Imagine seeing black smoke billowing from your church and seeing everything inside saturated with water and stained with black soot. Imagine waiting nearly four years for its replacement— worshipping in borrowed quarters and agonizing about how to move forward.
Then imagine a beautiful new church, reflecting God’s presence and bringing joy to a revitalized community. This is the story of destruction and resurrection in Malakoff, Texas.
The original church
In 1996 the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, had been established for only 10 years and was sparsely populated with Catholics — true mission territory — when a group of 60 asked the bishop for a church in Malakoff, a town of 2,000 people.
With tight funding, the church, Mary Queen of Heaven, was fashioned from a former leather factory, a 10,000-square-foot metal building donated by its owner. Bricks were placed on the facade, and partitions were added inside to divide the area into church, classrooms and parish hall. The space was serviceable but not inspiring.
Sally Keenan and her husband, Joe, were among the early parishioners. She was on a planning committee to update the church in 2013 when tragedy struck. A man driving down the church’s country road suddenly lost consciousness and slammed into the church’s sacristy. The pastor, Father William Palmer, managed to pull the man from the car, but the spilled gasoline caused a fire that destroyed the church.
Parishioners were devastated. The local community reached out. The nearby Methodist church offered its building for weekday Masses. Malakoff High School offered its band room for Sunday Mass. Eventually two trailers were brought onsite, one for a chapel and one for an office. It sufficed but not easily.
It was hard to keep the community united. The next few years were difficult as the parish worked toward rebuilding and financing the new campus.
“We felt orphaned and discouraged, but we needed to keep parish life on track,” Keenan said. “We had to maintain our parish community and continue with our outreach ministries and faith formation. Christ was still there, helping us stay strong.”
Father Anthony McLaughlin, pastor, oversaw construction of the new church.
Slowly things started happening. Insurance money was settled. The parish received a $25,000 matching grant from Catholic Extension. A former pastor, Father Anthony McLaughlin, returned to the parish to oversee construction. A fundraising gala gave a big boost.
In December 2015 construction started and parishioners became more optimistic. The construction crew and volunteers worked meticulously on design and details. A few scarred furnishings from the old church were restored, including the altar and Stations of the Cross. Stained glass windows were created, including scenes depicting the glorious mysteries, the prodigal son and Christ the high priest.
The parish commissioned a copy of “The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin by the Blessed Trinity,” a painting by 17th-century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez. It is now the centerpiece of the church. “This church is built to honor its patroness,” Father McLaughlin said. “The Blessed Virgin is a sign of great hope and a model of what can happen when we are faithful.”
"Christ was still there, helping us stay strong.”
“The entire church has a noble simplicity,” he added. “Everything is so well-placed that it soothes the mind and elevates the soul.”
The new church was dedicated by Bishop Joseph Strickland on January 29. The rebuilding project has brought together its roughly 125 families, a mixed group of white parishioners, who are mainly retired, and younger Hispanics with families, who work in agriculture, ranching and construction.
Bishop Joseph Strickland dedicates the new church in January 2017.
Peter Kane, director of stewardship and development for the Tyler diocese, understands the importance of attending to small churches. “Outside of the big city lights, we also need dignified places to worship God,” he said. “Sometimes the most vibrant and beautiful places are the smallest ones.”
He added, “Some might ask, why build in little Malakoff? People here also want to be proud of their church and feel worthy. We were so pleased to receive help from Catholic Extension.”
Keenan agrees. “Henderson County is one of the poorest in Texas,” she said. “To have something beautiful speaks about how we see God and His transcendence. Our church is an outward symbol of the importance of beauty and God in our lives.”