Making Texas History

Dear Friends in Christ,

Have you ever read about the history of the Catholic Church in Texas? It is a fascinating story and one that can give all of us hope and inspiration. The story of Catholicism in Texas is a story of struggle and daring. It is a story of sacrifice and trial. In short, it is a story of faith, hope and love. There are several excellent works on the history of the Church in Texas. Fr. James Moore’s Through Fire and Flood is a fascinating read, and of course there is the seven-volume work by Professor Carlos Castaneda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas 1519-1936.

I have been fascinated with the Church’s history in Texas my entire life. My home parish where I was baptized, received the sacraments and said my first Mass was at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston. The parish was formed in 1840 before Texas was part of the United States during the period of the Republic of Texas. The current structure, the oldest church in the archdiocese, was built in 1847. The other day, I took a little time and drove a few hours to the site of the first Catholic mission in Texas, San Francisco de los Tejas. Today, there is a state park with a replica of the mission near the original site, where in 1690, three Franciscans began the work of the gospel among the Hasinai people on the banks of the Neches River in what is today Houston County between Crockett and Alto on State Highway 21.

Fascinatingly, the route traveled by the missionaries would become El Camino Real de los Tejas (The Royal Road) when Texas was part of New Spain and Mexico, and later would be known as the Old San Antonio Road connecting San Antonio to Nacogdoches. The mission was headed by Father Damien Massanet. A small chapel was built and the first Mass was offered on June 1, 1690. Due to diseases and hostilities, the mission moved a few times until it was relocated to San Antonio in 1731. There were several other Spanish missions established in East Texas and even in what is now Louisiana. The closest mission to our area was Nuestra Senora de la Luz (Our Lady of Light) established in 1756 about 40 miles east of present day Houston at the mouth of the Trinity River near present day Wallisville.

One of the very fascinating figures of the Spanish Missions in Texas is Venerable Antonio Margil de Jesus, O.F.M. (1657-1726). He is called Venerable because his cause for sainthood has been introduced. A native of Valencia, Spain, he volunteered to be a missionary to the New World soon after his ordination in 1683. He walked barefoot, fasted every other day, refused to eat meat or fish, and slept very little, devoting himself to prayer. He served first in the missions in the Yucatan peninsula, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. In 1716 at the age of 59, Padre Antonio led a band of Franciscans on foot from Zacatecas in central Mexico to deep East Texas. There, he established three missions including Mission Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. This mission was the beginning of Nacogdoches, the oldest city in Texas. Father Margil then went to San Antonio and there established Mission San Jose in 1720.

The history of Catholicism in Texas predates even the missions with the very first explorers. Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on Galveston Island in November, 1528. He and his companions are believed to be the very first Christians in what is today Texas. Among those in the expedition was a Franciscan friar, Juan Suarez. Father Suarez first arrived in the New World in 1524 and is known as one of “the Twelve Apostles of Mexico.” Suarez and the other Franciscans worked tirelessly. He returned to Europe and was appointed by Pope Clement VII, at the request of King Carlos V, as bishop for the northern portion of New Spain (El Rio de las Palmas y la Florida). The area included all of the Spanish territory from Florida to California. Bishop-elect Suarez, the first bishop to be named for what would become the southern United States including Texas, did not survive. Bishop-elect Suarez and his companions were the first priests to set foot in Texas.
The journey of the Catholic Church in Texas continues, the history that people will read in the future will be the one we make today.

In pace Christi,
Fr. Troy