Holy Cross Missions in Austin

Holy Cross Mexican Missions in Austin, 1939-1946

Three Congregations of the Holy Cross

San José Catholic Church in Austin was founded by men and women of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, as were some thirty other Roman Catholic Churches in the Diocese of Austin. The three congregations in the C.S.C. movement consist of separate organizations for priests, Brothers and Sisters. Members of all three C.S.C. congregations helped in the work at San José Church.

Origins of St. Edward's University

The history of the C.S.C. in Central Texas dates back to 1868 when Mr. and Mrs. Doyle, members of St. Mary's Parish in Austin, purchased a 498-acre farm south of the Colorado River and east of what is now Congress Avenue. After Mr. Doyle's death in 1871, his widow bequeathed 398-acres of the Doyle farm to the Catholic Church for use as a school. She advised Bishop Claude Marie Dubuis, the Bishop of Galveston, of this intended gift. Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., who founded Notre Dame University in Indiana, and Bishop Dubuis visited the Doyle farm in 1872. Father Sorin purchased an adjoining tract of 123-acres on the Austin-San Antonio Highway and gave Mrs. Doyle a note of $995 for her 398 acres. When Mrs. Doyle died in 1873, she willed the note to Sorin.

Holy Cross Fathers arrived in Austin in 1874

In 1874, the Holy Cross Fathers accepted Bishop Dubois' offer of a parish in Austin and Rev. Daniel Spillard became the first C.S.C. pastor of St. Mary's Church (now Cathedral). At the same time, Sisters of the Holy Cross took charge of St. Mary's old rock parish school on E. 10th Street and two Holy Cross Brothers and three Holy Cross Sisters took possession of the Doyle farm. By 1878, a school that eventually became St. Edward's University opened in a building at the Doyle farm. In 1889, the school building moved to its present location on the hilltop on the Robard's tract adjacent to the highway leading to San Antonio.

Guadalupe Church was founded in 1907

In 1907, two new Catholic churches were built in Austin: St. Austin's at the University of Texas and Our Lady of Guadalupe at the northwest corner of W. 5th and Guadalupe Streets. Rev. Patrick O'Reilly C.S.C. founded Guadalupe Church as a national or language parish for Mexican Catholics. During the era of racial segregation, every religious denomination in Austin created separate churches for Anglos, African-Americans and Mexicans. By 1923, Rev. O'Reilly was the pastor of Sacred Heart Chapel near a railroad junction in east Austin where a large number of Mexicans lived in railroad boxcars. This chapel was later moved to the 2300 block of East First Street and became a mission of Guadalupe Church. It is now Cristo Rey Church.

Guadalupe Church moved to East Austin in 1925

In 1925, because of a shortage of Holy Cross priests who could speak Spanish, the Missionary Oblate Fathers took charge of Guadalupe Church. Nevertheless, the Congregation of the Holy Cross continued to play an outsized role in Austin. Holy Cross Brothers and priests staffed St. Edward's University and Holy Cross Sisters staffed several Catholic schools including St. Mary's Academy.

Holy Cross priests began work in South Austin in 1937

In 1937, a Holy Cross priest laid the cornerstone of Holy Cross Church for African-American Catholics on E. 11th Street. In the late 1930s, the Congregation of the Holy Cross began missionary work south of the Colorado River on the northern border of the San Antonio Dioceses and in 1939 four missionary priests were working with Mexicans along the Colorado River. In 1940 Holy Cross priests, Brothers and Sisters occupied positions in South Austin at the University of St. Edward's, the missions of San José (Spanish-speaking) and Holy Family (for African-American Catholics) and the Parish of St. Ignatius, Martyr (English speaking).

Mexican Mission in the Diocese of San Antonio

As a result of a census conducted by Sisters of the Missionary Catechists, Holy Cross priests established missions on the Austin-Lockhart Road (now the San Francisco Javier Church), in Buda (now the Santa Cruz Church), in Montopolis (Our Lady of Light, now Our Lady of Sorrows Church) and Vasquez Chapel and the settlement of Garfield (both now extinct). All the missions south of the Colorado River were in the Diocese of San Antonio.

Rev. Mendez was assigned to the Mexican Mission

Between 1936 and 1939, Rev. Alfredo Mendez, a native of Puerto Rico, built eleven mission stations in the Diocese of Galveston north of the Colorado River. In July 1939 he was assigned to work among Mexicans living in Travis County south of the Colorado River in the Diocese of San Antonio. A church historian, Brother William Dunn, said that Mendez received the assignment after a stay in the Catholic hospital in San Antonio. Archbishop Arthur J. Drossaerts of San Antonio occupied a nearby bed and, after hearing of the work done in the Galveston Diocese, invited Mendez to do the same in his diocese. Holy Cross priests Donohue and Houser were suggested as collaborators. The Bishop set the geographic limits of the Mission, agreed that the "Mother Church" would be in South Austin and approved appeals to the Catholic Church Extension Society for building funds.

San José was the Mother Church of the Mexican Missions

The Mother Church was located only blocks from a Catholic church for English-speaking Anglos (St. Ignatius Martyr) that was dedicated in February 1940. Neither Mexicans nor African-Americans were allowed to attend St. Ignatius Church and, in 1942, Rev. Edwin Bauer C.S.C. started a separate mission church (Holy Family) for African-Americans at 618 W. Johanna Street.

San José was a national or language parish

Rev. Mendez and his collaborators started the Mexican mission on the assumption that the new parish would be a national or language parish as was Guadalupe Church. However, at that time, a bishop could not create a national parish on his own accord. This created confusion and in 1946 and 1947 the Archbishop appointed Mendez and his helpers as Assistant Pastors of St. Ignatius Martyr Church although they actually worked at the Mexican Mission nearby. Archbishop Robert Lucey asked that the Holy See erect San José as a national parish to remedy this problem. This was done and San José was created as a national parish inside the boundaries of St. Ignatius Martyr Parish on Easter Sunday 1947.

Construction of San José Church began in February 1940

In February 1940, construction of the Mexican Mission's Mother Church began. During the construction of the church, Mass was said outdoors at the Luís Z. Calderon farm on the Vinson road north of what is now Stassney Lane. For a few months in the spring, Mass was said in the chapel of the convent of St. Ignatius Martyr Church at 307 W. Johanna Street. Shortly after the Mother Church (San José) was completed in June, the men began work on its mission stations. By the end of 1940, Rev. Mendez was able to report 150 baptisms and 65 registered families at San José in Austin, 20 baptisms and 70 registered families at Guadalupe in Garfield and one baptism and 180 registered families at a mission on the Lockhart highway near Colton. He explained that the mission at Colton (now San Francisco Javier Church) had just been completed as he wrote the report and this accounted for the lack of baptisms there.

The Mexican Mission built four missionary churches

In addition to the three missions, the Mexican Mission operated five preaching stations at Buda (now Santa Cruz Church), Manchaca, Elroy, Creedmoor and Oak Hill. Rev. Mendez and his helpers from St. Edward's University were celebrating Mass every Sunday at San José and every other Sunday at the other missions. Children at each mission and preaching station were given catechetical instruction at least once a week. In 1942, Mendez reported four missions with church buildings (San José in Austin; Guadalupe at Garfield; San Francisco at Creedmoor; Santa Cruz in Buda) and ten preaching stations (Bluff Springs, Turnerville, Dry Creek, Manchaca, Colorado (perhaps Montopolis), Norwood, Oak Hill, Elroy, Owens and Maha).

Rev. Mendez had a number of collaborators between 1939 when he began the mission and 1948 when he was reassigned. Mendez was the only full-time priest assigned to the mission but three Holy Cross Sisters from St. Mary's Academy and half a dozen men from St. Edward's University helped him as priests and teachers. His earliest helpers included Rev. Peter Mueller C.S.C., Rev. Thomas Culhane C.S.C. and Rev. James Donahue, C.S.C.

The Mexican mission was not self-supporting

All of the missions and preaching stations were within 15 miles of St. Edward's University and Rev. Mendez had a car. He reported that he spent fifty cents a trip on Sunday and Catechism day. In 1940, he reported that income from the missions was, "Roughly $1.50 to $2.00 a Sunday." During all of 1940 receipts from the plate collection totaled $308. Mendez explained that his parishioners were extremely poor. The Sisters who surveyed the area for the Mexican Mission reported that most Mexican farm workers lived in shacks on their employer's property and were "wretchedly" poor. Mexicans living in Austin were laborers or construction workers although a few owned small businesses.

"The Congregation of the Holy Cross never asked for anything"

Rev. Mendez and the Holy Cross congregations did not expect that the Mexican Missions would ever be a source of income for them. Mendez used donations from the Catholic Church Extension Society and donors "in the north" to build the mission stations. He borrowed money from his sister. In 1946 the Mexican Mission had a total debt of $3,236.25, mostly for construction of mission churches. There is also a loan of $221.25 to the Seminary at 4% interest. Before Mendez was transferred to Notre Dame in 1948, the Bishop complained that Mendez had asked so much from the Extension Society that other parishes were starved for capital funds. In April 1963, Rev. Houser said, "In 23 years of work at San José, the Congregation of Holy Cross has never received or asked for anything. Even that should not go on forever, since we have Seminarians to train and the sick and aged to care for."

Their efforts were rewarded

The Congregation of the Holy Cross was the godfather of many of today's Spanish-speaking Catholic churches in Central Texas. Holy Cross priests continued to administer San José Church until 1993 when Diocesan priests took over the parish. Between 1939 and 1993, thirty-one Holy Cross priests and numerous C.S.C. Sisters and Brothers labored to build San José Church and its missions. They did not expect, nor did they receive, a financial reward for their work. Their reward came from elsewhere.