As one of the first churches built west of Eighth Street, Austin Avenue United Methodist Church has been a center of spiritual growth and community outreach for over one hundred years.
Having decided that the congregation at Waco’s Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South (now First United Methodist Church) had grown too large, its members petitioned the denominational conference for a church plant. Recognizing the aforementioned need, the quarterly conference approved the establishment of Austin Avenue Methodist Church on December 31, 1900. Dr. John R. Nelson, the incumbent pastor at Fifth Street, took the lead in organizing the new church.
To house the new church, the building committee purchased three lots on the southwest corner of Twelfth Street and Austin Avenue and commissioned architect Charles Bowman to build the sanctuary for $25,000. The main auditorium seated six hundred. The church building also included a special auditorium for Sunday school classes, a pastor’s study, a choir room, and a ladies’ parlor complete with a dining room and kitchen. The first service in the new sanctuary took place on April 13, 1902, despite the fact the stained glass windows had not yet arrived.
As the church grew alongside prosperous downtown Waco in the early twentieth century, church leaders decided a larger property was needed. After much fundraising, church leaders purchased two pieces of land at Thirteenth Street and Austin Avenue and hired architect R. H. Hunt to construct a two-story structure inspired by gothic architecture at a cost of $350,000. The new sanctuary was completed in 1925.
On Saturday, November 13, 1954, tragedy struck Austin Avenue Methodist Church in the form of a terrible fire. Though firemen fought to save the sanctuary, the blaze consumed the worship space and its roof collapsed. The adjacent educational building was spared from the flames but suffered extensive water damage. Shaken but undeterred by the disaster, the congregation assembled the next day at the Twenty-Fifth Street Theater to worship and hear a sermon titled “Fortunate People” by incumbent Pastor Dr. G. Alfred Brown.
Austin Avenue Methodist Church’s sanctuary and educational building reopened to congregants on March 11, 1956. The rebuilt worship space featured aesthetic improvements such as walnut paneling, wall-to-wall carpeting, and forty-eight beautiful stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Christ and important Christian symbols. The new three-story educational building contained ten large department rooms, nine restrooms, and three kitchenettes. These facilities continue to be central to congregational life well into the twenty-first century, although renovations occurred in the 1980s to accommodate the growing body of worshippers.
In 1968, Austin Avenue Methodist Church became formally known as Austin Avenue United Methodist Church. The name change marked the merger of the Methodist denomination with the Evangelical United Brethren.
Over its long history, Austin Avenue United Methodist Church has served the greater community of Waco with a variety of outreach programs. During the Great Depression, the church established a soup kitchen to help feed local individuals and families hardest hit by the economic downturn. From 1942 to 1945, Austin Avenue contributed to the World War II home front by hosting Sunday evening programs and dinners for visiting servicemen. Congregation member Maybelle Rice even took on the role of wedding planner, happily organizing many a marriage ceremony held within the church for active-duty soldiers and their sweethearts. Austin Avenue’s commitment to American servicemen continued during the Korean War (1951-1953) as the church hosted parties each Friday night for the homesick cadets stationed at James Connally Air Force Base. In the aftermath of the 1953 F-5 tornado that devastated Waco’s downtown, Austin Avenue Methodist Church served as one of the main distribution centers for relief donations. Seeking to make better use of its resources in the mid-1970s, the church opened a kindergarten in its education building and used its kitchen to participate in the Meals on Wheels program. Two years later, a preschool was added to the kindergarten and the administrative board approved the adoption of Montessori-style instruction for those childcare facilities. Austin Avenue Montessori School remained at the location until 1993. To further meet the childcare needs of the community, the church started a Parents’ Day Out program in January of 1980.
In 1990, Austin Avenue United Methodist Church received an official Texas Historical Commission Marker.
As one of the first houses of worship established past Eighth Street, Austin Avenue United Methodist Church continues to serve downtown Waco well into the twenty-first century.