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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers

THE CHURCH LIGHTS

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
When the church decided to phase out the old kerosene lights for safety reasons, Clark went to Jefferson Lighting Company of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and told them what he wanted. The reproduction fixtures were custom-made for the church down to the ornate decorations and adapted to electricity.
Humorist Bob Murphey tells the story about the old farmer who stood up during a church meeting to protest the purchase of a church chandelier. "I'm against it for three reasons," he said. "First, there ain't nobody here who can spell it. Second, we ain't got anybody who can play it. And third, what this church really needs is more light."

Each time I visit Christ Church Episcopal in San Augustine, I am reminded of Murphey's story and the electric light chandeliers former U.S. ambassador Ed Clark bought and installed in the church in 1991 to honor his wife Anne Metcalfe Clark.

The church was founded in 1848 by another famous San Augustine lady, Mrs. Frances C. Henderson, the lawyer-wife of James Pinckney Henderson, Texas' first governor.

In 1868, the church was equipped with kerosene lamps to provide more light for worshipers. The lamps were state-of-the art for the era. They included brass fonts to house the oil, tall chimneys, and etched-glass shades designed to diffuse the light and minimize glare. Spring systems were installed to allow the lamps to be raised and lowered for refueling and cleaning.

The design was what historical restorationist Dr. William Seale called "Anglo-Japanese" and each lamp's design was similar to one appearing in wood at the center of the church altar.

Of special interest were the lamp hooks in the ceiling above each chandelier. Each hook showed a squirrel with an acorn clinging to a tree trunk, his crooked tail forming a hook supporting the light fixture below.

Ed Clark, an Austin attorney and confidant of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and his wife Anne were members of Christ Church and wanted to do something special for the building. When the church decided to phase out the old kerosene lights for safety reasons, Clark went to Jefferson Lighting Company of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and told them what he wanted. The reproduction fixtures were custom-made for the church down to the ornate decorations and adapted to electricity. Even the unusual squirrel hooks were copied.

Although it resembles one, Christ Church is not a museum, but a functioning house of worship where the members need modern light levels. Each electric fixture provides twice as much light as two of the old kerosene lamps.

Christ Church represents one of the most important ecclesiastical buildings in East Texas. It is an unusually simple building, its Gothic style expressed in simple boards, moldings, tall ceilings and sharp angles. Its style is known as "Carpenter Gothic" and was widely popular throughout America in the middle to late 19th century.

While visitors are amazed at the church's age and its ability to withstand the ravages of time, the 1991 light fixtures always attract their attention.

But if you knew Anne Clarke, who loved learning and all that went with it, you can easily understand why Ed Clark selected light fixtures as a fitting memorial to her life.

December 1, 2003
Published with permission

(Bob Bowman is the author of nearly 30 books on East Texas history and folklore and a past president of the East Texas Historical Association.)

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