A small Episcopal church in Texas is at the center of an ongoing legal battle over who rightly owns a bequest from a deceased parishioner currently valued at around $2 million.
Dr. Hendley McDonald, a former member of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church of Hillsboro who passed away in 2017, had left $1.3 million to the congregation in his will. The amount was placed in an interest-bearing bank account and, as a result, has grown to $2 million.
However, two congregations, both of which worshipped at the church property and have fewer than 30 regular attendees, have staked claim to the McDonald bequest.
One congregation belongs to the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, controlled by the theologically conservative Anglican Church in North America. The diocese recently won a years-long legal battle to keep the church’s property after breaking away from the Episcopal Church in 2008.
The other congregation belongs to The Episcopal Church in North Texas and began holding worship services at a former bank drive-thru building last June.
The two parties will present oral arguments at a hearing before a probate court in Waco on Jan. 14.
Katie Sherrod, communication director with The Episcopal Church in North Texas, directed The Christian Post to an Episcopal News Service story. Senior warden David Skelton argued that the Episcopal congregation was meant to have the money.
“[McDonald] very clearly did not want this money to go to some breakaway non-Episcopalians calling themselves Anglicans,” Skelton told ENS.
Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth Director of Communications Suzanne Gill told CP that the “bequest was left to the church” and not to the continuing Episcopal congregation.
“There has been no change to the legal name of the church in Hillsboro under Fr. Michael Heidt. As the courts at every level have found, it is St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in that city,” said Gill.
Gill told CP that on two different occasions in the last seven months, the legal representative for the breakaway diocese offered “to split the bequest evenly, avoiding ongoing legal costs which deplete everyone’s resources,” but that “no response was ever made to this offer.”
In November 2008, most of the Fort Worth Diocese voted to exit the Episcopal Church due to the increasing theologically liberal direction of the mainline Protestant denomination.
A central point of objection was the ordination of the Rev. Gene Robinson, the church’s first openly gay bishop, which led other churches and dioceses to leave the denomination.
In response, a lengthy legal battle ensued over whether the breakaway diocese or the national church rightly owned the property assets of the Diocese of Fort Worth.
In May 2020, the Texas Supreme Court partially reversed an earlier ruling against the breakaway leadership, concluding that the diocese owned the property, not the national denomination.
According to the Episcopal News Service, St. Mary's members split nearly in half after the schism and about a dozen members who wished to remain with the Episcopal Church continued worshiping in the church under an agreement with ACNA leaders.
“It was our decision that it was time to move on, to a place where we had bathrooms and a coffee pot and could stay and chat over coffee after church,” Skelton told ENS. “We’d already notified them that we were no longer paying the utilities.”