1890 – Christ Church is Chartered
Christ Church, one of the oldest Episcopal Parishes in Dallas County, was chartered as a mission by Bishop Alexander C. Garrett in 1890. The cornerstone of the first church was laid in 1893 and consecrated on May 13, 1894.
The church was originally located on the southeast corner of Ninth Street and Marsalis Avenue in Oak Cliff, at the top of a ridge overlooking the Trinity River. Nearby was the terminus of the streetcar line which afforded convenient transportation.
Lena Parks and Charles Gulick, charter members of the mission, were married on October 14, 1894 in the new church by Rev. John Ulrich Graf (pictured below). The ceremony was the first marriage performed in the church. Lena was the church’s organist and Charles was the church’s Sunday School Superintendent. There are two windows in the west transept of the current church honoring these two individuals. Their home still stands at 201 E. Eighth Street in Oak Cliff.
Christ Church shed its mission status in 1913 and became a fully organized, self-sufficient parish with the Rev. J.B. Whaling serving as the first Rector. When Bishop Garrett visited the church the following year, he noted:
Christ Church under the direction of Rev. Whaling has awakened to the realization of the fact that while it slept, it has become surrounded by new additions with beautiful homes, modern improvements of many kinds, and is traversed in every direction by a network of local and interurban car lines.
1921 – Christ Church Builds a New Church
The Rev. John Wallis Ohl became the Rector at Christ Church in June of 1920. Coming from Omaha, he brought with him the plans for a new church building.
The current Christ Church structure is based upon the Episcopal Church of St. Martin of Tours in South Omaha, Nebraska, where Father Ohl had once served as a priest. The ground for the new Christ Church in Oak Cliff was broken on January 20, 1921. Due to some mix-up, with the walls of the church already rising, the cornerstone was laid later by Bishop Garrett (he served as Bishop of the Diocese from 1875 to his death in 1924) on April 3, 1921. On Whitsunday, May 15, 1921, the first service was held in the new church. The church was constructed in a cruciform plan and was built to resemble an overturned ark.
In keeping with the prevailing Arts and Crafts philosophy, an anonymous contemporary wrote:
There are sanctuaries built on a more elaborate scale than ours, but we have not seen any that express the spiritual beauty of architectural line and wood-work any more completely than ours. The chase simplicity of the work insures that we will never grow tired of it.
Christy and Dolph Construction Company was in charge of the building project. Modifications (particularly on the inside) were made to accommodate elements of the contemporary popular Arts and Crafts movement. Christ Church’s outside structure, however, is almost a carbon-copy of St. Martin’s in Omaha.
1950 to 1970 – Oak Cliff Evolves
The years following World War II bought many changes to Oak Cliff. The issue of liquor sales, zoning and the automobile culture led the way in reshaping the community surrounding Christ Church. Father A. Harrison Lee III kept the Church going.
The sale of liquor had been a sensitive issue in Oak Cliff for many years. When Oak Cliff was annexed by the City of Dallas in 1903, it came with a promise that alcohol sales would be prohibited. However, Dallas County voted to go “wet” in 1944 bringing alcohol sales to Tenth Street. Oak Cliff erupted with a moral vengeance, and in 1956 voted to go “dry”. Coupled with the expanding infrastructure and amenities north of the Trinity River in the rest of Dallas, this decision slowly drained businesses out of Oak Cliff, taking away many of Christ Church’s communicants.
Dallas was also becoming part of the automobile culture. Streetcars stopped running in Dallas in 1956. Small, picturesque roads in Oak Cliff were torn up and enlarged to accommodate the increasing traffic from downtown to the expanding suburbs. What were once quiet front porches were now only a few feet from busy roads. Many people left Oak Cliff, seeking the quiet of the suburbs.
Zoning was the final blow to the quiet network of homes and churches that once characterized Oak Cliff. In 1947, to cope with the post-War housing shortage, the Dallas City Council re-zoned much of Oak Cliff. Single family homes were torn down and replaced with apartments, challenging the residential fabric of the Oak Cliff street-scape. Jefferson Avenue, formerly residential on one side and commercial on the other, became entirely commercial. In the 1960s, Interstate 35 (the R.L. Thornton Freeway) sliced through Oak Cliff, isolating the eastern part of the enclave.
With all these wounds, Oak Cliff experienced a major decline in population. By the 1960s, it was apparent that Christ Church had become an inner—city parish and could no longer be considered a suburban church. It was now surrounded by three growing parishes and three missions. Residential areas were spawning multifamily dwellings. Christ Church was losing families to the outlying communities.
Despite these challenges, Christ Church managed to thrive. At the New Year of 1970, the Very Reverend A. Harrison Lee, III was Rector of St. Luke’s Church, Denison, Texas, and Dean of the Northern Deanery of the Diocese of Dallas. Father Lee formally accepted the call from Christ Church on February 3, 1970 and assumed the duties of Rector on June 1. The year of 1990 was remarkable not only in being the Centennial year of the founding of Christ Church Parish, but also in that it marked the Twentieth Anniversary of the Institution of Reverend A. Harrison Lee III as Rector of Christ Church.
In those twenty years, Father Lee built an impressive record. His was the second longest rectorship in the history of the Parish, establishing an enviable program of good works. Father Lee elected to take early retirement after serving more than twenty—four years as Rector of Christ Church, as of June 30, 1994. Father Lee passed away in 2016.
Today – Christ Church Renaissance
By embracing diversity, Christ Church is thriving and growing. Under the leadership of Father John Harrison Heidt (pictured below), our first Spanish speaking mass was held on June 15, 1997. The Parish’s greatest accomplishment during his tenure was the establishment of a Spanish language Mass each Sunday and the inclusion of Hispanic culture and traditions into Parish activities.
In the intervening years, Spanish speaking and English speaking communicants at Christ Church have come together as one body. We share in the joys and sorrows of life as Christian brothers and sisters. Christ Church is experiencing a spiritual renaissance. Our numbers are increasing and our outreach is expanding. We are one body and one Church.
Our Church has been a presence in Dallas/Oak Cliff for over 125 years; since 1890 in fact. As we explore new ways to serve our ever-changing community, we are confident that our Church will continue to be a warm and welcoming place for anyone seeking the love of Jesus Christ in the years and decades to come.