A tornado that touched down in Burnet on March 11, 1973, destroyed about 300 homes and businesses along with a school. It also took out half the sanctuary of Episcopal Church of the Epiphany at 603 N. Wood St. The chancel area, however, was untouched, according to stories from second- and third-generation parishioners who recently gathered to reminisce about their church and the community it serves.
“Everything was set up for communion,” said Sarah Allen, a self-proclaimed “cradle Episcopalian,” which refers to those born into the denomination. “The winds didn’t even turn over the pages of the Bible that were open to the day’s lesson, but where the congregation sits, that was totally gone.”
In recounting the history of the 131-year-old church, longtime members drifted from laughter to tears to loud, friendly banter as they talked about long-lost church members, friends, and historic events. Their stories told of a church supporting its community over many decades, not just when a tornado wrecked much of its hometown, although the storm was a major entry in their book of days.
As the city picked up the pieces from the storm, Epiphany church opened its almost 5-acre vacant lot behind the sanctuary to Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers brought in for those left homeless. Families lived in them for more than 18 months as their houses were rebuilt.
“I can still see those trailers out there in that field to this day,” said Frank Seidensticker, whose parents, the late Elizabeth and Edgar Seidensticker, were mainstays of the church.
That property, which was purchased by the diocese in the mid-1950s, has served the community in a myriad of ways. The Burnet school district borrowed the field over the years for marching band practices and baseball and track contests.
When the student population outgrew the elementary building across the street, the church lent its Sunday school rooms to fifth-grade classes and even provided parishioner Allen as a teacher. She was in the Girl Scouts growing up and crossed the street after school to attend meetings in the church. In fact, most of the people around the library table with this reporter were students at the elementary school as well as “cradle Episcopalians.”
“That lot has had a lot of different uses over the years,” said Carcy Clinton, recalling how Edgar Seidensticker drove his tractor to town and plowed up the whole 5 acres to plant a community garden. Edgar also owned and operated Seidensticker’s clothing store. Frank nodded as Clinton spoke, remembering his dad holding up traffic on the highway as he drove his tractor from the ranch to the church.
“My father worked 12-, 16-hour days back then,” Frank said. “He worked at the store all day and then spent all evening on that garden. He plowed up the whole 5 acres! We had food everywhere, in the halls, in the Sunday school rooms.”
Anyone who wanted food was welcome to pick what they needed straight from the garden.
“It’s never been fenced,” Clinton said. “It’s always been a green space, making oxygen and butterflies when it’s not used for anything else.”
R.G. Guthrie, a third-generation parishioner, recalled how kids played in the rows of corn. As a third-grader, he dared younger children to walk down the dark rows where another from his age group was always waiting to jump out and scare the little ones.
“It happened to me, so I had to pass on the tradition,” Guthrie said. “That is one of my favorite memories.”
The church later became home to LACare, the local food pantry. Father Jim Wooldridge was president of the group that founded the pantry, which moved into the church in 1987 after three years in the Masonic Lodge. It is now located at 507 W. Buchanan Drive in Burnet.
The Burnet Episcopal church first met in 1891. For two years, the Rev. Charles Thorp traveled from Lampasas to conduct Episcopalian services in the Methodist church in Burnet and the Roper Hotel in Marble Falls. However, he told the Central Texas diocese in 1893 that “there was little or no interest” for what was then St. Alban’s parish in Burnet County.
Still, parishioners continued to meet, traveling to Lampasas and Austin for services for more than 10 years. In 1947, Elizabeth Seidensticker convinced the diocese to re-establish the Burnet mission, and it met regularly in the local Presbyterian church. The Marble Falls mission continued to struggle and was dropped from the Journal of the Diocese in 1937 — at least for a while.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, when construction of a series of dams on the Colorado River brought new families and businesses to the area, that the two missions grew. In 1974, they became St. Paul’s parish with Trinity Chapel in Marble Falls and Epiphany Chapel in Burnet.
By then, both churches had their own land: Epiphany on Wood Street and Trinity at 909 Avenue D and RR 1431 on property donated by the Carter Stewart family. Later, in 1988, the two split again and became their own parishes, still in service today under the names Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Burnet and Trinity Episcopal Church in Marble Falls.
The people who led the church over the years, whether priests or lay ministers, all have a place in the hearts of those who gathered around the library table to share their stories. All talking together, they listed their priests from the beginning to the end, most of whom were before their time.
One lay minister in particular, George Shoop, Carol Guthrie’s father and R.G.’s grandfather, was someone they all knew and loved. Carcy Clinton, who looked on him as a mentor and friend, told two Shoop stories.
As a lay minister, Shoop often preached in area churches. One day, in a small Episcopal church just west of Johnson City, he noticed a particularly tall and well-dressed gentleman in the audience. After the service, the man came up to him and complimented him on his sermon. As he walked off, Shoop turned to his wife and asked, “Who was that?” She quickly informed him that it was President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“George loved on the man when he came through the line, but he did not know who he was,” Clinton said, shaking his head and laughing. “And, yes, Johnson was president at the time!”
At that, Clinton was urged to tell another story, one that Shoop relayed to him personally about when he was an Army Air Corps pilot and commander of a four-engine B-24 bomber in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
“This has nothing to do with the church, but it does have a lot to do with his faith,” said Clinton, tearing up at the memory.
The plane lost two of its engines in an attack, both on the same side. Although Shoop urged the men to bail out, they refused, telling him they were counting on him to land the plane.
Shoop told Clinton he had to drive that plane “like a bulldozer, speeding up one propeller while slowing down another” and using all his strength to “jockey it” over the water and land in Okinawa.
“He said that he vividly saw his grandmother on the wing telling him, ‘George, you can do this,’” Clinton said. “She got him home. They landed, and no one was even injured from the flight. Everyone was amazed he could do that. He was an amazing man. He touched a lot of lives.”
As have many of the people at Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Burnet. Just ask its parishioners. They have a lot more stories to tell.