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By January 27, 2020 February 27th, 2020 No Comments

Built to Last

By Laura Samuel Meyn
Photos by Ralph Lauer; wedding photos courtesy of the Wadleys

Linked from the beginning, a marriage and a Fort Worth landmark celebrate five decades.

On a dark winter night, Tommy and Peggy Wadley are singing together during choir rehearsal at St. Stephen Presbyterian Church, as they have nearly every week for more than 50 years.

In fact, they’ve been singing together at the Fort Worth church longer than its stately sanctuary has been standing. Local firm Komatsu Architecture designed the modified Tudor Gothic structure, which was built adjacent to an existing chapel and education building in 1969. Over the next year, an organ with more than 4,000 individual pipes was installed, as were stained-glass clerestory windows above larger stained-glass ones by Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France. By the time the Wadleys married in the new sanctuary — the very first members to do so, as far as anyone at the church can remember — all the finishing touches were in place.

Peggy and Tommy Wadley on their wedding day, Dec. 19, 1970

The couple met in history class at Paschal High School in 1963; Peggy Casler was a sophomore and Tommy Wadley was a junior. But it wasn’t until they crossed paths at Austin College a few years later that a romance bloomed. Tommy had to work up the nerve to ask her out rather quickly. “As soon as the freshman girls came to campus, all the upperclassmen would swoop in,” he says.

Peggy had grown up going to St. Stephen; Tommy began accompanying her to church during college breaks and even joined the church choir. Within six months, they were talking marriage, but their plans would have to wait. “My goal was to go to Spain for a year, a junior year abroad,” Peggy says. To follow a more budget-friendly college path, Tommy moved back to Fort Worth in the interim and continued to sing in the choir while Peggy was away.

In Spain, Peggy received love letters from Tommy, as well as photos from her dad showing the progress of the long-delayed church sanctuary, which was under construction atop an existing foundation dating to 1959. “We were doing pay-as-you-go, but toward the late ’60s, as construction costs were on the rise, the congregation decided to take out a loan and complete the project sooner rather than later,” says Peggy. As their year apart came to a close, Tommy boarded an airplane for the first time — to meet Peggy’s flight in New York City. They remember standing together in Times Square when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and they joined the studio audience for The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Back in Texas, Peggy would finish her degree and get a job as a Spanish teacher, while Tommy joined the Marine Corps Reserve before finishing school at Texas Wesleyan University. They set the date for Dec. 19, 1970.

The St. Stephen Presbyterian Church sanctuary was completed in 1969. As a young bride-to-be, Peggy remembers the awe-inspiring aisle, which measures more than 150 feet long.

Built using mainly native variegated limestone, the central tower rises 150 feet above street level.

On their wedding day, St. Stephen’s new sanctuary — with its towering arched ceiling, glorious stained-glass windows and cruciform design some 260 feet long and 130 feet wide — inspired awe in the bride. “It’s the longest aisle,” she says.

St. Stephen has been the center of the couple’s life. Church members provided support in difficult times, like when the Wadleys’ parents passed away, and shared the joy of the couple’s adoption of Gladney babies Michael and Mary Margaret in the ’80s. The family began going on annual mission trips to Mexico when the kids were school-age. “That’s the main thing I love about this church, the way we do our mission outreach,” says Tommy. “You do it with no strings attached. You do it out of the kindness of your heart, because that’s what Jesus calls you to do.”

Daughter Mary Margaret, on one such trip as a young adult, got to know a new church member who would become her husband. She married Jared Sapp at St. Stephen in 2008, and Tommy walked his daughter down that long aisle. “It was full-circle for us — just a lovely, most cherished experience,” says Tommy.

Today, Peggy is proud to still be teaching Spanish after 50 years. Tommy retired after 30 years of running the advertising business his father started. He has been busy for the past decade with what he calls “Granddaddy Day Care,” looking after the couple’s three grandsons while their parents teach. Last fall, the Wadleys celebrated the sanctuary’s 50th anniversary with the rest of the congregation, which hosted architect Al Komatsu for the occasion.

As for the couple’s own golden anniversary later this year, they’re thinking of celebrating on a smaller scale.

“We’re not big whoop-de-doers,” says Peggy with a laugh. Adds Tommy, “But we’ll probably do something at the church.”

The renovated sanctuary is filled with intricate stained glass windows that are rich in symbolism.