A Brief History of St. John the Divine
The Church of St. John the Divine (SJD) has worshiped and glorified God for over eighty years, becoming the second-largest Episcopal congregation in the Diocese of Texas and one of the largest in the United States. We are a vibrant, urban parish in America’s fourth-largest city. We embrace the Gospel’s call to mission by being an active, visible, and engaged Christian actor in our community.
On Easter day, March 24, 1940, 136 people attended the first services held in the cafeteria of River Oaks Elementary School. The rapid growth of the congregation made it clear that property must be acquired for a permanent church. The obvious choice was a wooded plot located on River Oaks Boulevard, near the edge of what was then Houston’s city limits, but the River Oaks Corporation opposed the purchase for religious use. The Corporation was planning an elegant shopping complex and considered such prime real estate far too valuable to be offered for something as clearly “unprofitable” as a church. Tom Sumners, our new, young rector, took this rejection as a challenge and promptly began a campaign to secure the land. In December of 1940, just nine months after organizing the church, the inaugural service was held in the beautiful limestone chapel, which is still in existence and used today.
In the midst of the Second World War, with the Holy Spirit as their guide, St. John the Divine parishioners took steps to lay a solid foundation for anticipated future expansion. By the autumn of 1944, the demolition of the River Oaks Corporation building on the corner of River Oaks Blvd and Westheimer made possible the acquisition of nearly all the land contained in the present site of St. John the Divine. It would take almost another decade to raise the funds required to construct our current church home, but finally, on February 28, 1954, the Rev. Tom Sumners and his more than 2,100 communicants could rejoice that the Table of the Lord had never been more splendidly housed!
In 1971, after 31 years of faithful and loving service, the Rev. Thomas W. Sumners retired as rector, and the Rev. Thomas A. Roberts, D.D. was called. Due to the untimely death of the Rev. Roberts, after only three years as our rector, the Rev. Maurice M. Benitez, D.D. was welcomed as the third rector of St. John the Divine in December 1974. Under his tutelage, the parish grew in many wonderful and diverse directions, deepening the commitment of its members and raising their sights to numerous opportunities for service both at home and abroad. Along with a continuing emphasis on evangelical and congregational spiritual renewal, an extensive building program was undertaken in 1978, which provided us with Sumners Hall, an open venue to congregate for fellowship and meetings. On June 13, 1980, the Rev. Benitez was elected sixth Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, and in less than a year, in May 1981, the vestry of St. John the Divine called the Rev. Laurens A. Hall, D.D. to be the fourth rector of our church.
Under the Rev. Hall’s guidance, a capital campaign was launched in late 1992 with the slogan “Today’s Needs: Tomorrow’s Promise.” Through the sacrificial gifts of hundreds of faithful parishioners, funds were provided for the renovation and refurbishing of the large church and the construction of a new Parish Life Center, new educational facilities, and administration offices. In 2004, a second successful capital campaign included a massive renovation of the church and the construction of a new pipe organ. The circle drive on River Oaks Blvd. was expanded and, with the Julia Picton Wallace Memorial Garden in the center, now provides an elegantly landscaped focal point for the church entrance. The Life-Changing Cross was introduced in 2009 as the new, iconic logo for the church, and the vestry and communications committee prayed and worked together to refine our vision and values, challenging all of us to “Change Lives for God in Christ.” After 33 blessed years at St. John the Divine, the Rev. Hall retired in 2014.
In 2014, the vestry called the Rev. Dr. Clay Lein as the fifth rector of St. John the Divine. Under Rev. Lein’s energetic leadership, we undertook a visioning process that yielded strategies to further develop our solid foundation of 80 years of ministry. Vision 2019, categorized as Worship, Connect, Grow, and Go, serve as rallying points. After Rev. Lein's departure in 2018, the search committee once again sought fresh leadership for St. John the Divine.
In 2020, the vestry called the Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill to serve as the sixth rector of St. John the Divine. Under his leadership, we have seen continued energy and innovation in our ministry and outreach offerings, and we continue to look to the future with hope and thanksgiving.
Throughout our blessed history, the character of our parish has shone forth. St. John the Divine is, first and foremost, Christ-focused and Spirit-led. We are a loving, relational community; our parishioners possess God-given talents and share them generously. Our clergy is cohesive, modeling Biblical faith and forgiveness, guiding us into the coming generations with pastoral love and Spirit-filled courage.
We look forward to welcoming you to St. John the Divine. Please join us Sunday, and come and see!
2450 River Oaks Boulevard, Houston, TX 77019 Map