Mexican Austin, 1900-1939


Mexican Austin, 1900-1939 and the Origins of San José Catholic Church

Colonia of West Austin

In 1872, the Bishop of Galveston offered a parish in Austin to the Congregation of the Holy Cross (C.S.C.). That same year, the Holy Cross Fathers purchased a farm that later became St. Edward's University. Before 1907, Rev. Patrick O'Reilly, C.S.C., established a mission for Spanish-speaking Catholics living in a neighborhood called West Austin in what is now downtown Austin. The neighborhood was located west of Congress Avenue and near the outlet of Shoal Creek. The people were Mexican or Italian immigrants. In 1907, O'Reilly was pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the northwest corner of W. 5th and Guadalupe Streets. The parishioners of Guadalupe Church lived in the Mexican colonia called West Austin or Little Mexico.

Mexican immigration increased after 1910

Between 1910 and 1924, many Catholics emigrated from northern Mexico to Texas to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Exiled priests and bishops and those with urban skills settled in San Antonio. Those who arrived in rural Travis and Caldwell Counties were farm workers. They found employment on ranches in south and central Texas. Those who came to Austin settled near African-American neighborhoods such as Clarksville, Masonville, Montopolis and Bouldin Creek or in the area around Guadalupe Church where rent was cheap and where they were welcomed. By the 1920s, there were five Mexican neighborhoods located in West Side Austin. The neighborhoods were between Congress and West Avenues and W. 1st and W. 7th Streets in downtown Austin.

Mexicans moved to East Austin after 1910

In response to rising real estate prices and restrictive Jim Crow practices of the time, Mexicans began moving to east of East Avenue (now I-35 Highway). A census taken in 1923 found 595 Mexicans living on the West Side (87 families) and 1,442 in the East Side (316 families). In 1925, the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe moved to Lydia and E. 9th Streets in East Austin and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) took over its administration. In 1928, the African-American residents of Austin, who previously lived throughout the city in small enclaves, were encouraged by the City Government to resettle in East Austin (an area called Masonville) and by 1930, 80% of the African-American residents of Austin lived in Masonville. Newly arrived Mexicans were concentrated in neighborhoods east and south of the so-called Negro district.

The Bouldin Addition

In 1910, a concrete bridge replaced an old iron bridge where Congress Avenue crossed the Colorado River. Farmers who owned land south of the Colorado River began subdividing their farms and selling the land as residential lots. In 1894, David W. Bouldin, who owned a farm that extended from the Colorado River south to what is now William Cannon Drive, began to subdivide his farm and sell lots for residential use. The first section to be subdivided was the Bouldin Addition. Most homes in the Bouldin Addition were built between 1910 and 1930. An African-American neighborhood called Brackenridge was already located east of East Bouldin Creek and west of Congress Avenue. During the 1920s, Mexicans began moving to the Bouldin Addition west of the Brackenridge neighborhood.

Mexican Mission in South Austin, 1939

In 1939, four priests of the Congregation of the Holy Cross (C.S.C.), who lived at St. Edward's University, began working with Mexicans who lived in the eastern and southern parts of Travis County. Rev. Mendez, C.S.C., began celebrating Mass for Mexicans who otherwise attended Guadalupe Church in Austin. The Masses were said in a chapel on the property of Saint Ignatius Martyr Church at 211 West Johanna Street or outdoors on a ranch in South Austin near what is now the intersection of the Missouri-Pacific railroad tracks and Stassney Lane.

The 1940 Census of Catholics in Travis County

In early 1940, two Sisters of the Missionary Catechists (Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Victory) were engaged to search out and register Mexican farm workers living in the counties of Bastrop and Travis in what was then the Diocese of San Antonio. Rev. James Donahue, C.S.C., a retired priest, visited the families and attended to those who needed baptism, confirmation or marriage. The marriages he performed appear in the records of San José Church.

Building San José Church, 1940

In 1940, a group of Mexicans who lived in or near the Bouldin Addition neighborhood began construction of a church for the San José Mission at the corner of S. 3rd and West Mary Streets. They worked under the direction of Rev. Mendez. The construction of the church of San José began a long association between these men and the Holy Cross Fathers. After finishing the San José Church building in June 1940, they built a second building in Creedmoor and later a chapel on the San Antonio Highway at Buda. Somewhat later, the men built a fourth chapel in Montopolis near the Colorado River.

The church was built of donated material

The stones used to build the churches were taken from a farm near Zilker Park. They were carried to the building site in a truck belonging to Eliseo and Gabriel Gutiérrez. Mexican volunteers and missionary priests worked together to construct the buildings. The ceiling beams were cedar logs hewn by hand. The trusses were old power poles from the Congress Avenue trolley line. The floors were flagstone. Volunteers built the three churches using blueprints prepared by the architect who built the structures at Bastrop State Park. The supply of donated stone ran out prior to the construction of the church at Montopolis and it was built of cut stone.

After 1945, San José Parish purchased a one-story house next to the church and converted it into the parish hall. In 1948, the building was demolished and a two-story rectory built as a residence for the missionary priests. At least seven Holy Cross priests lived in the building at one time. They had charge of the five Mexican missions that were active during this period. This building was later moved to its current location next to the second San José Church south of Oltorf Street.

Spanish Diocesan Convention, 1940

In April 1940, Holy Cross priests and the pastor of Guadalupe Church in Austin organized a retreat for Spanish-speaking Catholic religious societies and individuals living around Austin. The first of sixty annual retreats (called Diocesan Spanish Conventions) was held in Taylor in the Galveston Diocese (north of the Colorado River). The convention was scheduled to meet during Lent before migrant farm workers began their northern journey at the end of April. Individuals from various churches and delegates from fraternal organizations such as the Sociedad del Sagrado Corazón, Sociedad de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the Hijas de María (a young women's group) attended the retreat. The annual conventions of Spanish-speak Catholic organizations continued until 2000.

The Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, 1939

In 1940, before construction of San José Church began, men who belonged to the Sociedad del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús at Guadalupe Church received permission from Rev. Méndez to form a similar sociedad at San José mission. At about the same time, their wives formed the Sociedad del Sagrado Corazón de María (later changed to Sociedad de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe or Guadalupanas). In 1940, these two organizations at San José church enrolled 26 and 24 members respectively. Fifteen young women enrolled in a society called Hijas de María and 20 young men enrolled in their own organization. The four organizations included a large proportion of the 320 parishioners from 65 families who were registered in San José church in 1940. These organizations formed the core group that worked in partnership with the Holy Cross Fathers to bring the Catholic faith to Mexican immigrants living south of the Colorado River in what was then the Diocese of San Antonio.

In 2015, the men and women of these two societies continue to work together to carry on the work begun by their antecedents in 1940. Although there are now many other ministries operating in the San José Church community, these are the only two organizations that have operated continuously since the church was founded 80 years ago.