Texas diocese to dedicate new markers honoring its first Black priest

By ENS Staff
Posted May 15, 2024

An eight-foot-tall obelisk marking the grave of the Rev. Thomas Cain, the first Black priest to serve in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, will be dedicated on June 1. Photo: Diocese of Texas

[Episcopal News Service] New memorial markers honoring the Rev. Thomas Cain, the first Black priest to serve in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, and his wife Elizabeth (also known as Bettie), will be dedicated and commemorated during events in Galveston on June 1.

An eight-foot-tall obelisk at the site of Cain’s grave in Lakeview Cemetery will be dedicated at 10:30 a.m. Afterward, a reception will take place at St. Augustine of Hippo Church, where Cain served as priest from 1888 to 1900, at the site of a new marker and bench dedicated in memory of both Cains.

The location of Cain’s grave had been lost to history until it was discovered in 2023 through a series of actions by members of the three Galveston churches — Trinity, Grace and St. Augustine’s.

Funding for the obelisk was provided by the diocese’s John and Joseph Talbot Fund, named for the first enslaved people mentioned in the historic baptismal books of Christ Church, considered the “mother church” of the diocese, in Matagorda.

The John and Joseph Talbot Fund is part of the diocese’s Racial Justice Initiative, which was created in 2020 with a commitment of $13 million for racial reconciliation projects and scholarships for the future training and education of people of color.

The three Galveston churches raised money for a marker after finding Cain’s grave, and those funds, plus additional support from the John and Joseph Talbot Fund, provided the marker and bench at the church.

A marker commemorating the life and death of the Rev. Thomas Cain and his wife, Bettie, now stands near the Cain Chapel at St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church in Galveston, Texas, where Cain was serving as vicar when he died in the Great Galveston Flood of 1900. Photo: St. Augustine’s Church

Another Racial Justice Initiative project, the Rev. Thomas Cain Fund for Historic Black Churches, is funding restoration of the Cain Chapel, the name of the worship space at St. Augustine’s. The new marker and bench are located nearby.

The Rev. Thomas Cain, who died in the Galveston Flood of 1900, went from enslavement to being the first Black priest to serve as a deputy to General Convention. Photo: Archival

Cain was a pioneering figure in The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Texas. Born into enslavement in North Carolina in 1843, he learned to read and write after the Civil War and studied for ordination, including at the Bishop Payne School in Petersburg, a branch of Virginia Theological School started specifically to prepare Black men for ordained ministry.

He was ordained a priest in Virginia in 1879 and moved to Galveston in 1888 to lead St. Augustine of Hippo, the oldest Black Episcopal church in Texas. The diocese’s Annual Council elected him an alternate deputy to General Convention in 1889 and again in 1892, making him the first Black priest to serve in the House of Deputies.

Both Cains lost their lives on Sept. 8, 1900, in the Great Galveston Flood that resulted from a massive hurricane that hit the city, causing the death of at least 6,000 people. Cain’s body was found on the beach, but his wife’s remains never were located.

Cain also is remembered at the historically Black All Saints Parish in his hometown of Warrenton, North Carolina. Although the parish itself is now closed, the church building – now known as the Thomas Cain Memorial Church – still stands and is being restored by the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.