Matagorda County Historical Marker Narrative

Holy Cross Catholic Church

2001 Katy Street          28°59'4.70"N        95°57'0.43"W
 




HOLY CROSS CATHOLIC CHURCH
BAY CITY, TEXAS

Researched and written by David Holubec
Matagorda County Historical Commission Marker Chairman - July 2005

 

The Reconstruction and its aftermath were drawing to a close in the United States. The Catholic Church in New Orleans was experiencing rapid growth and financial strain. The major challenge facing the Church was the incorporation of newly emancipated African Americans into mainstream United States. South Louisiana was the home for the large majority of African American Catholics at the end of the Civil War.

 

By 1880, the Catholic faith was still growing in New Orleans under the direction of Archbishop Francis Xavier Leray (1825-1887), with the help of the local Jesuit order.


French Jesuits first evangelized Native American nations in the vast territory of
Louisiana at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Jesuit priest, Father C. D. Frin, S.J., unknowingly, would affect the lives of countless Catholics in Texas, by baptizing into the Catholic faith, Texan, Louisiana Mary Thompson Bowie on April 13, 1885 at Immaculate Conception Parish in New Orleans. Her godmother was Alice Marie Roux.
 

Louisiana Bowie’s visit to New Orleans and subsequent baptism, would also change the lives of all Catholics in Matagorda County, Texas along with her desire to share her newly acquired faith with her family and friends; beginning the first efforts to aid in the establishment of the Catholic Church in Matagorda County and Bay City, Texas.

 

Matagorda County was one of the original twenty-three counties created when the Constitution of the Republic of Texas was adopted on March 17, 1836. On May 4, 1847, the new frontier diocese (Galveston) was first established by Pope Pius IX under the direction of Bishop Jean Marie Odin. (1800 – 1870)

 

In the 1850’s, many Polish Catholic immigrants arrived in Matagorda County. Their love for their faith was so great that they procured priests from Brazoria, Liberty, Galveston and Houston to visit their small community, St. Francisville, which was lovingly known as the “Polish Village.” Beginning in 1885 the Matagorda County area was considered a “mission” of Annunciation Parish of Houston, Texas. Mass was said in the home of Frank Seerden and his wife, Mary Petrucha Seerden.
 

In 1895, the Seerdens and Mrs. Seerden’s nephew, Zeflick Butter, donated land for the construction of a church building. On December 21, 1895, The Right Reverend Nicholas Aloysius Gallagher (1846 – 1918), from the diocese of Galveston, and Father M. P. McSorley consecrated the St. Francisville Catholic Church, becoming the first Euro-American Roman Catholic Church in Matagorda County.
 

Louisiana Thompson Bowie (1848 – 1933) was one of three daughters born in Matagorda County (January 18, 1848), to Anna Taliferro Thompson (1823 – 1892) and Elbert A. Thompson, (1816 - 1852) who had settled in Matagorda County by 1840.  The Thompson’s owned a large plantation on Caney Creek. After Mr. Thompson’s death in 1852, Anna Thompson married Dr. Robert Holmes Chinn (d.1868). Dr. Chinn was a member of the Caney Mounted Riffles, a military company organized during the Civil War. He lovingly raised the Thompson girls as his own and the couple later had a son, Richard Taliferro Chinn (1857 – 1929).
 

The Thompson-Chinn family lived across Caney Creek from the Bowie Plantation. The George J. and Frances S. Bowie family came to Texas in 1850. George J. Bowie was either drowned or frozen to death along with twenty-one other young soldiers in Matagorda Bay during the Civil War. They were attempting to defend the peninsula from the enemy.


In 1907, Monsignor Jacob B. Schnetzer was appointed as priest for the Bay City area. By this time, the Bowie family had moved to Bay City, so Monsignor Schnetzer made his home with them while he was in town. Under the direction of Bishop Gallagher, Monsignor Schnetzer purchased lots 4, 5 & 6 of Block 174 in Bay City on March 8, 1907 for $150, to construct the first church building to be located on the corner of Avenue M and Fifth Street.

 

Well-known, Galveston architect, Nicholas Joseph Clayton (1839 – 1916), was commissioned to design and construct the new structure. Clayton was himself a practicing Catholic, who had designed many churches, homes and commercial buildings in Texas. Nicholas Clayton was born in Cork, Ireland on November 1, 1839 and came to America as a child. At the age of twenty-eight, he decided to become an architect and acquired a job with the firm of Jones & Baldwin of Memphis. In 1872, the firm sent Clayton to Galveston to be the supervising architect for the construction of the First Presbyterian Church and the Tremont Hotel. There he remained until his death in 1916. Clayton also designed the famous Bishop’s Palace in Galveston which was begun in 1886 and completed in 1893 at a cost of $250,000.

 

Today, Nicholas Clayton is a legend in Texas architecture. He has “inspired one of the finest collections of 19th century, High Victorian buildings in America….”
 

In August 1908, Clayton completed his plans for the “Church of the Holy Cross” in Bay City, Texas. It would be Clayton’s last church building. The building was completed in May, 1909 and dedicated by Father Jacob B. Schnetzer. The bell atop the new structure was blessed by Father Ropps.
 

Between 1909 and 1910, Monsignor Schnetzer, with the assistance of priests from the Oblate order, Father J.P. Cuny, Father T.D. Hudon, Father Esteban de Anta and Father William Lang, continued serving the mission churches in the surrounding area, including Bay City. These priests would hold Mass once or twice a month in any one location, due to the vast area they served. Rosenberg, Velasco, Brazoria, Eagle Lake, Glen Flora, Wharton, Alcoa, Alvin, Danbury, Needville, Wadsworth, Francisville and Matagorda, were just a few of the other communities they served as traveling priests. The priests would arrive from Houston on the Brownsville train. Monsignor Schnetzer would later become the superintendent of schools for the Galveston Diocese in the late 1930’s.

The Missionary Oblates arrived in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in 1849. Their purpose was to revive the Catholic faith in the rural countryside and other areas less touched by the Church. In 1903 an Oblate seminary was begun in San Antonio, and in 1904 San Antonio became the headquarters of the newly formed Second
American Province of the Oblates.

Father George Montreuil assumed duties as priest in Bay City from 1910 to 1914. During his tenure, Father Montreuil began plans to build a rectory for the priests; however, these plans were not completed until 1920 under the watchful eye of Oblate, Father J.P. Cuny.



In late 1919, Father John J. Kearns (1894 - 1974) was assigned to Bay City and became the first resident Catholic priest to reside full-time in Bay City in 1920. Father Kearns was a native of Ireland. Born in 1894, he was ordained in the rectory of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston on December 23, 1917, by Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher. It would be Bishop Gallagher’s last ordination. He died the following month. Kearns
would later become the vicar general for Bishop Louis Joseph Reicher (1890 – 1984) of the Austin diocese. The Most Reverend Christopher Edward Byrne (1867 – 1950) became the next Bishop of Galveston (1918 – 1950)

Anti-Catholicism was old and built into the very heart of the American culture. Prior to World War I, the Ku Klux Klan still lurked in many places. Several decades later, the Klan still had small bands of members throughout the United States and Texas was no exception. In 1932, Father John J. O’Reilly, a native of
Ireland was assigned to Holy Cross Church. Back in 1920, Father O’Reilly denounced President Woodrow Wilson from the pulpit in Houston’s St. Patrick’s Church for not insisting on Irish independence at the Versailles Peace Conference, and in reprisal he was twice abducted by the Ku Klux Klan after being called out on bogus sick calls. On the first abduction, he was thrown from a moving car in Hermann Park and had to be hospitalized; on the second, he was tarred and feathered. Another incident that actually occurred in Bay City demonstrated that not only Catholics were tired of the Klan’s bigotry. In April, 1924, when an anti-Catholic speaker arrived in Bay City for his second lecture, a Methodist layman “handled the preacher in true Jack Dempsey fashion,” at which the orator left town.
 

Over the next two decades, Holy Cross parish continued to grow and prosper. In 1940, under the direction of Father George Elmendorf, Holy Cross Church opened a Catholic grade school next door to its sanctuary. The first teachers were two Benedictine Oblate Sisters from England. The Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament now serve the school from Victoria, Texas. It continues to serve the educational and spiritual needs of some one hundred thirty-two students.
 

In 1943, Monsignor Christopher J. Martin (1900 – 1989) succeeded Father Elmendorf at Holy Cross Church.  Christopher Joseph Martin was born in a small village in Ballagh, County of Tripperary, Ireland. The idea of becoming a priest came about as a child. Young Martin would travel about in a pony and trap steered by a retired priest, Father McKeogh, and answer the rosary, as it was the priest’s custom to say it during his journey.
 

More property was purchased from Carrie Robbins Rugeley in 1945, Lots 1 - 3 of Block 174, to expand the ever-growing parish, but by 1948, Holy Cross parish had out-grown its facilities and it was evident that a new building plan was needed. Monsignor Martin and parishioner Edward Baca (1914 – 1993) traveled to Galveston to present plans for the purchase of land and the building of new facilities on the outlaying area of Bay City, to the Most Reverend Christopher E. Byrne. Bishop Byrne approved the plans and a new era in Holy Cross Church history was beginning.
 

On April 3, 1948, Holy Cross Catholic Church purchased two tracts of land from the T.M. Thompson Estate: I & G N AB. 270, TR 20- 9.85 acres and I & G N AB. 271, TR 2- 3.65 acres, on the corner of State Highway 35 and Katy Avenue, at a cost of $3,500. The architect of the sanctuary, school, rectory and convent was the firm Golemon & Rolfe of Houston, Texas. The new facility was to be a handsome contemporary church, a modern school building, a rectory and convent, all constructed of brick. The church building boasted a small bell tower on the roof with a Verdin stationary church bell that rang with the help of a mechanized bell ringer. In the winter of 1949, the new $500,000 facility was dedicated with Monsignor Christopher Martin and the Most Reverend Wendelin J. Nold (1900 – 1981), bishop of the Houston – Galveston Diocese.
 


Growth in the school brought forth more additions in 1962. A new cafeteria and classrooms were built to accommodate the students at a cost of about $191,000. Monsignor Vincent Harris of
Galveston dedicated them on November 18th.

Monsignor Martin would serve
Holy Cross Church for twenty-eight years. In 1989 a parish hall was built and dedicated as “Martin Hall,” in honor of his service to the Catholic community in Bay City.

In 1992, the church was updated and remodeled to make room for a new chapel, confessional, sacristy, pipe organ, foyer, porte cochere and bell tower. The rededication ceremonies were held on November 1, 1992 with Monsignor James C. Brunner and the Bishop of the Victoria Diocese, the Most Reverend David E. Fellhauer. This last remodeling has served the church well and is astatically pleasing.

Young Louisiana Thompson Bowie and her zeal for the Catholic faith, along with the Polish immigrants of St. Francisville have left a lasting Catholic heritage that has been respected and nurtured in Bay City and all of Matagorda
County.
 


HOLY CROSS CATHOLIC CHURCH

IN MAY 1847, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ESTABLISHED A NEW FRONTIER DIOCESE IN GALVESTON. DURING THE NEXT SEVERAL YEARS, MANY POLISH CATHOLIC IMMIGRANTS MOVED TO MATAGORDA COUNTY, AND PRIESTS FROM NEARBY TOWNS VISITED THEIR SMALL COMMUNITY, KNOWN AS ST. FRANCISVILLE.

IN THE LATTER PART OF THE 19TH CENTURY, LOUISIANA THOMPSON BOWIE WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN BRINGING THE PRIESTS TO DELIVER MASS TO AREA RESIDENTS. BORN TO ANN TALIFERRO AND ELBERT A. THOMPSON INS 1848, LOUISIANA GREW UP ACROSS THE CANEY CREEK FROM HARRIS WALKER BOWIE, WHOM SHE MARRIED. ON APRIL 13, 1895, WHILE IN NEW ORLEANS, SHE WAS BAPTIZED INTO THE CATHOLIC FAITH AT IMMACULATE CONCEPTION PARISH. BACK IN TEXAS, AT HER HOME ON THE BOWIE PLANTATION, SHE ARRANGED FOR PRIESTS TO STAY WITH HER FAMILY AND TRAVELED WITH THEM TO THE CHURCH IN ST. FRANCISVILLE.

BAY CITY BECAME MATAGORDA COUNTY’S SEAT OF GOVERNMENT IN 1895, AND VISITING PRIESTS HELD MASS IN THE COURTHOUSE OR IN PRIVATE HOMES. MONSIGNOR JACOB B. SCHNETZER BECAME PRIEST FOR THE BAY CITY AREA IN 1907, BY WHICH TIME THE BOWIES LIVED IN THE GROWING TOWN; SCHNETZER STAYED IN THEIR HOME. IN MARCH 1907, HE BOUGHT LOTS AT AVENUE M AND FIFTH STREET TO BUILD A SANCTUARY FOR THE BAY CITY PARISH. DESIGNED BY PROMINENT GALVESTON ARCHITECT NICHOLAS CLAYTON, THE STRUCTURE SERVED THE CONGREGATION FOR MANY YEARS. AS THE CHURCH GREW DURING THE 20TH CENTURY, IT BUILT NEW FACILITIES, INCLUDING A RECTORY, SCHOOL, NEW SANCTUARY AND OTHER FACILITIES. TODAY, HOLY CROSS CATHOLIC CHURCH OFFERS WORSHIP AND EDUCATION PROGRAMS AND CONNECTS ITS MEMBERS TO THEIR FAITH AND TO THEIR HISTORY.

Typed by Faye Cunningham
 


Frances Milhous Bowie
 

 

Copyright 2009 - Present by Carol Sue Gibbs
All rights reserved

Created
May 18, 2009
Updated
Nov. 21, 2010
   

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