Community Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s in West Texas draws crowd, for some a homecoming
By Lynette Wilson
Community and St. Paul’s Church members bring a dish or two to share on the annual, community-wide Thanksgiving. Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez for Episcopal News Service
[Episcopal News Service – Marfa, Texas]
St. Paul’s Church’s community-wide Thanksgiving dinner began in the 1970s when Allison Scott’s family and another family, totaling 11 children and four adults, wanted to use St. Paul’s parish hall for their joint family dinner. Once it was agreed, Scott’s mother, Dorothy, suggested inviting widows from the community who might not otherwise have a place to go, and from there, Thanksgiving dinner grew and a St. Paul’s tradition emerged.
This year, on Nov. 28, more than 200 people – parishioners, locals, tourists, part-time residents and others – filed through St. Paul’s serving line. They dined together at tables in the parish hall and outside with plates balanced on laps while seated on pews, some set on the lawn to handle the overflow in this tiny West Texas town of 1,800 people.
For Chelsea Rios, a native of Marfa who grew up across the street, the annual Thanksgiving dinner at St. Paul’s is a chance to reconnect to people in the community. It’s also something Rios, who’s a park ranger at the Fort Davis National Historic Site 22 miles north via Highway 17, promotes to out-of-towners looking for a place to share a meal. Such was the case with Houstonian Renee Harris, her husband and their three children, who met Rios the previous day while hiking in the Davis Mountains.
“We were going to wing it,” said Harris, as she waited for her family to gather in the parish hall.
The Harris family worships at a Roman Catholic church at home in Houston but joined with more than 80 others in St. Paul’s sanctuary for the 11 a.m. Eucharist that preceded dinner.
Gretel Enck, left, and her sister Melody Crenshaw prepare one of the dishes at Enck’s home for the Thanksgiving feast at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez for Episcopal News Service
As the worshippers filled the pews, volunteers, including Gretel Enck, who the day before cooked one of the dinner’s five turkeys, put on their aprons and took their place in the kitchen. Parishioners and community members delivered a steady flow of ham, brisket, side dishes and desserts.
Dedie Taylor, one of the dinner’s lead organizers, and Enck worked in the kitchen, while Enck’s mother, Mary Drachler, played the organ. Drachler was visiting from Bainbridge, New York, where she’s a member of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
“I just think the whole thing is so special and it gets me out of cooking,” said Drachler, who for the fourth time attended St. Paul’s Thanksgiving dinner, along with another daughter and a son-in-law who were also in town visiting Enck.
Dedie Taylor greets people waiting in line for the Thanksgiving meal. Taylor is one of the meal’s lead organizers. Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez for Episcopal News Service
Coordinating and sharing big dinners is something Taylor has been doing for a long time. Orphaned as a 16-year-old, early on she decided she’d make her own Thanksgivings, Christmases and Easters. In fact, it was while prepping for a Thanksgiving dinner she was hosting for 30 people in her 984-square-foot apartment in Washington, D.C., when she first met Lonn Taylor, that man who would later become her husband and who died earlier this year.
“I lived on the top floor and he lived on the fourth floor and I was going down to 7-11 to get something last minute, cream or something, and he got on the elevator,” said Taylor.
She suspected he was new to the building and asked him if he had dinner plans, which he did, so she invited him to come by later for dessert since her dinner wouldn’t start until later.
He showed up for dessert, and after that, they shared dinner together “at least once a week for 18 months,” before dating formally and eventually marrying. They moved to Fort Davis in 2002 and began attending St. Paul’s and volunteering on Thanksgiving.
According to a parish history written in 2009 by Lonn Taylor, dating back to the 1930s, when the town’s Methodists were referred to as the “Shouting Methodists” because of their enthusiasm for worship and the Baptists, the “Dunking Baptists” for their total-immersion baptisms. The Episcopalians were the “Eating Episcopalians” because they hosted frequent “church suppers” and invited the community to dine for the cost of a dime.
The sign in front of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church invites everyone to the annual Thanksgiving feast. Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez for Episcopal News Service
Located on a high plateau in the Chihuahua Desert 60 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Marfa is a 200-mile-drive from the nearest airport – El Paso or Midland – and 26 miles from the nearest hospital. In the early 1970s, artist Donald Judd began buying property in downtown Marfa and ranchland on the periphery. Judd later founded the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum named for the Chinati Mountain Range, that put Marfa on the map and established its reputation and interest worldwide.
The Rev. Mike Wallens, St. Paul’s vicar, rings the church bell before the Eucharist on Thanksgiving Day. Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez for Episcopal News Service
During his sermon, the Rev. Michael Wallens, St. Paul’s vicar, traced the complicated origins of Thanksgiving, which began in 1621, up until President Abraham Lincoln declared it federal holiday in November 1863, when the nation was in turmoil and in the middle of the Civil War.
“The country literally falling apart” and Lincoln’s political career was in question, said Mullens, before asking, “What was this man who apparently had little to be thankful for, what was he thinking?”
As the nation again finds itself in turmoil, citing disagreements over how to handle immigration, endless wars, self-serving leadership, “we are here to give thanks and by giving thanks we are reminded of how blessed we are,” said Wallens, who asked those present to reflect on what they’re thankful for.
Following the service, Shere Whitley, a member of St. Paul’s who moved to Marfa from Houston in the late 1990s, expressed gratitude for her two sons “who are healthy and happy” and live nearby.
Rev. Mike Wallens, St. Paul’s vicar, and his son Josh Wallens carry a pew outside to provide more seating after the church’s parish reached seating capacity. Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez for Episcopal News Service
Teenager Ella Wonsowski, who serves as an acolyte at St. Paul’s and lives in Alpine, 26 miles east along Highway 90, gave thanks for St. Paul’s congregation, “The people are just really nice, and you don’t find a lot of people this caring.”
“I’m thankful for family, of course, but also those who keep the doors open, and Mike Wallens, who has brought St. Paul’s to the community,” said Scott, when asked what she was thankful for. Wallens, she said, walks to the post office, reads to elementary school children and attends city council meetings. “To me, he has this way of, here I am, I am God’s hands and feet, and I am here to serve you.”
People gather in the parish hall for the Thanksgiving meal. Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez for Episcopal News Service
Marfa has one, blinking red traffic light at the intersection of Highland and Highway 90. The majority of residents are Hispanic, plus a mix of artists and cattle ranchers, many of them descendants of the town’s settlers. It has nine churches ranging from the nondenominational Faith Alive Cowboy Church to a Spanish-language Baptist church to Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United Methodist, in addition to St. Paul’s, which attracts parishioners from Presidio, Robert Lee and Brewster counties.
Chicago-born Wallens, who has served in urban parishes, is grateful to live in the Big Bend region, which is how the region north of the Rio Grande River in West Texas is described.
“I’m thankful for this place, for this whole area. I mean, the Big Bend, and this church in particular, and the people here, they’re just lovely and giving and kind and I just love it,” he said. “And we don’t have traffic … The big traffic jam is when there are five cars at the four-way stop.”
-Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service.