HomeFeaturesA closer look at history: Two local churches remember their beginnings

A closer look at history: Two local churches remember their beginnings

Notre Dame in France, La Sagrada Familia in Spain, Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the Cathedral of Colonia in Germany or Saint Sophia Basilica in Turkey, were some of the most visited tourist places during 2022 in Europe, according to a publication by the Deutsche Welle, a German international broadcaster. All of them are religious buildings.

177 years after it’s founding, the college town of Tyler holds its own history and art hidden among its streets and buildings. 

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the First Presbyterian Church are two examples of historic buildings in Tyler, and although they have undergone changes in location and structure, their artistic value remains relevant. 

The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception

The nativity scene shown in stained glass at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. The church showcases various scenes from the Bible throughout the cathedral in it’s stained glass displays. Photo by Barbara Martin Moro

The presence of the Catholic community in Tyler dates to the 1870s with the coming of the railroads into the city. Until 1978 the Catholic presence in Tyler was not established and it was considered a “missionary community.” Priests from Palestine and Nacogdoches came on horseback to serve the Catholic community. 

The first Catholic church’s construction began in 1880 on the corner of West Locust Street and North College Avenue and in 1882 it was dedicated, which refers to the consecration of the building to its sacred purpose. The community celebrated Mass in that chapel until 1935 when the new church in its current location was dedicated. Rev. Hank Lanik, pastor of the Cathedral, said the 1880 building was moved to the location of Saint Peter Claver Catholic Church also in Tyler, and it remains part of that church. During segregation, Lanik said, most African American Catholics attended that church.

The Cathedral was built in a Spanish style remembering the Spanish roots of Texas. This influence, Lanik said, can be appreciated in the titles of the roof, the dark wood, the arches, and overall color. In the church, there are also certain details with Arabic style, since at the time of construction, a great part of the Catholic community had a Lebanese origin. The most evident example is the metal arch surrounding the stained-glass window in the sanctuary.

The Our Lady of Fatima statue stands at one entrances of the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. While it was originally made in Italy, the statue was brought to the cathedral in Tyler. Now it welcomes church members and visitors into the cathedral. Photo by Barbara Martin Moro

The church has a collection of stained-glass windows with religious scenes. Lanik said there is some controversy about their origin. “We think they came from Germany,” Lanik said. Each stained-glass window has written the name of a family or person to preserve the memory of the donors. The Cathedral also has a collection of statues carved in wood representing different saints venerated in the Catholic church. 

The Catholic community in Tyler has a high Filipino and Hispanic population, and thus the Cathedral holds two statues of El Divino Niño, which are believed to be made in Spain but that were brought from the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony in the past. There is also a replica of the original painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is venerated in Mexico.

The statue of Our Lady of Fatima, located at the lateral entrance to the Cathedral, was brought to Tyler from Italy. 

For more information on the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, visit thecathedral.info 

The First Presbyterian Church

According to “The First 125 Years at First Presbyterian Church Tyler, Texas,” a document published in 1995 for the church’s anniversary, William Nathaniel Dickey came to Tyler on horseback in 1869 with the vision of building the first Presbyterian church in a city where, he was told, there were no Presbyterians. The only family of that denomination was that of Augustus Niblak, a native from Georgia. Under the invitation of John Neal, the Sunday school superintendent for the Methodist church, Dickey could make some connections and start preaching for Methodists and Baptists, finding families and individuals willing to form a Presbyterian community. The dream was consolidated in April 1870 when First Presbyterian Church was organized.

The front page of the Tyler-Courier-Times-Telegraph for Dec. 1 of 1950. This issue of the newspaper featured photos and information about the then newly-opened First Presbyterian Church of Tyler. Photo by Barbara Martin Moro

Between the years 1870 and 1885, the Presbyterian faithful met in a building next to what is today the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce, at the corner of Spring and Line Streets. That building had installed a 600-pound bell whose mission was to call the faithful to service. That bell has moved with the congregation to each new church built.

The cornerstone of the new Presbyterian church was laid in 1883 and the building located originally on Ferguson Street was dedicated in 1886. According to the Tyler Courier- Times-Telegraph newspaper issue of Dec. 1, 1950, the community worshiped in it until 1914. 

The merging of two Presbyterian communities resulted in the need of building another church in which the congregation remained until 1950.

The congregation once again felt the need for a bigger church in 1942, but it was not until 1949 after the end of World War II that the Presbyterian community began the construction of the current building in 230 W. Rusk Street. The architect of this piece of art was Dallas architect Mark Lemmon and his associate George Reynolds. At the time, he had already designed other religious buildings like Highland Park Methodist Church, Highland Park Presbyterian Church, where the architect worshiped, and Perkins Theological Triangle.

The new First Presbyterian Church in Tyler that remains intact has a capacity for 700 people in the main floor and another 150 in the second floor, and it was designed in a traditional Georgian Colonial style. This style, brought by the English during the colonial period, has been popular across the U.S. and other British colonies. Some of the main features of a Georgian style building identifiable in Tyler’s First Presbyterian Church are the presence of crown and pilasters in the front, the stone or brick walls, and the overall symmetry. The Tyler Courier-Times-Telegraph newspaper issue of Dec. 1, 1950, said Lemmon “wanted to build a church in Tyler that the whole city would be proud of, and one that would stand for years to come.”

All inside and outside of the main building is original from the 1949 construction, except for the organ, purchased a few years ago and the cross located in the choir section.

The Presbyterian Church campus has been extended to harbor all the activities and meet all the needs of the congregation, nonetheless the main 1949 building remains the center of life of the Presbyterian community. 

David Hudson, member of the TJC Board of Trustees, was born, raised and lived all his life attending the First Presbyterian Church in Tyler. 

“I grew up in this neighborhood. I used to walk to church from two or three blocks away. I’ve been here my whole life. I was baptized in this church. My children were baptized in this church. My parents were married in this church, I was married in the church, this is my church home. I cannot imagine being anywhere else,” Hudson said.

Hudson highlighted how the First Presbyterian Church has helped him find meaning to his life.

“As members of the church, we’ve been given guidance as to how to live our lives, and that guidance is to love the Lord, with all your heart, all your mind with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself. And it’s those two commandments (…), that everything else depends on. And we say that in church almost every Sunday, either that or some version of it. And that is meaningful to me. It’s meaningful to me in my personal life,” Hudson said.

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