The Heart of a Community

Congregants gathered outside of St. John Church in the 19th century.

A LITTLE PIECE OF HISTORY | By The Heritage Society –

The country church is probably the most common social institution found in rural America. Churches represented comfortable connections to families and countries of origin and provided a degree of stability in a changing world. These spaces additionally served as schools and also sponsored such social events as picnics and other community gatherings.

Hundreds of these small, rural churches dotted Texas in the mid to late 19th century. In those days, most Texans lived and labored in rural areas – 90.8 percent in 1880 and still 82.9 percent in 1900. Agriculture dominated the state economy with a majority of Texans engaged in farming or ranching. Nevertheless, Texas grew rapidly at the end of the 19th century. The population grew from 1,591,749 in 1880 to 2,235,527 by 1890 and reached 3,048,710 in 1900.

Individuals who migrated or immigrated to Texas in the 19th century tended to settle in locales of family or ethnic concentrations, and sometimes, whole villages even relocated. For example, the over 20,000 Germans who came to Texas between 1840 and 1860 predominantly established homogeneous communities in central Texas. Two settlements that were started by German immigrants in northwest Harris County were the White Oak Community and nearby Vollmer. The land on White Oak Bayou was good, sandy loam and could be purchased for 50 cents an acre. It was a perfect location for industrious German farmers.

The center of the White Oak Community was St. John German Evangelical Lutheran Church founded in the 1860s. In 1866, the congregation paid $7 for two acres of land. In conjunction with the church, there was also a school and a graveyard. The earliest tombstone records the death in 1866 of a young girl who was slain on her way to church school. By 1872, the congregation purchased an additional six acres for $5 from the Houston & Texas Central Railway Company.

Today, the beautifully restored St. John Church is located in Sam Houston Park.

When the original church was destroyed by a hurricane in 1875, it was replaced by a second modest building.  In 1889, the pastor, Reverend Frank Neuhaus, urged the congregation to build a new church, which opened in 1891. This building was constructed at a cost of $860 plus another $60 for the bell. Reflecting their roots, the congregants primarily spoke German well into the 20th century. The small, neoclassical structure with Gothic windows served the congregation well until a new sanctuary was built in 1955, and the 1891 building was repurposed to a Sunday school building.

In 1968, the 1891 building was donated to The Heritage Society and moved to Sam Houston Park. Restoration efforts included reinstalling the original paneled altar-pulpit that had been given to St. Peter’s United Church in Spring Branch. In addition, the residual four cypress plank pews left in the building were reunited with the remaining original pews that had been given to St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Spring. All of the pews were made by church members Otto Moers and Louis Tiel from cypress logs hauled to the church site by teams of oxen. Finally, the Gothic style German script passages were painted over the altar, and the doors of the church were refurbished. These translate to “Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it,” found in Luke 11:28 and “The Lord preserve your going out and your coming in. Amen,” found in Psalm 121:8.

St. John Church represents the effort to preserve a significant part of the history of early Harris County residents. The communities of White Oak and Vollmer were about three miles north of today’s Memorial Park on what is now Mangum Road. Today, this area is well within the city limits, just outside the 610 Loop, but in the 1860s, these communities were quite distant from urban Houston. The structure is a wonderful example of the modest church buildings that peppered the Texas landscape in the 19th century. It also demonstrates the importance of religious practices to our forefathers and their communities. Visit The Heritage Society in Sam Houston Park to see the beautifully restored St. John Church.