In the mid- seventies, a group of individuals led by Rev. Harlan Birdwell, who was the current Rector at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, and Gill Jones III, a local attorney and an Episcopalian, begin the work to create what is today St. Mary’s Episcopal Retirement Homes, Inc. (Canterbury & Canterbury North). There was a need for safe and affordable housing for the elderly and disabled in Big Spring, and the church set out to develop a program to meet this need and as an outreach to the community. There were many who had the need for housing they could afford and would offer a little more than a regular apartment complex. One of those was Mr. Jones’ own grandmother. She wanted to keep her independence and not have to rely on family for financial support. The Section 8 Program from the Department of Housing and Urban Development was the answer. A high rise apartment complex that would provide each resident with their own home including a full kitchen and funding through HUD, which would assist with their rent and underwrite the mortgage. Don Bailey, a local architect, was brought on board and Johnny Cooper a contractor from Odessa was hired. Negotiations with HUD were handled by Mr. Jones and a contract and funding from HUD was obtained. A feasibility study was needed and this was made possible through a donation by Dr. RBG Cowper. The feasible study showed a definite need for this type of housing project in the area and St. Mary’s Episcopal Retirement Homes, Inc. was born. Several lots between 17th and 18th street off of Lancaster were purchased and in early 1978 building began.
For the next 18 months it arose from the former dirt lots and took on a new look. A contest was held to name the project and Roberta Birdwell, a member of the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, submitted the winning name of “Canterbury”. Canterbury, an English name, is derived from the Old English Cantwareburh (Kent people stronghold). After the Kingdom of Kent’s conversion to Christianity in 597, St. Augustine founded an Episcopal seat in the city and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, a position that now heads the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. After the murder of Thomas Becket at the Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, the cathedral became a place of pilgrimage for Christians worldwide. These pilgrimages provided the theme for Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century literary classic the Canterbury Tales. Since moving to this type of housing would be a journey and a new beginning for many, the name Canterbury seemed to be a perfect fit.
Upon completion and inspection from HUD, the first resident moved in September 1979 – Winnie Greenleaf. Within 45 days the complex was at 100% occupancy and had a waiting list of over 50.
Plans were begun to expand as soon as possible and in 1985 Canterbury North was opened.
Canterbury is a 6-story high-rise building with 120 apartments, which includes 35 efficiency apartments, 81 one bedroom units and 4 two bedroom apartments. 11 of these apartments have accessibility features. Canterbury North is a 5-storey high-rise building. It consists of 59 apartments including 14 efficiency units and 45 one bedroom units. All apartments come equipped with carpeting, drapes, mini blinds, electric range, refrigerator, garbage disposal, individually controlled heating and air conditioning, smoke detectors, and emergency call system. Rent includes all utilities, except cable TV and telephone. Residents complete the units with their own furnishings making their unit their own home. Activities, such as bingo, dominos, bible study, dances, holiday celebrations, pot-luck luncheons, card games, and socialization provides a quality of life that allows for stress-free living. Parking, a self-serve laundry, a small convenience store, library, individual mail boxes and delivery of lunches from the Senior Center all add to the Canterbury experience. Transportation is provided and we are a pet -friendly complex.
When the contract was signed it was for both elderly and disabled and we have had persons with disabilities from the start. We currently have ages ranging from 21 to 94 with the average age being 70. 90 % of the residents receive a rental subsidy. To be eligible for residency, the head of household must be a person 62 years of age or a person with a disability and over the age of 18.
The mission has not changed in our 30 plus years. We still strive to provide affordable independent living for the elderly and disabled. I think we are still very much a needed service and with the aging population and the economy the need for the service will only increase. There will be many more individuals living on a fixed income who need safe and affordable housing.