The Rev. Stephen W. Plunkett, a local Presbyterian pastor who left a large footprint in Denton’s local missions and its theater scene, died Monday.
He was 70. A memorial service will stream at 2 p.m. on Jan. 30 on the church website.
Plunkett served as the senior pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church for 25 years. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease about six years ago, his children, Stephen C. Plunkett and Alison Plunkett McStravick, said on Thursday. Later, he was diagnosed with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a brain disorder that is often mistaken for Parkinson’s in many patients and affects movement, control of walking and balance, speech, swallowing, vision, mood and behavior, and thinking.
Plunkett studied speech and drama at Austin College and University of Texas at El Paso. He earned a theological degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His ministry took him to Rusk; to Paducah, Kentucky; and finally to Denton, where he was the longest-serving pastor of the local church’s history. After he retired in 2014, he served an interim ministry in Greenwich, Connecticut. He also served an interim ministry in Ohio.
Friends and family remember Plunkett as a pastor who was as creative in his ministry as he was on the Campus Theatre stage, where he acted, directed and served on the governing board. They also praised his call to serve the most needy residents in the city — the hungry and homeless.
“He was always sort of bright. He had a bright presence,” said son Stephen C. Plunkett. “He could be so outgoing in that context. He could really be the life of the party. He was warm and affectionate.”
“He was always really interested in others, caring for others in the time of need,” McStravick said. “And you know, my mom would do that with him. They did that together.”
Plunkett’s wife, Margaret, died in 2019 after about two years of treatment for cancer.
Plunkett’s career brought him to Denton in 1989, where he grew his downtown Denton congregation and took his Christian ministry well beyond the grounds. Former Denton resident and former member of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church Polly Diebel said it was Plunkett who truly founded the downtown soup kitchen, originally named Our Daily Bread.
“It wouldn‘t have happened without him,” Diebel said from her home in Austin. “He wanted to find a mission, a local mission project that our church and other churches could get excited about. Steve was very devoted to missions. He wasn’t a pastor who was satisfied with preaching on Sundays. He was very missions-oriented.”
Diebel was on a church mission committee when Plunkett led them to assemble other ministers and congregations, as well as the city’s most influential nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit leaders told the ministers that the greatest need in the city was a noontime hot meal, free of charge and nutritious.
“I think we had 17 churches that came on board supporting Our Daily Bread, financially or with volunteers,” Diebel said. “I remember we talked to the director of the Stewpot, the soup kitchen at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. He told us you have to have an opening date, otherwise you’ll put it off and say ‘I have to get this done,’ and, ‘We have to do that.’ We decided to open June 1, 1999.”
Diebel said the response wasn’t what the founders expected in the first days and weeks of the soup kitchen, which merged with the Monsignor King Outreach Center and rebranded under the new name The Junction late last year.
“Initially, we had hardly anybody show up,” Diebel said. “Then people said, ‘Give us your flyers.’ We had flyers printed in Spanish. So they took the flyers out to the places where homeless people were staying, and more people showed up. Then, of course, word of mouth brought even more people in. When we left Denton in 2012, they were serving 200 meals a day.”
McStravick said her father would regularly join the people in line at the soup kitchen for his own lunch, where he’d do some talking, but did more listening.
“I’d join him for lunch a lot of times, too,” McStravick said.
Plunkett established new ministries at the Denton church. He led the congregation in starting the Treehouse after-school program, and under his leadership, the Children’s Place moved from First Presbyterian Church to St. Andrew. The Children’s Place serves children of low-income families.
His colleagues and congregants said Plunkett advocated for fair practices in church staffing, and that he established an expectation that staff enjoy a balance between work and family life. Plunkett hosted ministry partners from India, Taiwan and Africa, and when the church celebrated its 150th anniversary, Plunkett planned and executed a yearlong celebration for the milestone.
He encouraged women to consider taking on leadership roles typically occupied by men, and he mentored women who wanted to serve in leadership positions.
His children said they’ve received an outpouring of messages from former congregants, and while their father’s achievements were formidable, most messages are about their father’s presence.
“It’s funny, so many people have said they remember him sitting with them when one of their loved ones was dying,” Stephen C. Plunkett said.
Maria Harris recalled the pastor’s caring presence on stage when they co-starred in The King & I. Harris played the role of English tutor Anna to Plunkett’s King Mongkut of Siam. After the show opened, Harris said she started floundering during a scene.
“I have hypoglycemia, and I hadn’t really eaten much that day,” Harris said. “If you’re not in theater you might not know that you’re doing something during the day and then you get to rehearsal, it can be kind of hectic. I was starting to feel bad. We were up there on stage, just the two of us, and I was either going to fall out on the stage or I was going to get off the stage to get some food, something to keep me going. It got so bad that I told him, in character, I was going to have to leave.”
Harris recalled bolting backstage, where volunteers quickly fed her cookies before she fainted.
Plunkett was on stage. Alone.
“He walked and talked to the audience. He monologued in character. He did everything he could to cover for me while I got some food in me,” she said. “We carried on. Later, in that big number ‘Shall We Dance,’ he asked me if I was OK. I told him I was, and he said ‘You look pale.’ I didn’t know him before that show, but everything about that experience was just wonderful. It has everything to do with the directors, but he was such a big part of that.”
McStravick said she and her brother will make sure their children remember their grandfather. He treated his grandchildren with the same warmth and affection he gave his wife and children.
“We’re getting an overwhelming response of, ‘Your dad was such a huge part of my faith and forming me, shaping my faith life.’ That’s coming from college friends to seminary friends, to theater friends to church friends,” she said. “He was who he was to the very core of him.”
Memorial donations can be made to the Stephen and Margaret Plunkett Memorial Fund at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.