Citi Stories Texas
St. Joseph Catholic Church Book
Photo:: Front view of The Alamo Mission, San Antonio, Texas


Catholics in Texas

Texas State Historical Association

By Father Robert E. Wright, OMI

Director, Master of Divinity, Professor of Systematic Theology, Kennedy Chair in Missiology
Oblate School of Theology
San Antonio, Texas



The Catholic Church has been a part of Texas history ever since Europeans first set foot on the land in 1528. In fact for the three centuries up to 1821-that is, during the Spanish Texas period-Hispanic Catholicism had a rarely challenged religious and civil monopoly among the European-origin settlers in what is now Texas. This in turn gave Hispanic Catholics complete control over Christianization efforts among the Indians. However, events after Mexican independence in 1821 soon left Catholics in a minority status in the land. But even then they always remained one of the largest single religious bodies in Texas, and Hispanics continued to be one of the largest ethnic groups among Texas Catholics.

For more than a century, beginning with the odyssey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions (1528–35), transient expeditions of Catholic Hispanics (usually including Catholic clergy as well as such non-Spaniards as Estevanico "the Moor," of African origin) were the first Christians encountered by various indigenous peoples in what is now Texas. In the eyes of both the explorers and the natives, these sporadic religiocultural as well as military-political encounters ranged from wondrous to atrocious. In the 1680s and 1690s the first European foundations were attempted on various edges of the territory that was eventually incorporated in Texas. Tigua and Piro refugees from the Pueblo Revolt in northern New Mexico established the Franciscan-directed mission villages of Corpus Christi de la Isleta and Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción del Socorro in the El Paso area in 1682. These proved to be the first permanent European-directed settlements in the future Texas. Nonpermanent, on the other hand, were the first mission efforts at La Junta de los Ríos (modern-day Presidio) in 1683–84; the French Catholic post established by La Salle along the Texas Gulf Coast in 1685–89, and the Spanish mission effort from 1690 to 1693 on the East Texas border in defensive response to French plans.

Missions at La Junta were re-established in 1715, and continued thereafter with occasional interruptions of several years at a time. La Junta's instability left the missionary-led Indian settlement at San Antonio de Valero Mission and the soldier-settler town of San Antonio de Béxar Presidio, both established in 1718, as the beginnings of the second permanent Hispanic Catholic foundation in Texas. Throughout the rest of that century, a total of twenty-six Spanish missions existed for greater or lesser periods of time in what is now East, Southeast, Central, South, and West Texas. To this number should be added those missionary centers established immediately across the Rio Grande whose sphere of influence also extended to the Texas side of the river, such as those at Camargo, Nuevo Santandes, (across from the site of present Rio Grande City), San Juan Bautista (at Guerrero, Coahuila, below the site of present Eagle Pass), and in the La Junta and El Paso districts. Some missions, such as that of Santa Cruz de San Sabá at the locale of present-day Menard, proved to be disasters. Most were unsuccessful in terms of converting any significant number of Indians. But those in the El Paso district, San Antonio, La Bahía (Goliad), and Camargo were relatively successful for several decades or longer not only in economic terms, but also in terms of assimilating natives into Hispanic Catholic society. Franciscans founded and supervised all the mission efforts in Texas during the Spanish colonial period. They were sent by several of their missionary organizations: the Holy Gospel Province, the San Francisco de Zacatecas Province, the College of Santa Cruz de Querétaro, the College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas, and the College of San Fernando de Mexico.

Even more important than the missions in the development and permanence of Hispanic Catholicism in Texas, however, were the communities of Hispanic Catholics themselves who planted their religious institutions in Texas during and after the colonial period. In towns and in the countryside they gathered for worship and celebrations, instructed their children in the faith, and built their own churches and chapels. Even the mission establishments were eventually meant to be "secularized"-that is, merged into the Catholic diocesan church. The diocesan church, the church under a bishop's direct jurisdiction, had already been developing in Texas decades before any mission secularizations occurred. From the beginning, the huge Diocese of Guadalajara supervised church work east of the Pecos River, while the equally immense Diocese of Durango gradually made good its claim to jurisdiction over the Trans-Pecos region in the eighteenth century. In 1779 the new Diocese of Linares or Nuevo León, soon headquartered in Monterrey, took over supervision of the east-of-the-Pecos lands from the Guadalajara diocese. While the Franciscans initially cared for the Hispanic Catholics as well as the missionized natives throughout Texas, gradually diocesan clergy arrived to take over this role in one place after another, beginning with the secular priest who became the first pastor of San Fernando de Béxar parish in San Antonio in 1731. By 1808 at least thirteen Franciscans and twelve secular priests were serving eighteen different Hispanic Catholic population centers within or on the edge of the territory of today's Texas, and native Hispanics were joining the ranks of the clergy.

In the 1810 to 1846 period-that is, during the last decade of the Spanish regime and the first decades of Mexican Texas-a volatile combination of insurgencies, invasions, new economic systems, massive foreign and particularly Anglo-Protestant immigration, sociopolitical discord, and changes of sovereignty resulted in serious trials and new challenges for the Mexican Catholic Church in the old province of Texas east of the Medina River and above the Nueces River. Almost all the Catholic population centers remained staffed by priests up until the Texas Revolution, but the increasing numbers of foreign and mostly non-Catholic immigrants east of the Guadalupe River rarely saw a Catholic clergyman-a situation that pleased most of them. The revolution wreaked havoc on the Mexican Catholic communities above the Nueces, totally displacing some, damaging and in some cases expropriating their church buildings, and reducing the clergy presence to San Antonio alone. Wherever Mexicans remained, however, their Catholic faith communities endured, thanks to continuing lay initiative as well as the ministry of whatever priests were available. Along the Rio Grande the changes were real but much less drastic, and Mexican priests managed to continue to provide pastoral care to all the communities.

In response to the radical changes in the newly independent Republic of Texas, Catholic Church authorities made the fledgling nation a separate jurisdiction from the Mexican church in 1840. Jean Marie Odin, a Vincentian priest, was sent to supervise the transition. He became the first vicar apostolic of Texas in 1842. After annexation to the United States, the vicariate was raised to the status of a diocese (1847). Odin thus became the first bishop of the Diocese of Galveston, which embraced all of Texas above the Nueces. As a result of the Mexican War, which ended that same year, the diocese's boundaries were declared to reach all the way to the Rio Grande. In practice, however, the westernmost settlements, that is, the El Paso and La Junta districts, continued to be pastored by Mexican priests of the Diocese of Durango until 1872 and 1892 respectively. By 1850, the year that the present Texas boundaries were determined for the most part, Mexicans and indeed Catholics in general had become a clearly subordinated minority in Texas above the Nueces River. Irish and other European Catholic immigrants were numerous enough, however, in combination with Mexican Catholics, to become the target of Anglo-Protestant nativist campaigns in the 1850s. Along the Rio Grande mainly Mexican but also a few European-origin Catholics exercised enough numerical and political power to oblige newcomers from the dominant United States society to adopt a generally more accommodating approach.

In keeping with the general population growth in Texas, the estimated number of Catholics swelled from fewer than 40,000 in 1850 to 150,000 in 1880. To attend to this mixed population of Mexican, European, and Anglo-American Catholics, Bishop Odin and his successor, Claude Marie Dubuis, recruited heavily from Europe to obtain Catholic congregations of men, Catholic congregations of women, and secular clergy. The religious congregations contributed greatly to the development of institutions of Catholic education in Texas. The women religious established the first centers of Catholic health care and other Catholic social services such as St. Mary's Hospital and St. Mary's Orphanage in Galveston. To tend better to the rapid growth of post-Civil War Texas, several new church jurisdictions were established. In 1872 the Vicariate Apostolic of Tucson in Arizona took over the El Paso district from the Mexican church. The Diocese of San Antonio (elevated to an archdiocese in 1926) and the Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville were established in 1874. Holy Rosary Church and its accompanying school, the first church and school expressly for black Catholics in the state, began in 1887.

Railroads and major irrigation works in the late 1800s and early 1900s prompted major new immigration into North, West, and South Texas, and the Mexican Revolution (1910-) pushed thousands more into the state from Mexico. One response to the ever-increasing Catholic population was the inauguration of Catholic journalism in the 1890s. Another was the further division of church jurisdictions: the Catholic Diocese of Dallas was begun in 1890, the Vicariate of Brownsville was upgraded and renamed the Diocese of Corpus Christi in 1912, the Diocese of El Paso (extending into southern New Mexico) was established in 1914, and the Diocese of Amarillo was formed in 1926. The greater population base also helped to make possible the first permanent Catholic schools of ministry (seminaries) in Texas, St. Mary's University at La Porte and the San Antonio Philosophical and Theological Seminary (now the Oblate School of Theology), both founded at the beginning of the century.

By 1930 there were some 750,000 Catholics in Texas, a fivefold increase in half a century. They were served by their own lay leaders as well as around 630 priests, plus religious sisters and brothers. Secular priests were the great majority in the northern and eastern parts of the state, while religious priests were the majority in the Mexican-border dioceses. The new influx of Anglo and Mexican immigration during this period heightened racial and ethnic tensions, which were only exacerbated by the Great Depression of the 1930s. These tensions were addressed in the following decades by the social-action policies advocated by certain church leaders sympathetic to the New Deal such as Robert E. Lucey, archbishop of San Antonio, and Carmelo Tranchese, S.J. Among the notable results of such efforts was the development of the Bishops' Committee for Hispanic Affairs on the national level.

Renewed population growth in Texas after World War II led to the near doubling of the number of dioceses in the next two decades: the Diocese of Austin in 1947, the Diocese of San Angelo in 1961, the Diocese of Brownsville in 1965, the Diocese of Beaumont in 1966, and the Diocese of Fort Worth in 1969. A more publicly confident Catholicism emerged from the Catholic integration into the national war efforts. Texas Catholics numbered 1,800,000 by 1960; they were served by 1,570 priests, 4,950 women religious, and 330 religious brothers. The appearance of Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy before the Ministerial Association of Protestant leaders in Houston in 1960 marked a threshold in Catholic respectability within the country. But the Kennedy assassination in Dallas three years later signaled the beginning of the loss of postwar American self-assurance.