The Lonesome Dove Baptist Church is running out of space for worship services, and a historic cemetery holds the key to its future.
The small neighborhood church on the Southlake-Grapevine border is expanding its Lonesome Dove Cemetery that dates back to the 1840s, and burial plots are available for purchase.
Pastor Jason Stover said the church board asked Southlake for permission to expand the cemetery on land that was “dead space.” Stover said the city approved the expansion earlier this year.
There is 100 feet of vacant land running the length of the property from the edge of the cemetery to the parking lot, Stover said.
“We realized that we could use that land as an opportunity to build our resources,” he said.
“We could use that as an opportunity to re-open the historic cemetery and let folks be a part of history,” Stover said.
When Stover came to the church five years ago from the Chicago area, he said some pastors cautioned him that it wasn’t a good idea to come to a church with a cemetery because of the connotations of death, but Stover said he was intrigued by the history and the neighborhood atmosphere of the church.
“Personally, I love a place with charm; I love a place with history and character,” he said.
Stover described Lonesome Dove as a “neighborhood church” where everyone has the pastor’s cell phone number, and people don’t have to go through “layers” of staff members to get help or guidance.
Before the pandemic, attendance on Sunday mornings was around 170 people, but now, the church holds services where social distancing is required, and the auditorium is less than 50 percent full, Stover said.
The new sanctuary will cost approximately $2.2 million, he said.
The cemetery holds all kinds of stories about some of the first settlers who came to the area known as the Crosstimbers, the current location of Southlake and Grapevine.
The Dove Church, as it is often called, was built after a large wagon train of settlers arrived from Platte County, Missouri in 1845. They held worship services in different homes, and on the third Saturday of February in 1846, they met at the log cabin home of Charles Throop and decided to build the church.
When it was founded, Lonesome Dove Baptist Church was the only evangelical church between North Texas and the Pacific Ocean, according to an email from the church.
The settlers chose the name Lonesome Dove because it described the loneliness and isolation they felt, according to the Southlake Historical Society’s website.
The church also built a cemetery with the same name for its members which included some of the early settlers in Tarrant County.
Some of the people buried there survived the Comanche raid at Fort Parker, including Malinda Frost Dwight (later Hill) who was at Fort Parker in 1836 when Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Chief Quanah Parker, was taken by Comanches.
Malinda escaped along with her mother, husband and daughter, but her father and brother were killed. Hill died in 1870.
Cherie Johnson, who has been the church secretary for 20 years, said many think the church got its name from Larry McMurtry’s book, but the famous author saw the sign for the church and got the inspiration for the book’s title, she said.
McMurtry said he got the title for his novel while driving toward Fort Worth after dining at the Ranchman’s Steakhouse in Ponder when he saw the broken down bus from the Lonesome Dove church on the side of the road.
Johnson also said that some of the graves in the cemetery had stones showing birthdates in the 1700s, but the markers are gone now.
The original cemetery is full now, and the spaces that remain are for people who already purchased plots, she said.
When the cemetery was founded, records showing the location of graves were not always properly kept. There were some burials recently, and when the cemetery worker was digging the hole, he realized that another grave was already in the location where the person was to be buried. So, he had to find another location for the new grave.
Meanwhile, Stover said the gates are always open to the cemetery, and people are welcome to spend time there.
Many come to see it, he said.
He described looking out of his office window one day and saw a family from South Korea. The parents were in the United States to visit their daughter, and her father insisted on going to the cemetery because he watched the Lonesome Dove miniseries.