First Presbyterian Church Orange marks anniversaries this year
One hundred and thirty years ago, a small group of citizens in the town of Orange made a move that would affect local history. They started a Presbyterian church.
Today, the grand granite building of First Presbyterian Church on Green Avenue is one of Orange’s famous landmarks. But a church is a congregation, not a building. And the roots of First Presbyterian reach back to March and April of 1878.
In addition to the founding of the church congregation, 2008 is marking another anniversary of the church. Construction on the granite building with its stained glass windows began in 1908, 100 years ago, though the building was not completed and dedicated until 1912.
Even with the long history, the church has an active congregation with regular services and activities. On Sunday, March 30, at 5 p.m., a special healing service will be held in the sanctuary at 902 Green Ave. Anyone is invited to participate to ask for special prayers and blessings of healing.
A newspaper article by Sheila Beeson from a 1978 Opportunity Valley News outlined the history of the local church.
Residents in Orange asked the Presbytery of Eastern Texas for an evangelist to help organize a local church. On March 30, 1878, Dr. W.H. Vernon arrived in town, followed on April 3 by Dr. R.H. Byers. Nine citizens met with the two men and then petitioned the Presbytery to establish a church in Orange.
The nine people were D.M.K. McLeod, D.C. Hewson, S.H. Levingston, Mrs. A. Lawrence, Mrs. Myrtie Lee, J.M. Speake, Mrs. Jessie B. Latchem, and Misses M.M. Lutcher and C.L. Lutcher.
Miss Miriam Lutcher and Miss Carrie Lutcher had moved to Orange a few months earlier with their parents, Henry Jacob and Frances Ann Lutcher. Mr. Lutcher was the founder and co-owner of the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Co., which would end up with extensive timber holdings in Texas and Louisiana.
Mrs. Lutcher went on to build the grand church building named as the Lutcher Memorial in honor of her husband.
But in 1878, thoughts of an elaborate building were far from the minds of the local citizens. First, they needed a church.
McLeod was chosen as ruling elder. Dr. Vernon was the spiritual leader of the new church until 1880.
For a number of years, the Presbyterians met in a classic American-style white, wood-frame church building with a steeple. The building was by the Sabine River at Market and Polk streets. It was dedicated on July 1, 1883 with Rev. R.H. Head serving as pastor.
In the early years, ministers included the Rev. J.M. Cochran in 1886, Rev. J.G. Henderson in 1889, Rev. H. Petry in 1891, Dr. M.L. Frierson in 1892, Rev. W.J. Sechrest in 1895, and Dr. T.J. Horne in 1897.
But it was Rev. Ewell Travis Drake who became an institution at the church, serving as pastor for some 40 years, beginning in 1907.
By that time, plans for the ornate building were underway. Mrs. Lutcher was inspired to build the church at the Chicago Columbian Exposition (world’s fair) in 1893. She attended with her daughters, Mrs. William (Miriam) Stark and Mrs. Edgar (Carrie) Brown Sr.
Mrs. Lutcher bought three prize-winning stained glass windows from the J &R Lamb Studios in New York. She later had the granite and marble building designed by architect Oliver Hogg in Kansas City. The building was in the Greek revival style made popular at the 1893 world’s fair.
Lamb Studios designed the interior with its artwork of opalescent stained-glass windows, mosaics, and paintings. A dome of 16 stained-glass angels topped the sanctuary on the second floor of the building. The stained-glass was topped with a copper dome in 1957 as protection against weather. However, Hurricane Rita in 2005 blew the copper off, damaging some of the stained glass and bringing water damage indoors.
The building was reported to be the first public air conditioned building in the world, though those reports have been modified through the years. But Mrs. Lutcher had to build a separate power plant behind the church to supply enough power to operate the Carrier air-conditioning system.
The “power house” is still used by the church as meeting and activity rooms.
First Presbyterian began a missionary church in 1917 and built a chapel at the corner of 15th and Burton streets. That church evolved into Drake Memorial Presbyterian Church, named in honor of the minister.
Also, First Presbyterian started a missionary church at the Orange oil field during the boom which began in 1921. The church in Orangefield was known as “The Hut.”
And as First Presbyterian continues today, with the Rev. Margaret Desmond serving as interim minister, more history is planned for the future.