The Oblate Fathers of the Rio Grande

Oblate Cross

Oblate Cross

The Oblate Fathers arrived in Texas in 1849 to serve as missionaries, and soon became known to Mexican ranchers in the Rio Grande Valley as the “Cavalry of Christ.” The padres, young men from the big cities in France, wore an Oblate cross over their plain black, ankle-length, long-sleeved soutanes (cassocks). In addition to mastering Spanish and English, they faced the added challenge of learning to ride horses and burros on 100 to 150-mile circuits. They traveled over dusty, mesquite-choked trails to reach ranches scattered along the Mexican

Oblate "Cavalry of Christ"

Oblate “Cavalry of Christ”

border.

The Mexican-American War ended the year before the Oblates reached the Valley, throwing the new arrivals into a tumultuous period of cattle rustling and general lawlessness. Both the United States and Mexico became embroiled in civil wars and the region was plagued by natural disasters like yellow fever and periodic hurricanes.

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. In 1854, he was assigned to Roma, a new mission center covering a large area upriver about halfway between Brownsville and Laredo. As part of his ministry, Father Keralum designed and constructed of Our Lady of Refuge Church.

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

Along the Rio Grande, many tiny chapels survive on former ranches and at mission stations where the Oblates stayed during their long circuit rides. One of the mission centers, La Lomita, which served about sixty-five area ranches, sits on land the Oblates inherited from René Guyard, a fellow Frenchman. The reconstructed chapel is south of Mission, a citrus-growing center that was named for La Lomita and spreads over much of the Oblates’ original ranch.

San Agustin Cathedral, Laredo

San Agustin Cathedral, Laredo

The Villa de San Agustín de Laredo (city of Laredo) was established in 1755 around the present plaza. A small stone church served until 1872 when Father Keralum designed and the diocesan priests built the present Cathedral of San Agustín with its 141-foot bell and clock tower.

After twenty years of traveling at least three times annually on horseback, visiting seventy to 120 widely scattered ranches along the Gulf coast and the interior, Father Keralum––age fifty-five––was frail and nearly blind. On November 9, 1872, despite the 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, some cowhands found his remains, which were 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, and that of his fellow missionaries, survived in the lives of those they touched and in the handsome churches that dot the landscape of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Sam Robertson, Visionary

The railroad and visionaries like Sam Robertson deserve much of the credit for development of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Before arrival of the railroad, the Valley was a no man’s land.  Towns such as Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico, relied on the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico for access to the outside world.  Overland travel from Brownsville to Corpus Christ took days of slogging through the vast jungle of mesquite, cactus, chaparral and brush-covered country.

In 1903, as Robertson fulfilled a contract to lay the first rails from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, he noticed the peculiar topography of the area along the Rio Grande looked much like that of the Nile River—higher by several feet than the surrounding landscape.  Unlike other river valleys that drain into nearby streams, years of flooding left behind silt, resulting in the Rio Grande flowing at a higher level than the surrounding terrain—an ideal situation for harnessing the water for gravity irrigation into the fertile land along its banks.  Robertson also observed dry riverbeds left behind after the Rio Grande flooded and then changed coarse as it  cut new channels.  Locally known as resacas, the dry canals twisted through the area north of Brownsville offering readymade irrigation potential.

Rasaca Converted to Irrigation Canal

Robertson convinced local investors to join him in purchasing 10,000 acres to begin land development, and laying out the town of San Benito along one of the curving resacas.  They cut a canal from the Rio Grande to introduce irrigation water into the dry resacas and began selling land to northern farmers looking for new opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley.

The farmers, forced to rely on horses, mules, and dirt roads to get their produce to market, preferred land next to the railroad.  In 1912 Robertson decided to take the railroad to the farmers and began constructing the San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Railroad.  Soon all the spurs and intricate network of lines snaking across the valley became known as the Spiderweb Railroad, and the train that traveled the route became known as the “Galloping Goose” for the frequency with which it jumped the track, forcing passengers to help lift it back on the rails.

Making two round trips daily at a grand speed of fifteen miles per hour, the train picked up both passengers and freight.  Many farmers built tiny loading platforms beside the track, while others merely flagged the engineer to take on travelers or a few bushels of produce.

By 1924 the Missouri Pacific took over the line, but the little railroad, whose track never extended beyond 128 miles, had served an important role in opening the rich Rio Grand Valley to worldwide markets.

Robertson’s visions extended to establishing ice plants for refrigerated railcars carrying vegetables to city markets.  He served as San Benito’s first postmaster and two terms as sheriff before joining General John J. Pershing’s army chasing the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa into Mexico.  During WWI Robertson proved his competence building light rail lines to the front trenches and remained in Europe after the war to help rebuild Germany’s rail system.

Upon Robertson’s return to San Benito, he embarked on his final grand scheme—developing Padre, the barrier island paralleling Texas’ southern shore, as a resort community. He built a “trough” causeway (see photo) from the northern end of Padre to the mainland near Corpus Christi.  A trestle supported four parallel troughs, wooden slots constructed wide enough to accommodate a standard car tire within its walls.  With automobile wheels set firmly in each trough, traffic flowed both directions across the causeway.

“Trough” Causeway

In his zeal to attract tourists, Robertson opened ferries at Port Aransas and at the south end of Padre Island.  Then, he built a hotel and four houses on the southern end of the island and a fifth house near the causeway on the north.

Although the unusual trough causeway boasted 1,800 cars the first month and 2,500 cars the second, interest began waning, after the 1929 Stock Market Crash.  By the next year, Robertson’s dream appeared doomed; he could not pay his debts.  He sold his interest in the development and must have watched in horror as the 1933 hurricane destroyed all the structures on and leading to Padre Island.

Sam Robertson died in 1938, twenty-four years before his dream came true.  Congress established Padre Island National Seashore and President John F. Kennedy signed the bill into law on September 28, 1962.

SPANISH SETTLEMENT IN TEXAS

Recently, I wrote about New Spain official’s sudden interest in Texas after they received word in 1685 that the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed a colony on Texas soil.  For the next four years the Spanish Colonial government sent eleven–five by sea and six by land–expeditions in search of the intruders.

When they finally discovered La Salle’s Fort St. Louis south of present Victoria, all the inhabitants were dead and Indians had captured a few of the children.  Fearing the French in Louisiana might move across the Sabine River into East Texas, the Spanish established Mission San Francisco de los Tejas near present Crockett  in 1690 with a plan of Christianizing the Indians and laying a buffer against the French.  The missionaries left under cover of darkness after only three years.

Over the next fifty years the Spanish made two more short-lived attempts to establish six East Texas missions.

Still worried about foreign aggression, the Spanish constructed Mission Señora del Espiritu Santo de Zuniga and la Bahía presidio on the site of La Salle’s abandoned Fort St. Louis, which they later moved to present Goliad—a strategic site intended to halt a possible invasion of the central coast at Copano Bay.

Each time European colonial governments showed interest in the New World, Spain moved into action.  Spain’s war with England, coupled with the English occupying Georgia in 1733, spurred new worries about invasion along the coast from Tampico in Mexico to Matagorda Bay on the Central Texas coast.  The answer seemed to lie in establishing villas and missions along the Rio Grande.  The viceroy of New Spain appointed José de Escandón as military commander and governor of the new province of Nuevo Santander, which spread from modern Tamaulipas, Mexico into Southern Texas.

Charged with establishing settlements and missions between Tampico and the San Antonio River, Escandón sent seven divisions in search of the most favorable locales for future villas.

Escandón’s lieutenants nixed colonizing the area around present Brownsville and Matamoros because the land appeared too low—subject to flooding.  Moving up the Rio Grande, Escandón found eighty-five families waiting at its confluence with the San Juan River.  On March 5, 1749, the colonizer named Camargo (across the Rio Grande from present Rio Grande City) as his first villa.  A nearby mission opened to convert the Indians who occupied jacales

Lehmer–1939–jacales

 circling the home of the missionary priestsNine days later Villa de Reynosa became the second settlement.

Finally, in 1755 Escandón established his last villa where Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Gallardo, one of Escandón’s captains, convinced him an old Indian ford on the Rio Grande offered a good locale for a villa.  Sánchez brought three families to make up the original settlement on his 66,000-acre land grant.  Present Laredo grew from that original ranch to become the largest and most successful of Escandón’s permanent Spanish settlements in Southwest Texas.

In 1767 a Spanish royal commission began granting land to individual colonists within the villas along the Rio Grande.  Due to the need for access to the river for transportation and irrigation in this near-desert region, the commissioners surveyed 170 porciones, rectangular strips of land about one mile wide fronting the Rio Grande and sixteen miles long, extending north away from the river for grazing cattle.  Over the years, larger, cattle-grazing grants, which spread north of the porciones and along the Gulf Coast, went to influential residents of Camargo and Reynosa.

Escandón, who is know today as the “Father of the Lower Rio Grande Valley” and his lieutenants founded twenty-four towns and fifteen missions on both sides of the Rio Grande.

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.’