- Temporary Presence (1849-1850)
- Official Foundation: college seminary and missionary tours (1852-1857)
- A half-century of Mexican parish ministry (1929-1980)
Temporary Presence (1849-1850)
In 1849 Father Adrien Telmon, assuming that he was still authorized to make an Oblate foundation in the United States after the failure of the attempt at Pittsburgh, accepted the request made by Jean-Marie Odin, the first bishop of Galveston (Texas), for the Oblates to extend the presence of the Texas Catholic church into the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The Oblates selected by Father Telmon parted paths in New Orleans, with Father Telmon and two of his companions sailing directly to Brownsville while Father Augustin Gaudet and scholastic Brother Paul Gelot sailed to Galveston with Bishop Odin, arriving at the beginning of December. Their plan was to remain in Galveston only temporarily, until their confreres had made a proper foundation in Brownsville. While in Galveston Brother Gelot continued his formation, Father Gaudet assisted in the local ministry, and both studied English and Spanish. But the dire circumstances experienced by the Oblates in Brownsville the first several months postponed the plans for Father Gaudet and Brother Gelot to join them there. After the bishop left Galveston for an extended visitation of the vast diocese in April, Father Gaudet soon found himself the only priest in town, taking care of both the parish and the Ursuline convent. When his complaints finally reached France in September, the General Council decided to recall him immediately to the Canadian province – ironically, just as it was determined in Texas that the improved Brownsville situation would allow Gaudet and Gelot to transfer to Brownsville at the end of October. Dutifully obeying the obedience from France, Father Gaudet departed Galveston in early November 1850. The scholastic Gelot, however, with whom the Founder had reservations, opted to remain in the United States and become a diocesan priest.
Official Foundation: college seminary and missionary tours (1852-1857)
Sorely in need of priests, religious, and financial support, Bishop Odin embarked on a European tour in 1851. In Marseille, he implored the Founder to come to the aid of Texas with two principal objectives: to reassume the pastoral care of Brownsville and its large mission territory and build a school there, and to build and staff a combination boys’ school and seminary in Galveston while also helping in pastoral ministry there. Bishop de Mazenod responded generously with the largest group of missionaries he had ever sent at one time, six priests and one lay brother. They were all very young, ranging from 24 to 34 years old. For superior he chose Father Jean-Marie Verdet, ordained only three years, with the other five priests ordained in February 1852 just prior to their departure and Brother Pierre Roudet having just made his profession in December. These seven men had a long and profound impact on the Oblate mission in Texas, where they all remained until their deaths. Four of them labored until the end of the century; two others ministered twenty and thirty years respectively.
Since by that time there was a revolution taking place on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande which impacted the Texas side – an experience often repeated in future years – Bishop Odin had all the Oblates proceed initially to Galveston. They arrived in May 1852 and dedicated themselves to studying English and Spanish while involving themselves in ministry. Father Verdet and three companions departed to reestablish the Brownsville foundation in October; five months later Father Pierre Kéralum also transferred to Brownsville. That left Fathers Pierre Parisot and Étienne Vignolle in Galveston to try to found the college-seminary, which proved to be a frustrating effort. The young Oblates were inexperienced in running an educational institution and had limited English ability. In order to remedy these weaknesses other Oblates were sent from Canada, but one of the most capable, Father Jean-Marie Baudrand, died in an epidemic of yellow fever only a few months after his arrival in May 1853. The ambitious construction project was not completed until January 1855, when the college finally began classes under Father Julien Baudre’s direction. When not teaching, Father Parisot engaged in long missionary visits of priestless areas of East Texas and western Louisiana, as well as tours extending to central Texas dedicated to collecting money and recruiting boarding students for the new college.
In October 1856 Father Gaudet returned from Canada to Galveston to be the new superior there. He and the other Oblates judged that they were really only directing “a primary school.” Almost no native vocations to the priesthood from Texas would be discovered for another two decades, and Bishop Odin continued to send any foreign clerics needing more than their last few months of studies to the Vincentian seminary in Missouri. Furthermore, the Oblates found it very difficult to provide sufficient personnel who were both fluent in English and good teachers. Questioning such a “college” as a suitable Oblate ministry, the Oblates in Texas asked the General Council to relinquish it to the diocese. In response Bishop Odin pleaded that Catholic education was indeed a missionary work within the context of United States society at that time. The Founder and his Council responded sympathetically, but concurred with their missionaries in Texas. In October 1857 the last two Oblates departed Galveston. Two had been sent to the Canadian province, including Scholastic Brother James McGrath, the future first provincial of the First United States Province; the other five were transferred to Brownsville.
A half-century of Mexican parish ministry (1929-1980)
When the Oblates returned to Galveston many decades later, in 1929, it was due to their by then well-established reputation among the bishops of the Southwestern United States for ministry among those of Mexican origin. As the Mexican population began in the first decades of the 1900s to spread noticeably for the first time into the area of southeast Texas, the Oblates were asked by the bishop of the diocese of Galveston in 1911 to accept “temporary charge of all Mexicans in the diocese not otherwise provided for.” On Galveston Island itself the Ursuline Sisters of St. Patrick Church had started a school for the Mexicans in 1917 on Avenue H. A new brick Mexican school was built on Avenue M in 1926, and with the arrival of some refugee priests from Mexico the old wood-frame parish hall of St. Patrick was moved to the new school location to serve as the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, served on Sundays by three Mexican priests in succession. When the refugee priests departed in 1929, the Oblates accepted to serve at the chapel, which had unpaid debts and no priest’s house, and also to visit the Mexicans in the nearby towns of Texas City and Dickinson on the Texas mainland.
During the half-century the Oblates were in charge of the church and its missions, most of the time there was a long-term pastor: Father Paul Hally (1929-1937), Father Joseph Dwan (1940-1950), Father George Green (1952-1965), and Father Cornelius McNally (1965-1978). In the early years the men of the parish were mostly laborers employed in unloading the banana boats arriving at Galveston. Longtime devotional societies were the Guadalupanas and the Vasallos de Cristo Re. The latter men’s organization did much carpentry work, including building an outdoor stage for frequent fundraising performances of music and theater, religious dramas, and the climaxes of their public processions through the neighborhood. Father Hally managed to support the Sisters in the school and have a wood-frame rectory built, but only by taking no salary for himself and continuing to be heavily in debt. After six years of financial struggles, he complained to the bishop that the three territorial Galveston parishes allowed the Mexicans living within their boundaries to come to their church services and thus depleted the potential congregation of his “national” (ethnic-based) church.
In Texas City, a wood-frame chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows was built with funds from the Catholic Church Extension Society in 1938 for the Mexicans served by the Oblate priest in Galveston. The following year the English and Spanish-speaking Catholics in Alvin, located midway between Galveston and Houston, and their chapel of St. John the Baptist were transferred from the care of the Oblates in Houston to the Galveston residence. Therefore an additional Oblate priest began to be assigned to Galveston to assist there and also to tend to Alvin and Texas City. When there was a disastrous chemical plant explosion in Texas City in 1947, killing over four hundred people and injuring thousands, Father Thomas Griffin responded heroically, climbing inside the burning buildings to render material and spiritual aid. The diocesan pastor of the English-speaking parish in Texas City was killed while engaged in the same dangerous act. The explosion destroyed the Mexican chapel, which was very near the chemical plant. By the time Father James Delaney took over the ministry to Alvin and Texas City in 1948, the mostly Mexican Catholics of Pearland, a few miles from Alvin, had been added to the Oblates’ pastoral care. In view of this triple responsibility, Father Delaney persuaded the Oblate provincial to allow him to reside permanently in Alvin, which officially became a parish independent of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Galveston four years later, in 1952. Thus the Galveston residence no longer had any mission stations after 1948. The Mexican chapel at Texas City would return once more to the care of the Oblates at Galveston from March 1957 to March 1959 at the insistence of the bishop; but that proved to only be a temporary measure.
In 1947 the laconic Father Dwan noted that there had never been funds available in his Galveston parish beyond those strictly necessary for maintaining the old buildings; the church had no tower bells, organ, nor even Stations of the Cross. Nevertheless, the attendance at the church and the school had increased to the point where larger facilities were needed for both, and in 1948 he managed to build a new cement-block church, with the old church becoming the parish hall and annex to the school. In view of the growing parish needs in Galveston, there was usually another Oblate assigned as associate pastor there beginning in1951.
In 1952 the Oblate provincial noted that the Mexican-origin population of Galveston was scattered all over the city, except for two colonies far from the church. The priests of the parish also had the responsibility of the Marine hospital and of the Mexicans in the several other hospitals of Galveston, which had become a major medical center, whenever they were called upon. The provincial guessed that there were probably 6,000 Mexican-origin in the city, but Sunday Mass attendance was only 800. He recommended that Sunday Masses be increased from two to three, and also asked whether there was any objection to one English sermon on Sundays.
The question about an English sermon and the note about the scattered Mexican population indicated once again the challenging demographics of this officially “national’ or Mexican parish. More and more of the Mexicans themselves were by now bilingual Mexican Americans, born in the United States, and Anglos were also attending the church. In his annual parish statistical reports from 1958 through 1964, Father George Green consistently stated that English was the principal language used by the parishioners; in 1963 he noted that a national parish was no longer needed; and the following year he stated that the parish should become a territorial one. The new pastor, Father Cornelius McNally, made the same recommendation in 1965. Between 1955 and 1965 the Sunday Masses increased from three to five, and Mass attendance climbed from 1,100 to 2,000. As the parish attendance grew, new construction took place in the 1950s: a gymnasium where the young men could train for Golden Gloves tournaments, a new parish hall and cafeteria, and a new school building. This was done through the continued help in construction by the men of the parish, fundraising events such as tamaladas by the women, and bazaars conducted by all.
In the mid-1960s some danger signals for the future began to emerge for those who might notice: baptisms, which had been averaging over 100 annually, decreased to 65 by 1965, and marriages from 16 to 6. In 1966 the parish was finally changed to a territorial one. Nevertheless, the parishioners remained mostly Mexican American: in 1972 the parish had 800 families, 80% Mexican Americans and 20% Anglos. The parish school, with the Ursulines still in charge, was doing better than ever, almost doubling its enrollment to 440 students from 1965 to 1973. But by 1980 it was clear that the parish had entered a period of decline. The number of families had decreased by 40% since 1973, and the Sunday Mass attendance and number of parochial school students had similarly fallen, making the future of the school uncertain. Within the territory of the parish the general population was 50% Black, 30% White, and 20% Hispanic. On October 6, 1980, the Oblates turned the administration of the former Mexican national parish over to the Franciscans. Twelve years later the diocese and the Franciscans consolidated the Our Lady of Guadalupe community with St. Patrick Church, the parish that had originally given birth to the school and chapel for Mexicans at the beginning of the century.
Robert E. Wright, o.m.i.