Huntsville couple honored with special Vatican award

January 13, 2015

HUNTSVILLE — Marion Wagamon isn’t quite sure why she and her husband, Dr. Charles Wagamon Sr., have been chosen for a special Vatican award.
After all, the Huntsville couple’s dedicated faith and devotion to others — at least in their eyes — is nothing more than what all Catholics are called to do on behalf of God. “This recognition has affected me to a depth I’ve never experienced,” Marion said.
“But the more I analyze it, the more I think that this service is for God and we owe everything to God,” she said. “So I feel like it doesn’t seem fitting that I should receive recognition for doing God’s work.”

There are, however, many who think differently.  For 65 years of distinguished service and contributions to their parish, diocese, family, community and social justice, the Wagamons were awarded the prestigious papal Benemerenti medal by Pope Francis.  The pair formally received their medal during Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Huntsville on Jan. 10. “It is absolutely unbelievable,” Charles said.  “When my wife called from the church and said we received a medal, I asked what kind,” he recalled. “She got home and said it’s a medal that the Pope has approved and I thought, ‘My goodness, how in the world could that happen to someone living in Huntsville, Texas?’”

The medal is one of the highest honors that the Roman Catholic Church can bestow on the laity. St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner James “Jim” Riley nominated the Wagamons and Father Fred Valone, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle, forwarded the nomination.  The nomination also required further approval and endorsement by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, the Papal Nuncio in Washington, D.C., and ultimately the pontiff.  Considered to be exemplary Catholics and civic leaders in Huntsville and Walker County, the Wagamons have an impressive list of outstanding contributions for more than six decades. Charles served as president and trustee of the Huntsville Independent School District Board, and later as a Walkter County judge.  Charles, 90, is also a distinguished World War II veteran and has dedicated most of his adult life to the advancement of public education and assisting others with special needs.  A long-time educator, Marion served 30 years in public education. She remains actively engaged with the Texas Education Agency and Association of Texas Professional Educators, testifying several times in front of the agency’s statewide hearings on improving the state’s educational system.

In addition to their civic activities, the Wagamons have enriched the faith community of St. Thomas Apostle for more than 40 years.  They have been involved in numerous ministries, including the pastoral council, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, the Marian Cenacle of Prayer, the funeral ministry and the Confraternity of Christian Education instructors.  In 2002, the Wagamons established a local Catholic radio station with both English and Spanish versions to support their prison ministry’s effort to impact the lives of inmates at the area’s prisons.  “I never in my wildest dreams thought of a radio station and I got a call from people up north who said FCC had opened up all these radio bands for two small stations and they needed three local names,” Marion, 86, said.  “I listened and thought, ‘What kind of scam is this?’ but they weren’t asking for money,” she added. “So I submitted the paperwork and a year later on Aug. 15, 2002, which is the Feast of the Assumption, I had a permit to build a radio station.”  The radio station was on air by Sept. 29, 2003 and has been operating 24 hours a day for 11 years. While the stations physical equipment sits inside a small closet, its programing comes from EWTN, a Catholic station out of Irondale, Ala.

In 2008, Marion started a parish network. Parishioners send Marion meetings, events and activities information and subscribers get email alerts about the functions.  “The reason I started this was because we had one priest and he was in the hospital and I said, ‘Father, if you don’t mind, I’ll do an email telling people you are in the hospital’ and it has been amazing what it has grown into becoming,” Marion said.  Both of the Wagamons said their faith comes from strong morals and varied backgrounds that ultimately placed them on the same path.  

While Marion was a cradle Catholic whose parents were steadfast churchgoers, Charles is a convert who discovered Catholicism while serving in the Army Air Forces.  Stationed in the Philippines in 1946, Charles and Marion had been dating for years, but he knew a future marriage with one partner who was not Catholic didn’t seem right.

So Charles, who was raised Methodist, was mentored by a resident priest and by 1947, he became a converted Catholic.
“I knew other Catholic officers and I started going to Mass and it was all in Latin in those days,” Charles said. “I knew what these people had and it was something that not everybody had. When these officers were in Mass, they were different. I thought, ‘This is something I need to look into.’”

Over the years, Charles and Marion faith-based outreach helped people in numerous ways. They did everything from protest abortion clinics to house people who found themselves homeless.

The couple is a shining example of how all Christians should be, said Riley, who has known the couple for 30 years. “I thought they represented the ideal parishioners who have committed their lives to the Church, community and their families. Being good Catholics and being very good community members, I thought they should receive that recognition.”

“They really are role models and have been doing this for over 65 years, even before they moved to Huntsville,” Riley said. “We as parishioners should at least ask for recognition of service and I discussed the Wagamons with our pastor and this medal fits what they have accomplished in their lifetime.”

The Wagamons have not only used faith to help others, but also themselves. With five children, the couple is not immune to family problems but God has been instrumental in their strength.

Of the three boys, their oldest, Charles “Chad” Wagamon Jr., died suddenly in August. The middle son, Edward, is a cancer survivor.  “My faith is my rock and always has been,” Marion said. “When bad things happen that is the first place I turn.”  There is also youngest son, Jack, and daughters Christiana Felder and Teresa Foster-Wagamon. All were raised in the Church.  Father Valone helped Riley to complete the process of nominating the Wagamons. It took nearly three months.  “They are compassionate and disciples of faith,” Valone said of the Wagamons. “They live their baptismal vocation, sharing faith and transforming the world around us with a commitment to follow Christ with all heart and soul.
“They became what we are called to become,” Valone said. †