$2 million bequest tied up in court as growing North Texas congregation worships in former bank drive-thru

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 4, 2022
Bishop Mayer at St. Mary's

Bishop Scott Mayer celebrates Holy Eucharist at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hillsboro, Texas, on Dec. 5. The congregation has worshipped in a former bank drive-thru since June. Photo: Episcopal Church in North Texas

[Episcopal News Service] St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is a congregation of fewer than 20 people in Hillsboro, Texas, a city of 8,000 about halfway between Waco and Fort Worth. The past year has been one of transition for St. Mary’s, with its past locked up in a historic church building to which these Episcopalians no longer have the keys.

The congregation’s hoped-for future is a new church to be built on vacant land, backed by more than $2 million from a gift of the estate of a former parishioner who died in 2017. For now, however, the land remains vacant, and the bequest sits untouched in a bank account – frozen until St. Mary’s resolves its legal dispute with a breakaway group of worshippers who retained possession of the old church on Abbot Street.

Meanwhile, the St. Mary’s of the present looks a lot like a bank drive-thru: As a temporary move, the Episcopal congregation leased a former Bank of America facility and converted it into a worship space. Since June, worshippers have gathered there every Sunday for services led by lay leaders or a supply priest.

“We’re much more visible in the community where we are,” senior warden David Skelton said in a phone interview with Episcopal News Service. “We’re on the Main Street of Hillsboro, with a big ‘St. Mary’s Episcopal Church’ sign, and we’re hoping that will attract people.”

Whether because of its new location, its big sign or typical word of mouth, St. Mary’s is succeeding in attracting new people to its services. The congregation recorded 18 worshippers during a December visit from Bishop Scott Mayer, up from about 10 on average when services were held in the former church building.

“It’s an amazing congregation,” Mayer told ENS in a phone interview after his visit. As bishop of Northwest Texas, Mayer also was elected in 2015 as bishop provisional of the neighboring Diocese of Fort Worth. The diocese, which has since changed its name to the Episcopal Church in North Texas, has 14 congregations, including St. Mary’s in Hillsboro. “In the last 18 months, we’ve had a pandemic and the loss of property, and they have just about doubled in size.”

St. Mary’s was one of six North Texas congregations that moved out of their former worship spaces after the Episcopal diocese lost its 12-year-old lawsuit against the breakaway congregations, now aligned with the theologically conservative Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA. Last February, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not hear a final Episcopal appeal, letting stand a Texas Supreme Court ruling that endorsed ACNA’s claim to diocesan property worth more than $100 million.

The case stemmed from a 2008 schism, in which diocesan leaders at the time persuaded a majority of members to leave The Episcopal Church over women’s ordination and LGBTQ+ inclusion. The ACNA-aligned group kept control of most of the diocese’s properties, including in Hillsboro. Episcopal leaders sued.

The Hillsboro congregation, founded in the 1870s, had worshipped in its Abbott Street building since 1910. After the diocesan schism, St. Mary’s members split nearly in half, and the dozen or so who remained Episcopalians were allowed to continue worshiping in the church under an agreement with ACNA leaders, with the Episcopalians paying the church’s electric and gas bills. They held services but were not granted access to the parish hall or its restrooms.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in the lawsuit, Episcopal members gathered at St. Mary’s for a farewell service, after which they removed all liturgical items that had been donated since the 2008 split. The ACNA priest offered to continue sharing the worship space, but with the courts affirming the Episcopalians’ loss of the building, Skelton said they wanted to look for a new place.

“It was our decision that it was time to move on, to a place where we had bathrooms and a coffee pot and could stay and chat over coffee after church,” Skelton told ENS. “We’d already notified them that we were no longer paying the utilities.” Days later, the ACNA congregation changed the locks on the church doors.

As difficult as it was to leave, the Episcopal congregation counts itself fortunate for finding a suitable new home. For the first four months, they worshiped in the back room of a real estate business. Then Skelton contacted a friend who had purchased the vacant bank drive-thru with the intention of eventually moving his auto repair shop there. The shop owner agreed to let the congregation worship in the bank building for up to two years for free if St. Mary’s committed to helping fix up the property.

Church members swept and scrubbed the 1,600-square-foot space, replaced old ceiling tiles, resurfaced and sealed floors, repaired sheet rock and upgraded the air conditioning. The Diocese of West Texas donated church furniture, as well as altar linens, prayer books and hymnals.

The upgrades have transformed the building’s two rooms, which now look unmistakably like a worship space and parish hall, Mayer said. The bishop, who blessed the altar and baptismal font during his Dec. 5 visit, told ENS he attributed the congregation’s stability to solid lay leadership and members’ welcoming attitude.

“These are people that undoubtedly grieved that loss but really quickly turned to the future,” Mayer said. He is confident their small group will continue to grow.

While St. Mary’s chose to leave its former church building, ACNA gave five other Episcopal congregations until April 2021 to move out in response to its property lawsuit win. The Episcopal diocese and ACNA continue to wrangle in court over what additional personal and financial property must be turned over.

Congregation’s large bequest remains untouched as legal dispute drags on

One lingering detail – seen as critical to enacting St. Mary’s future plans – is the fate of the money given to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the will of Dr. Hendley McDonald.

Born in 1925, McDonald grew up in a house next to St. Mary’s, and his family was active in the congregation. His father, a prominent physician in Hillsboro, served as senior warden for 20 years, Skelton told ENS. As an adult, McDonald followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor but left Hillsboro for Waco, as did his brother, who would serve as a state appeals court chief justice. In the 1980s, the McDonalds donated their childhood home to St. Mary’s for use as a parish house, Skelton said.

McDonald and his wife, Dr. Hemprova McDonald, were longtime members of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Waco, a congregation of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Hemprova McDonald died in 2014 at age 96, and when Hendley McDonald died three years later at 92, he left 20% of his estate to the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit and 10% to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

“It has been a transformative gift for us,” the Rev. Jason Ingalls, rector at Holy Spirit, told ENS by email. Holy Spirit received nearly $2.4 million from the McDonald estate, which the congregation used to fund an endowment, support church operations and make a donation to a Diocese of Texas foundation.

Skelton told ENS that St. Mary’s received more than $1.3 million from the McDonald estate, but ACNA officials objected, claiming the money rightfully belonged to the breakaway Anglican congregation, which still calls itself St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. With litigation pending, the two sides agreed to keep the money in a joint bank account, where its value has grown, now topping $2 million, Skelton said.

The Episcopal congregation has argued in court that the will was filed after the 2008 split and that the McDonalds were faithful Episcopalians, not members of an ACNA congregation. McDonald’s will also specified that if St. Mary’s no longer existed when he died, the money should go to the Diocese of Texas of the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” the historic formal name for The Episcopal Church.

“He very clearly did not want this money to go to some breakaway non-Episcopalians calling themselves Anglicans,” Skelton said.

ACNA counters that naming rights were part of its court victory, along with the physical properties. It prevailed in its effort to keep calling itself the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, despite no longer being affiliated with The Episcopal Church. The Episcopalians’ lawsuit loss is what prompted their name change to the Episcopal Church in North Texas.

In the separate matter of the McDonald will, the ACNA diocese argues it also retained the exclusive rights to individual congregations’ names. “So far as we’re concerned, it was decided,” Suzanne Gill, a spokeswoman for the ACNA diocese, told ENS. That would mean that in 2017, when McDonald left part of his fortune to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hillsboro, only one church rightfully called itself by that name, and it was aligned with ACNA, Gill said.

Episcopal leaders reject that claim, saying congregations’ names weren’t part of the 12-year lawsuit. They argue the construction of Hendley McDonald’s will and his intent to give his gift to the Episcopal congregation need to be determined by a probate court. They are confident McDonald’s intent will be affirmed in their favor. The county probate court in Waco is handling the case, and the next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 14. It is unclear when the matter will be settled.

Skelton, a 71-year-old retired physician, and his wife, Roberta, had worshiped in the historic Hillsboro church since they moved to the city in 1978. Two of their children were baptized in the church, and four children were confirmed there. Their daughter was married there. He spent $100,000 of his own money to purchase the two-acre plot where his congregation would like to build, with the assumption that St. Mary’s will reimburse him if and when the money from the bequest is released.

Despite such uncertainty, the Episcopal congregation has high expectations, now that it has settled into the former bank building. “They are very high energy right now and looking to grow, and I think they probably will grow,” the Rev. Janet Waggoner, the North Texas canon to the ordinary, told ENS. “Right now, the lay leaders of that congregation, particularly David Skelton and Roberta Skelton, they have been the driving force behind that congregation for more than a generation.”

She also was encouraged to see the congregation attracting younger members and planting seeds for the future that go beyond any prospective financial harvest. “This generation has to raise up the next generation of Christians and the next generation of congregational leaders,” Waggoner said. “It’s our responsibility, and it’s how the church will continue to survive and thrive.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.