Lost Mission of San Saba

The Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission, built in 1757, is the only Spanish mission in Texas destroyed by Indians.  So thoroughly was the destruction that it took another 235 years for archeologists to finally confirm the site on the banks of the San Sabá River about 120 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Construction of the mission was a dream of Franciscan padres in San Antonio who believed a mission in Apache territory would put an end to almost perpetual warfare with the tribes.  Encouraged by a peace ceremony with the Apaches in 1749 and the Indians’ request to have a mission and a presidio to protect them from the Comanches, Spanish official sent three expeditions into Apache territory in search of a suitable site.  Several factors influenced the choice of the San Sabá River valley, including its potential for irrigated farming and the concern that rumors of rich veins of minerals in the area might attract the French if the Spanish failed to establish a presence.  Spanish officials, always concerned about the cost of every endeavor in its Texas province, finally authorized the new mission when religious ornaments and furnishings became available after the closing of three missions on the San Gabriel River.  And, a wealthy mine owner agreed to fund the cost of up to twenty missionaries for three years providing that his cousin Fray Alonso Giraldo de Terreros be placed in charge of the new mission.

With Col. Diego Ortitz Parrilla appointed commander of the San Sabá presidio, the march to the new site began on April 5, 1757.  A total of about 300, including six missionaries, arrived on April 17th with 1400 cattle and 700 sheep.  To their dismay they found no Apaches waiting to join the mission.  In an effort to satisfy concerns of the padres who feared the soldiers would corrupt their Indian neophytes, Ortiz Parrilla selected a site for the presidio on the opposite side of the river and about two miles from the mission.

By mid-June not a single Indian had come to the mission.  Then, to the padres’ delight 3,000 Apaches who were heading north to hunt buffalo and fight Comanches, camped near the mission.  After ignoring the missionaries’ overtures, the Indians left behind two of their group who were sick and promised to join the mission upon their return.  By this time, three of the original six missionaries had given up and returned to San Antonio.

With the arrival of winter, rumors circulated of northern tribes gathering to fight the Apaches and destroy the mission.  The missionaries seemed unaware that despite Apaches never one time coming to the mission, it looked to the Comanches like the Spanish were siding with their bitter enemies.  On February 25, 1758, after Indians stole fifty-nine horses, Parrilla Ortiz led soldiers in pursuit, only to find hostile Indians all over the countryside.  Returning to the mission, he tried unsuccessfully to convince Father Terreros to move the remaining three missionaries and thirty-three others to refuge in the presidio.

On March 16th as the mission went about its morning routine, 2,000 Comanches and other tribes that were enemies of the Apaches attacked the log stockade with some of the warriors using European guns at a time when most Indians fought with bows and arrows or hatchets.  Father Terreros and seven others were killed, while one missionary and about twenty others escaped to the presidio.  The attackers killed almost all the animals, including the cattle, and set fire to the stockade.

The Indians moved on to the presidio and when they could not lure the soldiers outside the fortress, they departed on March 18th.  After less than one year, the Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission had come to an end.

The Spanish government, determined not to appear weak to the Comanches, refused to close the presidio.  In September 1759, Ortiz Parrilla was sent with 500 soldiers and Apache braves into Comanche country to punish the warriors for the attack on the mission.  After several brief encounters Ortiz found Comanches and other tribes on the Red River in a village flying a French flag and surrounded by a stockade and moat.  The Comanche had been warned of the Spanish approach and Ortiz suffered fifty-two dead, wounded, or deserted before he ordered a retreat.

The Spanish government insisted that the San Sabá Presidio remain open despite the superior power of the Comanche and other northern tribes who had firepower similar to the Spanish.  Many soldiers asked to be transferred and despite the presidio being rebuilt in limestone and surrounded by a moat, the soldiers were killed if they ventured out of the compound.

In 1762 a painting, The Destruction of Mission San Sabá was commissioned.  It is believed to be the first painting to depict a historical event in Texas.  In 1769, Presidio San Sabá was finally closed, over ten years after the fall of the mission it had been built to protect.

Destruction of the San Saba MIssion

Destruction of the San Saba MIssion


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.’