, such as restoring the original lighting or replacing stained-glass windows.

Despite the overwhelming financial stress, Meador is buoyed by people like Hammond, who, after learning about the history behind Thomas Chapel, donated an original oil painting of the church to the task force.

Meador said the plan is to auction off the painting for buyers who are willing to gift the artwork to the city of Willis for public display. Hammond’s originals list for around $500.

“Preservation is a continual, educational process,” Meador said. “That’s why I’d like to see the painting in the library or City Hall.”

Right now, though, there’s work to be done.

Those interested in donating to the Thomas Chapel United Methodist Church restoration effort can visit the GoFundMe page: Restoring Thomas Chapel in Willis, TX or contact Ann Meador via email at historytaskforce9@gmail.com.

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Céilí Doyle covers the region’s suburbs and rural communities for the Houston Landing. She comes to Texas by way of the Midwest, most recently working for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio through the...