A first-time visitor to the sanctuary of Brownwood's Union Presbyterian Church (USA) at 700 Fisk Ave. is instantly struck by the rich, grand decor, the dark woods, the soaring stained glass windows.
The traditional early-20th-century architecture is fitting for a church whose roots reach back to 1875 — 11 years longer than any other church in Brown County, and a year longer than the iconic Weakley-Watson hardware business.
Seated near a visitor in the otherwise empty templum on the afternoon of Good Friday, the church's pastor, Mary D. D'Alessio, reflected on Christianity and the Easter holiday, which, for an estimated 2 billion-plus Christians around the world, signifies the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Speaking in her soft, slight South Carolina accent, D'Alessio's talked about some of the basic teachings from scripture, beginning in Genesis, where, D'Alessio said, a messiah was first promised. Her words transcend theology and suggest she's struck with wonder as she asks at one point "is that good?" and exclaims at another, "oh, man!"
"I absolutely love God," D'Alessio said. "Every Sunday I really believe that he's here."
Speaking of the Christian holidays, D'Alessio noted that Christmas has become the major celebration of the year. And "we've got to have it," D'Alessio said, referring to the event Christmas celebrates — the birth of Christ, "the continental divide" of history.
"To me, Easter and Pentecost — the high church days. I just love them," D'Alessio said. "I think Easter and Pentecost are right up there in the number-one spot. We are Easter people. Christmas — got to have it, but Easter is it.
"It's the fulfillment … Easter is who we are. Easter is what makes us Christian."
And, D'Alessio said, Easter means "we hear the story again. We have short memories. We are like sheep." She asked if people ever see sheep doing tricks in the circus. "Sheep can't remember how to do tricks," D'Alessio said. "So we hear the story again."
The resurrection of Christ, D'Alessio said, means "God said 'it's time.' (Christ) came and crushed the evil one who came to ruin relationships with God. … When we stand before God, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ — not naked and sinful."
" … None of us is worthy, but because of Christ, we are counted worthy in him because of what he did. He bore our sins. … scripture says to believe and receive him. It means he counts us as his children. It's not what we do but what he does. I don't understand it. Do you? But I believe it with everything that I am."
D'Alessio is in her eighth year as the pastor of the church, which was formed in 1967 with the union of the First Presbyterian Church and Austin Avenue Presbyterian Church, formerly the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was organized in 1875, the First Presbyterian, in 1876. The building that is now home to Union Presbyterian on Fisk Avenue was dedicated in 1930.
D'Alessio had never aspired to enter the ministry — until, D'Alessio said, she felt called of God when she was in her 30s. D'Alessio, initially an English major, graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. with a master's of divinity degree.
As a woman pastor in her denomination, D'Alessio isn't a trailblazer: 40-50 percent of pastors with Presbyterian Church (USA) are female, D'Alessio said.
"I don't fit a mold except I am a Christian. I love my Lord. I love him," D'Alessio said.
D'Alessio puts theology in simple terms: in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lost the glory of God. John the Baptist declared "Behold the lamb of God … people should have known: he's here. The messiah is among us. It blows my mind that peopled don't believe."
Through Christ, D'Alessio said, "we get the glory back that was lost."
The spiritual world is more real than the world that can be seen, D'Alessio said, and "there are angels we can't see. Right here, right now … the kingdom of God is right here. There's this amazing world that we can't see and it's all around us. It's exciting."
The church, D'Alessio said, is God's and "our life is in your hands. … we are the all-star team. We have the same coach. we wear different uniforms and different emblems on our helmets but Jesus is our coach."