Religious men and women help build local Church

December 22, 2015

HOUSTON — From the very beginning of the Catholic Church in Texas, religious men and women have helped to build the local Church. While today communities serve in a variety of ministries, in the early years their work was more concentrated, particularly in the areas of mission and parish work, of education, and of health care and social service work. 

Mission work began while Texas was Spanish and then Mexican territory. Franciscan friars from Spain and Mexico built missions across Texas, to bring the Gospel to the native peoples as well as the European and American settlers arriving daily.

When Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836, the Vatican turned to the Vincentian Fathers (the Congregation of the Mission) to serve Catholics in the new Republic. Pope Gregory XVI created the Apostolic Prefecture of Texas in 1839 and named Father John Timon, C.M., as the Prefect. Father Timon named a fellow Vincentian, Father Jean Marie Odin, the resident Vice-Prefect. Father Odin in turn recruited more Vincentians to staff the few existing parishes spread across the vast Republic, and to establish new ones as quickly as possible. While seeking out diocesan priests, he also invited religious communities of men to come to Texas, beginning with the Oblate Fathers in 1849. In the years that followed, many other orders would send priests and brothers to work in missions and parishes across Texas.

As the Catholic population increased, the Vatican created the original Diocese of Galveston (encompassing all of Texas) in 1847. Father Odin became the first Bishop of Galveston. Both as a missionary priest and bishop, he made Catholic education a priority. To found schools, he turned to religious women and men. Initially he had some difficulty in recruiting women’s communities to come to Texas. In the same year that the Diocese was created, the Ursuline Nuns of New Orleans agreed to open a school in Galveston. Their academy is considered the beginning of the Catholic parochial school system in the Archdiocese. Over the next 168 years, many other orders would answer the call to establish and staff schools in both rural and urban areas. Among the first would be the Congregation of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in 1852, the Christian Brothers in 1860, and the Sisters of Divine Providence in 1866.

From its colonial days to the present, Texas has drawn migrants from other parts of America and immigrants from other countries. In the 19th century, Galveston became one of the country’s busiest immigration ports. The ships that brought new settlers sometimes brought diseases like yellow fever ashore as well, and epidemics frequently swept across the state. The second Bishop of Galveston, Most Rev. Claude Dubuis, hoped to open hospitals to care both for new arrivals and the settled population. Like Bishop Odin, he had difficulty recruiting a nursing order to come to Texas, and he was unsuccessful in convincing teaching orders to take on hospital work. Instead, he found three women willing to start a new order dedicated to health care, who became the first Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in 1866. From hospital work the sisters moved into social service ministries, joined by other religious communities sharing in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, additional communities came to Texas as new fields of ministry opened. The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston today is built in large part on the work of the pioneering religious communities and those that followed them to Texas. The many religious women and men who now minister in the Archdiocese carry that work into the 21st century.