Canary Islanders, Texas’ First Settlers

After years of little success in Christianizing the Texas Indians and turning them into good Spanish citizens, the colonial authorities realized that securing control of the vast area required more than missions and a military presence—civilians were needed to populate the province of Texas. By 1718 Mission San Antonio de Valero (present Alamo) and its presidio still lacked a civilian presence.

Originally the Spanish crown planned to move 400 families from the economically distressed Canary Islands, which lay off the northwest coast of Africa, to establish a civilian community near the Mission San Antonio de Valero and its presidio. The King of Spain intended to completely fund the move through Havana and on to Vera Cruz, including all the necessities for the journey. However, after six years of planning, the original numbers were deemed too large and the transportation too expensive. By the time the Islanders actually sailed for America in 1730, there were only twenty-five families, fifteen of whom stopped in Cuba and only ten traveled all the way to Vera Cruz on the Mexican Gulf coast. As they followed the route laid out for them by the Spanish government up through the center of Mexico, they stopped at places like San Luis Potosi and Saltillo where they received food and clothing. At Presidio San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande they left their worn-out horses and continued their trek on foot to the banks of the San Antonio River. The journey of almost a year brought heartache, including deaths that left two widows as heads of large households and the three Cabrera children–Ana, José, and Marcos—whose parents died on the trip. Marriages along the way increased the entourage to fifteen families—fifty-six people—reaching their new home on March 9, 1731.

Each family received generous land grants, including the three Cabrera orphans. They named their town “Villa de San Fernando” in honor of the prince, Don Fernando, who became King Ferdinand in 1746. By August the Islanders, “Isleños,” had finished plowing and planting and had elected civilian officials to legally establish the first chartered civil government in Texas. Because of their position as the first civilian settlers, the Isleños had permission from the crown to carry the title of “hidalgo,” or son of noble lineage. For years they represented the political and socioeconomic elite of the community.

Tensions arose between the three communities—the Isleños, the military in the presidio, and the Franciscans in the nearby missions—over access to water, which had to be delivered by acequias or irrigation canals, the use of the land, and the management of livestock.

Indian attacks—Comanche, Apache, and other roving tribes—caused the lines of differences between the groups to begin blurring and a cohesive community emerged as they were forced to band together against the outside threat that made it difficult for farmers to work in their fields and sometimes even cut off communication with authorities in New Spain.

The Isleños laid the cornerstone in 1738 for the Church of San Fernando–the first parish church in Texas–and completed its construction in 1750. Over the years the church was enlarged and in 1874 Pope Pius IX named San Antonio a diocese with San Fernando as its cathedral.

San Fernando Church on the Plaza in the 1800s Wikipedia

San Fernando Church on the Plaza in the 1800s
Wikipedia

The first formal census, dated December 31, 1788, refers to the “Villa of San Fernando” and the mission and its presidio as “San Antonio de Béxar.” After Mexico won independence from Spain, San Antonio de Béxar served as the capital of the province and when Texas finally won independence from Mexico in 1836, the city became known as San Antonio.

Sarcophagus or marble coffin holding ashes of Travis, Bowie and Crockett. Wikipedia

Sarcophagus or marble coffin holding ashes of Travis, Bowie and Crockett.
Wikipedia

The dome of the original San Fernando Church served as the geographic center of the city and the point from which all mileage was measured to San Antonio. When Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was secularized in 1793, its congregation became members of San Fernando. Finally in 1824, after missions Concepcíon, San José, and Espada were all secularized, their members joined the San Fernando parish. Jim Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi, daughter of the Governor of the State of Coahuila y Tejas at San Fernando in 1831. The Battle of the Alamo began when General Santa Anna raised the flag of “no quarter” from the tower of the San Fernando church. It is claimed that a sarcophagus or marble coffin at the back of the sanctuary holds the ashes of Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie who died at the Alamo. Today, the cathedral plays a major role in San Antonio as it continues to function as a religious institution while hosting symphonies, concerts, television specials, and the constant arrival of tour buses carrying visitors eager to see one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States that began as a parish church for Canary Islanders.

San Fernando Cathedral Wikipedia

San Fernando Cathedral
Wikipedia

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Don Martin De Leon, Empresario

Soon after winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico began issuing empresarial grants, contracts allowing men to bring settlers into Mexico’s northernmost state of Texas.  Ironically, of approximately thirty empresarial grants issued between 1821 and 1832, only one went to a Mexican.  Don Martín De León and his wife Doña Patricia De León were wealthy descendants of

Don Martin De Leon

Don Martin De Leon

aristocratic Spanish families who had immigrated to New Spain in 1750.  De León received his empresarial grant in April 1824 to settle forty-one Mexican families “of good moral character” on the lower Guadalupe River.  He had been in Texas since 1805, operating ranches along and south of the Nueces River and driving huge herds of cattle to market in New Orleans.

Map of Texas Colonies

Map of Texas Colonies

De León’s grant lay southwest of Stephen F. Austin’s, the first and most successful of the colonies.  De León named his settlement Guadalupe Victoria, after the first president of the Republic of Mexico.  The first twelve families arrived by October and the others, delayed by drought and floods in Northern Mexico, arrived the next spring.  Each family received a town lot, one league (4,228 acres) of land for grazing, and a labor (177 acres) for farming.  Upon completion of the colonization the empresario received five leagues.

One of De León’s sons-in-law platted the town and the empresario designated the main street “La Calle de los Diez Amigos” (The Street of Ten Friends) for the ten homes of citizens who were charged with the welfare of the town from 1824 to 1828.  Three of the ten friends were his sons-in-law and two were his sons.  From 1828 to 1835 alcaldes (mayors) governed the colony.  De León served as the first alcalde followed by two of his relatives.  Not all the colonists were Mexicans; sixteen families, primarily Irish immigrants, also settled in the colony.  A devout Catholic, De León brought in priests from La Bahía (present Goliad), Nacogdoches, and San Antonio until the founding in late 1824 of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  The colonists built a school and a fort, organized a militia, and started a courier service with the neighboring Austin colony.

Victoria quickly became a cultural center as the family maintained contact with friends who were kings, emperors, and both military and political leaders in the United States.  The children and grandchildren were sent to schools in the major cities of Europe and the business of the colony was considered among the most substantial.  Cattle, horses, and mules were the primary business and the family corralled wild Longhorns and mustangs by the thousands.10friends650x335

De León’s five-league ranch, which spread along Garcitas Creek in present southeastern Victoria County, probably included the land where the Frenchman La Salle built Fort St. Louis in 1685.  Many claim DeLeón’s cattle brand, which he had registered in 1807, was the first in Texas.  It consisted of a connected E and J meaning “Espiritu de Jesús, the brand used by Jesuits for hundreds of years and adopted by the De León family in Spain.

De Leon Cattle Brand

De Leon Cattle Brand

From the beginning of his colony, De León, a wealthy and cultured man, looked with disdain at the Americans in surrounding colonies.  His attitude and the preferential treatment he received as a Mexican citizen added to tensions among the neighboring settlements.  The boundaries of his colony were not clearly drawn and in disputes with other colonies, the Mexican courts usually sided with De León.  The ensuing squabbles led to hatred and mistrust between De León and Green DeWitt whose colony at Gonzales lay just to the north.  And De León tried unsuccessfully to have the government annul the grant for an Irish colony to the south.

De León died at age 68 in the 1833 cholera epidemic, leaving his wife and ten children an estate of about a half million dollars.  His sons completed the settlement, which made the De León and the Austin colonies the only two in Texas to fulfill their empresarial agreement.

The family members were strong Federalists and as troubles brewed with the Centralists government under the Mexican Dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, the De Leóns sided with the Texans who supported independence.  The De León’s took part in all the plans for the revolution; they served in the army or helped in other ways to aid the Texas cause.  They contributed so substantially to the war that when Gen. José de Urrea occupied Victoria after the massacre at Goliad, the De Leóns were arrested as traitors.

Despite their contributions, after Texas won independence, Anglo-Americans began coming into Texas looking for land and charging the De Leóns as Mexican sympathizers.  After the murder of one son and the severe injury of another, the family, one of the wealthiest in Texas, left all behind and fled to safety in New Orleans. Three years later, the oldest son Don Fernando De León returned to Victoria and spent the remainder of his life in unsuccessful litigation for the return of the family’s property.

In 1972 a Texas historical marker was placed in Victoria’s Evergreen Cemetery honoring the De León family.  Attendees at the dedication included Patricia De León, great-granddaughter of the empresario, and Dr. Ricardo Victoria, great-grandson of President Guadalupe Victoria for whom the town is named.

Map Legend:  De Leon’s Colony — Blue

Austin’s Colony — Yellow

DeWitt’s Colony — Orange

Irish Colonies — Green

Ladies Fought the Second Battle of the Alamo

The second battle of the Alamo began in the early 20th century as a disagreement between two powerful women over the proper way to preserve the Alamo, which had been allowed after the famous battle in 1836 and the slaughter of the men who fought there, to fall into an embarrassing state of neglect and disrepair.  Adina Emilia De Zavala,

Adina De Zavala

Adina De Zavala

granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas, was a schoolteacher, a prolific writer of Texas history, and an early advocate of restoration of the missions in San Antonio and other historic structures.  About 1889 she organized the “De Zavala Daughters,” dedicated to preserving Texas history, which soon became a chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT).

Although the state of Texas purchased the main entrance known as the Alamo chapel from the Catholic Church in 1883, the state did nothing to preserve the structure.  The building north of the chapel, which De Zavala and her friends believed had served as the convent when the complex was a Spanish mission and was the long barracks where most of the fighting occurred during the battle, had been sold to a wholesale grocer who added a two-story building and altered the façade.  Adina De Zavala and her group secured an agreement from the grocer to have first option to purchase the long barracks, which they dreamed of restoring to its former appearance as a museum.

Hugo and Schmeltzer Grocery

Hugo and Schmeltzer Grocery

In 1903, when the De Zavala group heard that the long barracks might be sold to a hotel syndicate, Adina De Zavala sought the help of Clara Driscoll a nineteen-year-old heiress who had returned to San Antonio after several years studying in Europe.  She was so appalled at the condition of the Alamo that she wrote an article for the Daily Express calling the Alamo complex an “old ruin…. hemmed in on one side by a hideous barracks-like looking building, and on the other by two saloons.”  Clara Driscoll joined the De Zavala chapter of the DRT and went with Adina De Zavala to see the grocer who was asking $75,000 for the structure.  Clara Driscoll personally gave the owner $500 for a thirty-day option and the ladies set about raising the purchase price.  Despite a nationwide campaign and a legislative appropriation, which was vetoed by Governor S.W.T. Lanham as “not a justifiable expenditure of the taxpayers’ money,” Clara Driscoll eventually paid $65,000 to complete the purchase.  Over the governor’s objection, the state reimbursed Clara Driscoll and gave custody of the property to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Clara Driscoll

Clara Driscoll

Then, cracks began to show in the bulwark of the organization as members divided over what should be done with the grocer’s building.  Adina De Zavala and her cohorts believed “a large part” of the original convent/long barracks played a significant role in the Battle of the Alamo and remained hidden under the grocer’s building, while Clara Driscoll and her camp believed the walls of the convent/long barracks overshadowed the Alamo chapel and should be replaced with a dignified park.

Painted in 1844 shows chapel and long barracks

Painted in 1844 shows chapel and long barracks

Members of the statewide DRT and citizens in San Antonio and Texas divided into De Zavalans and Driscollites, each faction determined to have its way.  The two groups within the DRT separated from each other and when Clara Driscoll was given custody of the vacant grocery in 1908, Adina De Zavala locked herself in the building for three days as newspaper reporters from around the country gathered to watch the spectacle.  By 1910 the Driscollites seemed to have won the war, but one more battle remained: Governor Oscar Colquitt, deciding that walls under the modern grocery building pre-dated the Battle at the Alamo, ordered restoration of the convent/barracks.  In January 1912 as the modern additions were removed, the governor personally watched the process that revealed arches and Spanish stone work, which confirmed the De Zavalans’ claim.  However, the following year, while the governor was out of state, the lieutenant governor permitted the roof and walls of the upper story to be removed.  Fifty-five years later, just in time for the 1968 opening of HemisFair, San Antonio’s world’s fair, the old building finally received a roof and opened as a museum.

Adina De Zavala continued for the rest of her life organizing groups that restored, marked and preserved historic sites.  When she died in 1955 at the age of ninety-three, her casket draped with the Texas flag was driven past the Alamo one last time.  She willed her estate to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word for a girl’s vocational school and a boys town.

Clara Driscoll spent the remainder of her life devoted to historic preservation, state and national politics, civic and philanthropic endeavors. When she died in 1945 at the age of sixty-four, her body laid in state at the Alamo chapel.  She bequeathed the bulk of her estate to the Driscoll Foundation Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi.

Texas’ First Settlers: Canary Islanders

After the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle missed the mouth of the Mississippi where he planned to establish a colony and landed instead in 1685 on the middle Texas coast, the Spanish Colonial government became concerned about the French encroaching on Spanish Texas.  The worry led to constructing missions in East Texas with the aim of Christianizing the Indians and establishing a buffer to keep the French in Louisiana from coming into Texas.  After years of little success in converting the Indians and finally moving all the missions out of East Texas, the Spanish Colonial authorities realized that securing control of the vast area required more than missions and a military presence—civilians were needed to populate the province of Texas.  By 1718 Mission San Antonio de Valero (present Alamo) and its presidio still lacked a civilian presence.

Canary Islands

Canary Islands

Originally the Spanish crown planned to move 400 families from the economically distressed Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa to establish a civilian community near the Mission San Antonio de Valero and its presidio.  The King of Spain intended to completely fund the move from the Canary Islands through Havana and on to Vera Cruz, including all the necessities for the journey.  However, after six years of planning, the original numbers were deemed too large and the transportation too expensive.  By the time the Islanders actually sailed for America in 1730, there were only twenty-five families, fifteen of whom stopped in Cuba and only ten traveled all the way to Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast. As they followed the route laid out for them by the Spanish government up through the center of Mexico, they

Route through Mexico

Route through Mexico

stopped at places like San Luis Potosi and Saltillo where they received food and clothing.  At Presidio San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande they left their worn-out horses and continued their trek on foot to the banks of the San Antonio River. The journey of almost a year brought heartache, including deaths that left two widows as heads of large households and the three Cabrera children–Ana, José, and Marcos—whose parents died on the trip.  Marriages along the way increased the entourage to fifteen families—fifty-six people—reaching their new home on March 9, 1731.

Each family received generous land grants, including the three Cabrera orphans.  They named their pueblo “Villa de San Fernando” in honor of the prince, Don Fernando, who became King Ferdinand in 1746.  By August the Islanders, “Isleños,” had finished plowing and planting and had elected civilian officials to legally establish the first chartered civil government in Texas. Because of their position as the first civilian settlers, the Isleños had permission from the crown to carry the title of “hidalgo,” or son of noble lineage.  For years they represented the political and socioeconomic elite of the community.

Tensions arose between the three communities—the Isleños, the military in the presidio, and the Franciscans in the nearby missions—over access to water, which had to be delivered by acequias or irrigation canals, the use of the land, and the management of livestock.  As continued harassment from marauding Comanche, Apache, and other roving tribes made it difficult for farmers to work in their fields and sometimes even cut off communication with authorities in New Spain, the lines of differences began blurring between the groups and a cohesive community emerged as they banded together against the outside threat.

Church of San Fernando

Church of San Fernando

The Isleños laid the cornerstone in 1738 for the Church of San Fernando, the first parish church in Texas and completed its construction in 1750.  Over the years the church was enlarged and in 1874 Pope Pius IX named San Antonio a diocese with San Fernando as its cathedral.

The first formal census, dated December 31, 1788, refers to the “Villa of San Fernando” and the mission and its presidio as “San Antonio de Béxar.”  After Mexico won independence from Spain, San Antonio de Béxar served as the capital of the province and when Texas finally won independence from Mexico in 1836, the city became known as San Antonio.

The dome of the original San Fernando Church served as the geographic center of the city and the point from which all mileage was measured to San Antonio.  When Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was secularized in 1793, its congregation became members of San Fernando.  Finally in 1824, after missions Concepcíon, San José, and Espada were all secularized, their members joined the San Fernando parish.  Jim Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi, daughter of the Governor of the State of Coahuila y Tejas at San Fernando in 1831.  The Battle of the Alamo began when General Santa Anna raised the flag of “no quarter” from the tower of the San Fernando church.  It is claimed that a sarcophagus or marble coffin at the back of the sanctuary holds the remains of Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie who died at the Alamo.  Today, the cathedral

Marble coffin said to hold remains of Alamo heroes

Marble coffin said to hold remains of Alamo heroes

plays a major role in San Antonio as it continues to function as a religious institution while hosting symphonies, concerts, television specials, and the constant arrival of tour buses carrying visitors eager to see one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States that began as a parish church for Canary Islanders.

San Fernando Cathedral

San Fernando Cathedral

Log Church Cathedral

A one-room log church sits on a lane leading off a country road in Wesley a farming community between Houston and Austin. Wesley boasts the first Czech school in Texas that started here in 1859 when the town was called Veseli meaning “joyous.” The church building, erected in 1866, housed the community school and the place of worship for the first Czech-Moravian congregation in Texas.

photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

Rev. Bohuslav Emil Lacjak, serving as teacher and pastor in 1888, began painting the interior of the wood building using an art technique called trompe l’ oeil, a method of creating realistic imagery in three dimensions to give the impression of a basilica-style cathedral, which resulted in rustic-appearing brick walls, columns, and geometric decorative patterns.

photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

Unfortunately, Rev. Lacjak was killed in 1891 in a hunting accident before he could explain the meaning of his work, although he clearly had not completed his creation because the outlines of more designs are still visible.  The congregation believes the gray bricks highlighted in black that stretch to the top of the windows depict the strength of the walls of Jerusalem.  The Star of David atop white pillars casting dark shadows remind congregants of the pillars of Solomon’s Temple.  The continuous chain design around the edge of the ceiling represents the unbroken link of brotherhood and the word “Busnami,” above the pulpit area translates as “God with Us.”

Photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

Photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

Czech immigrants, searching for cheap land, began arriving in Texas in the 1850s. Although most of them were Roman Catholics, ten to fifteen percent were Protestant and most of those were United Brethren who came to Texas after generations of persecution by the Catholic Church in their homeland. They held worship services in homes until they built this little one-room chapel.  The building was enlarged and the steeple added in 1883.  One hundred years later, the congregation built a new church next door, which serves a community of about sixty.  The “log church cathedral,” listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is open as a museum reminding all Czech-Moravians of their rich heritage.

POWER BY DESIGN

In the last half of the nineteenth century, the most powerful men in Texas called Galveston home.  The Strand, a street stretching five blocks along the docks, wore the moniker of Wall Street of the Southwest.  Two-dozen millionaires officed along the route, controlling Texas’ shipping, banks, insurance companies, and the vast cotton export business.

One man, by the power of his designs, left a heritage for Galveston and Texas that all the power brokers combined could not equal.  Nicholas J. Clayton (click on this link for terrific photos) arrived in Galveston in 1872, and changed the face of the booming cultural and business metropolis of Texas.  Although he arrived without friends or business contacts, his position as supervising architect for a Cincinnati firm constructing the First Presbyterian Church and the Tremont Hotel served as sufficient prestige to catch the eye of Galveston notables.

A faithful Catholic, who attended mass most every day, Clayton began his connection with Galveston’s movers and shakers by walking as soon as he arrived in the city to St. Mary’s Church (now St. Mary’s Cathedral) and discussing with the bishop improvements to Galveston’s oldest church built in 1846. Clayton soon designed the central tower and later a new bell and statue of Mary, Star of the Sea.

The bishop may have been influential in 1873 in Clayton receiving his first independent design of Saint Mary’s Church (now Saint Mary’s Cathedral) in Austin, which, at that time, was part of the Galveston Diocese.

Clayton’s residential, commercial, and church designs won respect for the exuberance of shape, color, texture, and detail.  He loved his work, apparently sketched church buildings, windows, altars, and steeples, even while carrying on conversations.  He worked every day except Sunday and Christmas and expected near perfection from employees.  A gentle man, his family claimed his most abusive term was “muttonhead” for those who did not meet his standards.

He designed, built, added to, or remodeled eleven churches in Galveston and other churches all over Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Mexico.  In a time of slower communication, Clayton traveled extensively and made use of the telephone, telegraph, and letters.

Many of his designs have never been duplicated such as the intricate brickwork on Old Red (1891), the first building for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston; and the carpentry has never been matched in the Beach Hotel (1883-1898) and the Electric Pavilion (1881-1883) both destroyed in the 1900 storm.  The flamboyant octagonal Garten Verein (1876- ), an inspired work in wood, served as a social center for the German community.

Clayton, filled with enthusiasm, worked quickly and new ideas appeared to come easily.  Mrs. Clayton claimed the idea for the Garten Verein design came to Clayton instantly and he finished the plans in a single night.

His most spectacular residential design, the Walter Gresham House (1887-1892) (known today as Bishop’s Palace) rises three stories over a raised basement and boasts fourteen-foot ceilings.  Among the grand details is a forty-foot tall octagonal mahogany stairwell with stained glass on five sides lit by a large octagonal skylight.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Gresham House is one of the most significant Victorian residences in the U.S.

Despite his prolific production and vigorous work ethic, Clayton’s son acknowledged that his father wasn’t a very good businessman.  His insistence on perfection at times led him to go over budget for projects and to continue the work at his own expense.  He mostly left financial arrangements to others.  His concern centered on creating outstanding buildings. Eventually his relaxed business practices and dependence on a partner to follow through on a contract while Clayton was out of town, caused him to forfeit a bond and become involved in a long legal battle that resulted in bankruptcy.  As his legal battle dragged on for ten years, many clients turned their backs on him and refused to pay.  Devastated by the loss of his integrity and prestige, the final blow came when the 1900 storm severely damaged or destroyed many of his finest designs.

He continued to get small projects such as the design and reconstruction of the main building of St. Edward’s University in Austin after a fire damaged the structure, and he built the new Incarnate Word Academy in Houston, but he failed to get a bond for a large contract.

In November 1916, as he repaired a crack in his chimney, the candle he held caught his undershirt on fire.  Severely burned, he developed pneumonia and died on December 9, 1916.

Mrs. Clayton grieved to Rabbi Henry Cohen, one of their friends about having no money for a proper monument for her husband.  Rabbi Cohen replied, “Oh, you don’t need one, my dear Mary Lorena.  He’s got them all over town.  Just go around and read some cornerstones.”

Today, eight buildings of Nicholas J. Clayton design survive on the Strand, thirty-four remain, and eight-six have been razed.  His legacy continues in the beauty and style he brought to his beloved Galveston, known as Texas’ Victorian Oasis.

OBLATE FATHERS OF THE RIO GRANDE

Known as the horseback “Cavalry of Christ” to Mexican ranchers along Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, the Oblate Fathers arrived in 1849 to serve as Texas missionaries.  The padres, young men from large cities in France, wore plain black soutanes resembling ankle-length, long-sleeved dresses with an Oblate cross hung around their necks.  Experiencing a steep learning curve mastering Spanish and English, the city boys faced the added challenge of horseback- and burro-riding over 100- to 150-mile circuits along dusty, mesquite-choked trails to ranches scattered along the Mexican border.  

The U.S.-Mexican War ended the year before the Oblates arrived throwing the new arrivals into a tumultuous period of cattle rustling and general lawlessness, civil wars in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as disasters like yellow fever and periodic hurricanes. Despite the hardships, residents along both sides of the river loved their French padres, especially Father Pierre Yves Keralum, known to the Mexican people as Santo Padre Pedito for his humility, his obedience, and his kindness. He’s also remembered for the mystery surrounding his death.

Father Keralum an architect and master builder combined preaching, baptizing, and marrying people with designing and constructing Gothic Revival style churches all along the Rio Grande.  Assigned in 1854 to Roma, a new mission center covering a large area upriver about half way between Brownsville and Laredo,  Father Keralum completed the design and construction of Our Lady of Refuge Church.  

When an Oblate superior drowned at sea after starting the design of the massive church at Brownsville, the Oblates called on Father Keralum who modified the plans and completed in 1859 Brownsville’s massive Immaculate Conception Church (designated a Cathedral, 1874) with its beautiful vaulted ceiling.  In 1960, fire and smoke damaged the Keralum designed hand-polished mesquite alter and pulpit and some of the chandeliers.  He also designed the nuns’ convent, priests’ house, and college building.

Along the Rio Grande many tiny chapels survive on former ranches and at midway mission stations where the Oblates stayed during their long circuit rides. One of the mission centers, La Lomita, sits on a ranch the Oblates inherited from René Guyard, a fellow Frenchman.  Located between Brownsville and Roma, the La Lomita mission served about sixty-five area ranches.  Today, the reconstructed chapel survives and the town of Mission, a citrus-growing center known as the “tourist mecca of South Texas”  occupies much of the original ranch.

Overlooking San Agustín Plaza, where Laredo began in 1755, the cathedral of San Agustín was rebuilt in 1872 with Father Keralum probably assisting Diocesan priests with the construction.

After twenty years of traveling at least three times annually on horseback, visiting seventy to 120 widely scattered ranches along the Gulf coast and interior, Father Keralum at age fifty-five was frail and nearly blind.  On November 9, 1872, despite misgivings of his fellow Oblates, he mounted his horse and rode away from Brownsville.  He stopped about forty miles away at a ranch northwest of present Mercedes before he disappeared.  His horse was found contentedly grazing.  For a time people suspected murder.  Over ten years later in 1882, some cowhands found his remains identified by his Oblate belongings.  Perhaps he followed a cattle trail by mistake, became entangled in a thicket, and dismounted to rest.  Speculation suggests a rattlesnake bit him or he simply became lost and died of weariness and starvation.

His legacy survived in the lives of those he touched and in the handsome churches that dot the landscape of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.’