“One of McKinney’s oldest churches gets new lease on life with young congregation”
Dallas Morning News
by James Ragland (2013)
McKINNEY — Churches are in the business of resurrecting lives.
But here, on a downtown corner lot once overgrown with weeds, the tables have turned.
It’s the church that’s rising — from neglect, disrepair and the threat of condemnation.
The building that once housed the congregation of Trinity Presbyterian Church, one of McKinney’s oldest houses of worship, had sat idle for more than two decades.
The flagship ministry itself, whose roots run more than 140 years deep at the corner of Davis and Church streets, sold the property and relocated to the fast-growing edge of town.
Over the years, Doris S. James, a clinical pathologist who bought the three-story neoclassical structure with her now-deceased husband, turned down several lucrative offers from developers wanting to turn it into a nightclub or restaurant.
Instead, James filled the building to the brim with miscellaneous stuff she bought at garage and estate sales. The church steadily declined, and its water and electrical services were turned off.
At one point, said Ted Wright, president of the Collin County Historic Preservation Group, the city sent James a letter threatening to condemn the building if she didn’t clean it up and replace the roof.
“We went to them and asked them not to do it,” Wright said.
That helped secure the church’s survival until Mike Connaway came along.
The pastor moved to McKinney from Seattle three years ago and started a new ministry, VLife Church, in rented space in Stonebridge.
As his congregation grew, he began thinking about spreading his wings.
He was intrigued by the magnificent old church on the hill that James put up for sale last year.
“I fell in love with this building,” Connaway said. “I told my wife about it and she said, ‘You ought to go see that lady.’ I said, ‘I can’t catch up with her. She’s never there.’”
But Connaway said he went to bed that night and had a vivid dream of bringing the historic church back to life.
“I came back by the church, she [James] was here, and we just connected,” he said. “I told her I wanted to put a church back here and she said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’”
Connaway’s nondenominational VLife Church finally bought the building six months ago and began cleaning it out and making repairs.
“We paid a little over $600,000,” he said, noting that James had rejected “offers for over $1 million” from developers who had secular, money-making ventures in mind.
James, who has a practice in Bonham and a home in Dallas, could not be reached for comment.
But another potential buyer, Rock Carpenter, pastor of Living Hope Church, said James wanted the building to stay a church.
“That was one of her requirements for purchase,” he said.
Carpenter had his eye on the old church for years but his small congregation didn’t have the money to buy it, he said.
Connaway said the building’s core structure was in good shape, and many of its architectural features and amenities, including most of its signature stained-glass windows and curved mahogany pews, were intact.
Even the electrical wiring and plumbing, which had not been used for years, were in working order.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “We were amazed. They don’t build them like this anymore.”
The church, not to mention the congregation that built it, has a unique place in McKinney history.
“Only two congregations have been a part of McKinney longer than Trinity,” its officials say on their website.
“Founded in 1855 as a Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Trinity has provided a witness to Jesus Christ and nurtured disciples since the days of gas lights and horseback rides to church,” according to the church’s historical narrative.
“The first members came to Collin County in covered wagons as part of an original community of Presbyterians from northern England and southern Scotland that settled first in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee.”
The congregation shared worship space with other churches in McKinney for more than a decade. Then, after the Civil War, Trinity constructed a wood-frame building a block south of the square.
The church was destroyed in a fire during World War I, and in 1925, Trinity started building the brick structure.
Trinity Presbyterian remained in the church until 1991.
“We didn’t outgrow it,” said Donald C. Andrews, pastor emeritus of Trinity Presbyterian. “The property out on the western edge of town was given to them so they decided to move out there and build a church.”
Andrews, who wrote a book chronicling the church’s heritage, said it didn’t take Trinity long to sell the property to James and her late husband.
“They were going to do something with it, then her husband died,” he said.
Andrews said he and other Trinity officials are glad to see the old church being resurrected.
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “They’re doing a great thing.”
Connaway sees the rundown church as a living parable.
“This place was full of junk,” the pastor said. “Not one thing was worth a penny, except for what was beneath the junk. That’s just like our own lives.
“We’ve got junk. But you’re not worthy of being condemned or torn down; you’re worthy of being restored.”
Connaway’s charismatic approach has won over older church officials and historians who are cheering his efforts.
“Buildings hold a peculiar significance in people’s lives,” said Wright. “It brings back personal memories and it helps people step back in time.”
Since Connaway flung open the doors, youngsters and old-timers alike have dropped by to see what he was doing. He hopes to host a public reception in the church by Christmas and a grand opening around Easter.
“I have people walk in and [they] don’t just start crying, they start weeping,” Connaway said. “We bought this building, but we can never own it. It’s the city’s building.”