Fifty years ago this July, the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, was created. It was the eighth of what would be fifteen dioceses in the rapidly growing Lone Star State—the most of any U.S. state. Texas Catholicism today is the mixture of a diverse array of new parishioners and descendants of Catholics who have been present in the region for more than four hundred years.
The earliest Catholic missions were Franciscan establishments in the late 1600s. The first was Mission Corpus Christi de Isleta, located in what is now the city of El Paso. Mission San Antonio de Valero gave the modern city its name—and witnessed the legendary Battle of the Alamo. Most of these early missions were secularized in the early nineteenth century by the Mexican government.
Hispanic Catholicism was thus deeply rooted in Texas by 1836, when the inundation of (mostly non-Catholic) American settlers provided the impetus for Texan independence from Mexico. Recognizing the new Republic, the Vatican made provision for a separation of the ecclesiastical province of Texas from the rest of Mexico. Fr. John Timor, C.M., was the nominal head of the prefecture apostolic erected in 1840, but the man who was most active on the ground was Jean-Marie Odin. The French-born Vincentian priest both revitalized the existing Catholicism and founded new parishes. On July 16, 1841 the prefecture was elevated to the rank of vicariate apostolic and Odin became Texas’s first bishop. He was thus the first leader of the Diocese of Galveston when it was created in 1847.
After Texas entered the Union as a state in 1845, immigration continued to swell the Catholic population. To the existing Hispanic church were added thousands of Catholics of Irish, German, Belgian, and Polish ancestry. The Panna Maria settlement (1854) was the first Polish-American community in the United States.
The Catholic character of the state was bolstered by the work of women religious, such as the Ursulines, who arrived in Galveston from Louisiana in 1847. The Sisters of the Incarnate Word came a few years later. Male congregations also played a role, including the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who arrived in Texas in 1849.
In 1852, Odin organized the establishment of the state’s first Catholic college, St. Mary’s in San Antonio. The sisters founded Incarnate Word College in the same city in 1881. Later foundations included the University of St. Thomas in Houston (1947) and the University of Dallas (1956).
It wasn’t until 1874 that Texas got its second diocese, San Antonio, but the number of Catholic people, as well as parishes and dioceses to serve them, grew rapidly after that. The Diocese of Dallas was founded in 1890, followed by Corpus Christi (1912), El Paso (1914), and Amarillo (1926). In 1926, also, San Antonio was raised to the rank of archdiocese, making Texas its own ecclesiastical province.
Both Mexican and Anglo immigration continued during the 1930s, increasing the numbers of both cultures within the local churches. A new era of diocesan expansion began after World War II, with the erection of the dioceses of Austin (1947), San Angelo (1961), Brownsville (1965), Beaumont (1966), and Fort Worth (1969). There were two million Catholics in Texas by the mid-1960s, eclipsing the total populations of many other states. In 1960, then-presidential-candidate John F. Kennedy took his campaign to Houston, where he delivered his famous speech on church and state.
With the rest of American Catholicism, the post-Vatican II era in Texas saw a decline in some measures of institutional health, such as male and female consecrated religious and Catholic school students. Unlike some other regions, however, the Catholic population of Texas continued to climb, as the vibrant Texas economy drew both Catholic families from across the nation as well as Mexican Catholics from across the border. The first Mexican-American bishop in the United States, Patrick Flores, became archbishop of San Antonio in 1979. Additional dioceses were formed in Victoria (1982), Lubbock (1983), Tyler (1987), and Laredo (2000). In 2004, Galveston-Houston became the second archdiocese in the state, making Texas one of two states that are home to more than one archdiocese. (California is the other.)
Texas has always brought together diverse elements—cowboys and oil tycoons, soaring skyscrapers and sprawling ranches—and its Catholic community is no different. Eighteenth-century adobe chapels are at the heart of Texan Catholicism, as are modern, glass suburban churches. Its increasingly prominent place in American Catholicism is a function of its dynamic contemporary growth, but that growth is rooted in a rich past.