- Initial foundation (1854-1856)
- The “Roma Trio”: Father Clos, Brother Charret, and companions (1867-1907)
- Father Régent and companions (1907-1938)
- The permanent mission district (1938-present)
Initial foundation (1854-1856)
When Bishop de Mazenod sent Oblates back to Brownsville in 1852, Bishop Odin of Texas was very mindful of the Mexican population living in ranches and villages spread upriver along the Rio Grande between Brownsville and Laredo, a distance of 200 miles in a straight line but more than twice that amount following the twists and turns of the river road. Until he could obtain sufficient priests to staff mission centers in the larger settlements, Bishop Odin asked that Father Jean-Marie Gaye, the Oblate most fluent in Spanish, visit the ranches and towns upriver from Brownsville, even as far as Laredo if possible. With the transfer of two more Oblate priests from Galveston to Brownsville in March 1853, Father Gaye was finally freed up to travel to Laredo at Bishop Odin’s request to spend a month there preaching a mission and helping to orient the French diocesan priests who had just arrived to pastor that strongly Mexican town. On his return trip to Brownsville, Father Gaye spent two months slowly traveling back down the river, providing the sacraments to the people in the small villages and towns along the route, including Roma and Rio Grande City in Starr County. He thus inaugurated what in South Texas has since become memorialized as the “Oblate Trail.” Either in view of this missionary tour or sometime during it, the Oblates in Brownsville agreed to include Starr County, the next county upriver from their original mission territory, within their pastoral visits.
Father Gaye made another extended visit from Brownsville to Starr County in January 1854. In March, perhaps because the Brownsville house had just received another priest, Father Gaye finally established his residence in Roma, a foundation that may not have been formally approved by the Oblate superiors in France. Roma was chosen since it was the head of steamboat navigation and thus of commerce with the Mexican interior, as well as being more centrally located in the county along the river. Father Gaye was alone at this new missionary post until Father Pierre Kéralum joined him in May. Kéralum was sent to build a church and to make it possible for one of the missionaries to visit the outlying ranch villages while the other stayed in town.
In early 1855 one of the Oblates in Brownsville died during an epidemic; furthermore, requests for Oblate help were coming from Mexico. So Father Verdet decided to travel to France to ask in person for more missionaries. At this time Father Gaye returned to Brownsville, probably to reinforce the reduced number of clergy there, leaving Father Kéralum alone in the Roma mission. But the General Council had a different solution: rather than sending more men, they ordered a withdrawal from the Roma foundation as soon as the bishop of Texas could send a replacement. Since Roma was 100 miles in a straight line from Brownsville and much farther when ascending the winding river by steamboat or overland, the Council felt that this distance was too detrimental to community life; furthermore, the Oblates withdrawn from Roma could help respond to the mission needs in Brownsville or Galveston. When Father Verdet returned to Texas in July, he notified the bishop of Texas of the decision, and Bishop Odin replied that he would not be able to send a priest until the following spring. Father Kéralum himself was recalled to Brownsville in October, being replaced by Father de Lustrac. When de Lustrac in turn was assigned to Galveston in late January 1856, Father Kéralum returned to Roma until a diocesan priest finally arrived in June.
The “Roma Trio”: Father Clos, Brother Charret, and companions (1867-1907)
When the Oblates were expelled from their work in Mexico a decade later, their eyes naturally turned toward the Roma district again. This was ministry to which they were accustomed and Rio Grande country, which several of them knew. The Roma district was now even larger than before, since it included not only Starr County but also the new Zapata County, and thus reached all the way up the Rio Grande to the old village of San Ignacio below Laredo. The bishop of Texas was only too happy to offer the Oblates this Roma mission, and the General Administration also “approved very readily,” given the surplus of Oblates then crowded into Brownsville and the contiguity of the mission territories. Given that contiguity, the Oblates of Brownsville and Roma decided to make La Lomita el topadero or meeting point between the two mission territories, rather than the county line to the west that had been the previous division. La Lomita was a ranch with a small chapel and residence on one of two colonial-era porciónes or long narrow strips of land that had been bequeathed to the Oblates in 1861. Since it was closer to Roma than to Brownsville and was Oblate property, even though it was about a third of the way into Hidalgo County, which was part of the Brownsville mission, that western third of Hidalgo County was now also made part of the greatly expanded Roma mission district.
In March 1867 Fathers “José María” Clos and Jean-Marie Jaffrès and Brother “Pedrito” Charret took up residence in Roma. Father Clos was already a seasoned missionary along the Mexican border, having arrived in 1861 and served in Mexico. For the next forty years Father Clos and Brother Charret would be companions in Roma. Father Jaffrès accompanied them the first thirteen years. Much later, Father Clos said of Father Jaffrès: “J’avais un aide sur qui je pouvais compter; pendant les ans qu’il resta avec moi il ne recula devant aucune difficulté; son cœur de breton ne connaissait qu’une chose: conquérir des âmes.” Once the priests began visiting the vast mission district entrusted to their care, they immediately realized that it was too much for just the two of them, and wrote directly to France asking for more help. At the end of that year two priests were sent to Texas and were both assigned to the Roma mission within the next few months. But one was transferred to the Brownsville missions in September 1869, and the other was not of much help. Given such conditions, Father Joseph Rieux, the assistant at the much smaller Oblate mission district of Agualeguas, about 40 miles from Roma in the Mexican state of Nuevo León, came to assist at Roma annually for periods extending as long as eight months.
In July 1880 Father Jaffrès and the third priest in Roma transferred their residence to Rio Grande City to inaugurate the new mission center there, which was entrusted with what had been the eastern half of the Roma mission. In Roma Father “Julio” Piat, newly ordained in France in 1879, became Father Clos’ assistant in 1881; he would remain for the next twenty-seven years. Fathers Clos and Piat and Brother Charret became known as the “Happy Trio of Roma,” as the expanding Oblate ministry in Texas after 1883 left the isolated, far-flung Roma district as the quintessential if not mythical expression of the ministry of the “Cavalry of Christ.” That title was later bestowed upon these horseback missionaries by the impressed director of the Catholic Extension Society in 1911, when he took the famous photograph in which Father Piat was one of the two surviving members of the earlier generations of Oblates.
For at least a decade, the continuation of Oblate ministry in the Rio Grande mission had been seriously questioned by the General Administration in France, and material development had therefore stagnated. In 1883 the Fathers were finally reassured that they would remain and could thus build toward the future. In 1885 the Roma mission district contained about 6,500 people, almost all Mexican Catholic. The three principal villages of Roma, San Ignacio, and Randado each had about 600 people. Those villages more or less formed the three corners of the mission territory shaped like a narrow inverted triangle, with Roma at the base and the other two each about 55 miles northwest and north of Roma respectively. The ministry, therefore, was to all the ranches along the three sides of that triangle. The only chapel outside of Roma was at San Ignacio, due to the general poverty of the area and the infrequent visits of priests. Nevertheless, most of the families shunned the free government school in Roma taught in English, preferring to pay what they could to Spanish-speaking teachers in private schools.
In 1887 the Oblates built a convent for the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word to teach in the public schools of Roma, but the Sisters were withdrawn in 1897 for insisting on wearing their religious dress in the classroom. By 1900 the Oblates had chapels at Randado and at three more ranches besides San Ignacio. Upon the death of Father Clos and Brother Charret in 1907, the territory of the Roma mission district still included the western half of Starr County and all of Zapata County, with at least 80 ranches to be visited. By then a chapel had also been built at Saliñeno. All the people except five or six families were Mexican, all Catholic, and Spanish was still the common language of all. The Oblates rejoiced that there were no civil marriages, only church ones.
Father Régent and companions (1907-1938)
Upon Father Clos’ death, old Father Piat was briefly named pastor of Roma, but a young generation of newly ordained Oblates soon took over. In 1904 Father Eugène Régent had been sent to Roma to assist the aging Fathers Clos and Piat, and their example and his experience soon led him to declare: “j’aime les missions, la vie des Ranches.” In 1908 Father Piat was transferred and the young Father Régent became pastor. In him Roma and its missions once again had a longtime pastor who would become identified with them for decades. More than once he was left on his own to care for the entire mission district, due to the lack of personnel. Successive visiting provincials and Assistant Generals regularly praised how Father Régent and his sometime companions knew how to “garder intacte la haute réputation que Roma s’est acquise comme étant le théâtre incessant du zèle le plus intrépide de la part de tant des nôtres depuis 60 ans.”
One of the first things done by Father Régent was to welcome back the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in 1910. They were soon succeeded by the Sisters of Mercy. When the Mexican Revolution sent people including priests fleeing across the border in 1913-1914, the population of the Roma mission district swelled, but refugee Mexican clergy temporarily helped provide pastoral care. Father Régent noted that some of the local merchants continued their ingrained habits of dealing in contraband items along the international border, this time with the revolutionary Carrancistas. During these times when travel was still by horse, a priest visited the most distant chapel, San Ignacio, once a month, spending a week there catechizing and preaching.
In 1926 another chapel was built at Falcón along the river just across the Zapata County line. Although by 1928 changing socioeconomic conditions had reduced the ranches or little villages in the Roma mission by almost half, to the number of forty or fifty, they still extended over the same vast territory, and the mostly dirt roads were rough and almost impassible by automobile when it rained. Given the poor roads, Randado was visited once a month, and Zapata and San Ignacio twice a month. In this new age of the automobile, the priests only occasionally stopped at the other ranches unless there was a marriage to be witnessed. By this time the Sisters were teaching not only in the public schools of Roma but also in adjacent Los Saenz at the request of the local officials. In 1938 a reluctant Father Régent was finally transferred from Roma. Upon his departure the mission district was still practically entirely Catholic, with no Protestant churches whatsoever.
The permanent mission district (1938-present)
Demonstrating the continuing relative poverty and lack of major socioeconomic development of the Roma mission district was the fact that its 1880 boundaries did not change until 1940. In that year the small village of Randado at the northern end of the interior missionary route was transferred out of the Roma district, leaving only the ranch stations of El Sauz and Guerra or Colorado along that isolated road. At the same time, and involving much more territory, all of Zapata County with the exception of the two chapels of Lopeño and Falcon, which were close to the Starr County line, was made into the first parish between Roma and Laredo. This left the two priests at Roma with the old chapels of Los Saenz, Saliñeno, Falcón, and Lopeño. In succeeding years they built a chapel at Escobares (1945) between Roma and Rio Grande City and replacement chapels for Lopeño and Falcón (1954-55), their town sites moved by the creation of the Falcon Reservoir.
Father Paul Lewis, pastor from 1938 to 1946, founded the Catechists of St. John Bosco as a diocesan religious congregation of catechetical and social service workers who helped extend the church’s ministry to the scattered villages. Due to their work and that of the priests and their lay helpers, as of 1955 the entire community in Roma-Los Saenz and the villages immediately downriver were still almost entirely Mexican Catholic. But by the latter year the mission parish no longer had religious catechists, and a few Protestant evangelizers were beginning to visit; there were even two Protestant chapels for the first time in Roma itself. In the most upriver mission station, Lopeño, the Protestants were very active. The old missionary Father Carmelo Gagliardoni responded by bringing in catechist Sisters from Mexico for two months to do intensive door-to-door mission work. He also had a chapel built at Falcon Heights and acquired old public school buildings in La Rosita and Frontón to use as religious centers. By this time many of the people had become migrant agricultural workers who traveled north during the warmer part of the year to labor in other parts of the United States. While these people were at home during the winter, Mass was offered twice a month in the outlying communities: on Sundays in the five chapels and on a weekday in the six other stations. The weekday masses in the mission stations were another innovation by Father Gagliardoni. He also saw to it that each place had weekly catechism.
Father Gagliardoni’s efforts to spiritually strengthen the people were ably implemented by the young Father Hendrick Laenen, who was assigned the ministry of the outlying chapels and stations and succeeded in convalidating the marriages of many couples who were only married civilly. He also decided to focus more attention on the larger communities to try to draw more participation, and began by offering Mass every Sunday at Los Saenz. Father Laenen had just come from the rugged missions of Tehuantepec in Mexico, and instantly found Roma “still a real mission: a lot to do, without knowing how to do it, still a bit of incommodity [inconvenience], lots of ignorance of the people and also little cooperation and little result[s] – in one word, still a real missionary work.”
New and old methods
In 1960 Father Maurice Buckley, the new pastor, continued the spiritual renewal with some new methods: he introduced the Cursillo movement to the parish with the help of Father Gus Petru, held “vacation religious school” and catechist training programs during the summers with the help of the Victory Noll Sisters, began study clubs, and got the public school to allow “released time” for catechism classes as well as Bible classes taught by himself and his associate at the high school itself.
When the Diocese of Brownsville was created out of the Diocese of Corpus Christi in 1965, the two chapels of Lopeño and Falcón in Zapata County and the remote mass station of Guerra in Jim Hogg County, all three outside the boundaries of the new diocese of Brownsville, were removed from the care of Roma. Two years later, due to the growth of the population between Roma and Rio Grande City, Escobares and La Rosita were made into an independent parish including the station of El Sauz to the north. These changes for the first time reduced the Roma mission district to one that no longer has any “interior country” stations, leaving it solely with its string of settlements and chapels near the highway in the western third of Starr County.
Given the history that has been recounted here, it is not surprising that among Oblates from the very beginning Roma and its missions have carried both a strong mythic sense and an “out of the way, different world” reputation. There seems to be a special charism among those select Oblates who fall in love with the ministry and the people in this unique “mission parish,” a parish that much more than most has maintained the same characteristics and challenges as when it began a century and a half ago, even as its people and their Oblates have undergone significant changes. In the 1980s and early 1990s Father Roy Snipes brought a strong celebratory sense of that Oblate ranchero heritage on the Mexican border and a youthful “country boy” drive to reinvigorate once more the community’s life. He encountered the latest version of Starr County’s seemingly perpetual interbreeding of widespread poverty, border commerce, and contraband culture by some, “an environment of poverty and powerlessness among the honest people who were engulfed within and controlled by a culture of lawlessness, political corruption, and drug trafficking.” Father Snipes openly confronted the insidious drug culture, and just as importantly promoted an appealing alternative among the youth through strong church involvement such as older altar boys, liturgical dramatizations, Boy Scouts, and community service projects, while also supporting Roma’s surprisingly strong tradition of sending its youth off to university education elsewhere. Roma, with its chapel communities of Los Saenz, Frontón, Saliñeno, and Falcon Heights in one of the poorest counties in the United States, remains “a real missionary work.”
Robert Wright, o.m.i.