St. Matthew’s Cathedral houses history, culture, solemnity and celebration in East Dallas, but the Episcopal Diocese wasn’t always located in our neighborhood. From Prussian priests on horseback to elaborate ceremonies in a towering church, St. Matthew’s is an essential part of the history of Dallas. How did the cathedral end up in our neighborhood? Follow along to find out.
George Rottenstein, St. Matthew’s first priest, was born in Prussia and raised in an unconsolidated Germany after Napoleon’s defeat in Europe. He had three children with his wife,
Elizbetha. They were forced to flee to England for political reasons and made it to Texas during the German migration of the 1830s.
Rottenstein was assigned to preach in North Texas. He rode his horse into Dallas, crossing the Trinity on a vessel made of two canoes lashed together. He conducted services for La Reunion, the short-lived socialist utopia commune. During a year with a May snowstorm, a cyclone near Cedar Hill and a solid sheet of ice topping the Trinity, Rottenstein led Dallasites in their first Holy Communion. Though there had been other religious services in the area, Rottenstein became the first resident pastor in Dallas. His first service was held in a vacant building where Dealey Plaza is today. Two boxes formed the altar and reading desk for the four congregants. A little more than a year later, St. Matthews became an official parish of the Episcopal Church.
St. Matthew’s future bishop Alexander Charles Garrett was a fourth-generation priest from Ballymote, Ireland. Missionary work in Canada brought Garrett west after making the seven-month journey around Cape Horn to British Columbia with his wife and two children just before the Civil War.
The first official church building, which would later become the first cathedral, sat at Elm and Lamar streets. It was sold for $7,500 to help build a larger building after the congregation grew to 127. An attempt to move the original cathedral to the new site ended in collapse, but parts were incorporated into the new cathedral.
Garrett was appointed Bishop over the Diocese of North Texas, and he chose St. Matthew’s to be its cathedral. The Diocese covered 100,000 square miles and had three small churches in Dallas, Cleburne and Paris. Garrett began campaigning for priests, asking seminaries for “clergy who could ride like cowboys, pray like saints, preach like apostles and having food and raiment, be therefore content.”
The second cathedral, at Field and Commerce streets, was built next to a railroad whose noise drowned out the sermons, forcing the church to move again. The building, which was never finished, paid for or consecrated, was sold to a cable car company for $60,000 in 1893.
Though the terrain was rugged, Bishop Garrett loved his adopted land. While fundraising in Philadelphia, a notable church member called Texas “the most God-forsaken country on the face of the Earth,” according to Mary Hutchinson’s book, “Holy Heritage.” But Garrett responded, “It is true my friends that we have some undesirable citizens in Texas, but we are catching them as fast as we can and sending them back to various states of the Union in which they received their early training. My friend need not to be alarmed, all who belong to him will return in due time.”
Bishop Garrett founded St. Mary’s College for women. The building opened with 76 students, 47 of whom were boarders on the property at Ross and Henderson. The college was eventually home to Claudia Taylor, later known as “Lady Bird” Johnson. It fell into financial trouble and closed in 1930.
The diocese built the third and most majestic of the cathedrals at Canton and Ervay streets. Made of local limestone and oak, it could accommodate 900 people and included a gymnasium, reading rooms and a kitchen. It was one of the largest cathedrals in America at the time.
Bishop Garrett’s son Henry, who played organ at the cathedral, invented the automatic traffic signal, leading Dallas to be the first city in the nation to control traffic with lights. He also invented the car radio and founded WRR, the second oldest operating radio station in the U.S.
The cathedral relocated to Ross and Henderson in East Dallas, which housed St. Mary’s College at the time. The college was $6 million dollars in debt, and the cathedral assumed the debt during the move. Ross Avenue was then considered “the Fifth Avenue of Dallas.” Unfortunately, the stock market crash and the Great Depression ruined plans for a massive new cathedral in the neighborhood. The Diocese and church have remained there ever since.
Over the years, the church’s neighborhood has changed from a posh street with mansions to low-income apartments and is now being remade again as high-density luxury apartments creep eastward along Ross. Today, in addition to regular church services, St. Matthew’s continues as a community resource for education and the arts. It houses Mi Escuelita, a nonprofit preschool, the Aberg Center for Literacy, which helps adults learn English and Cathedral Arts, which supports arts in the community.
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