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Corpus Christi’s Progressive Bishop faced challenges

by Cecilia Gutierrez Venable Contributor
May 1, 2012

Spohn Sanitarium, in background at right, stands in the debris of  the 1919 hurricane. Storm may have been last straw for Bishop Nussbaum who  shortly afterwards asked the pope to relieve him of his post as bishop of Corpus Christi.

L.M. Gross Collection, Special Collections & Archives, Mary and Jeff Bell Library, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
The election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 outlined the progressive direction the country would follow for the next several years. That same year the Catholic Church also chose a new path for its institution in south Texas with the Rome declaration by Pope Pius X proposing that the Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville become a diocese, with Corpus Christi as its See and St. Patrick’s Church as the cathedral.

This new diocese consisted of 23,391 square miles of south Texas land, including 75 miles of the Coastal Bend on the east, the Nueces River to the north and the Rio Grande in the south and west.  This new See included the present day counties of Aransas, Bee, Brooks, Cameron, Duval, Goliad, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Kleberg, Kenedy, Live Oak, Nueces, Refugio, San Patricio, Starr, Webb, Willacy, Zapata, and parts of LaSalle and McMullen.  

Just one month after Wilson took the reins of the United States government, the Vatican on April 4, 1913, named Father Paul Joseph Nussbaum to lead the new diocese. Bishop Nussbaum arrived in Corpus Christi on June 8, 1913 to a crowd excited by his presence and who witnessed his formal installation that evening followed by a splendid reception and banquet in his honor. 

A man of his time and environment, Bishop Nussbaum incorporated progressive ideals into the diocese by building up parishes and developing organizations, which assisted the church and community, as well as promoted youth groups, which ensured future members.  Under his tutelage and unceasing vigor and pious direction, the Catholic Church grew both in number and community influence. 

Several associations sprouted during his tenure, including the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Society of St. Ann, which merged and adopted the name of St. Ann’s Altar Society, the Holy Name Society and the Daughters of Isabella, which evolved into the Catholic Daughters of America.  Involving adults in the church provided a base for the stability and expansion of the Catholic Church.

Bishop Nussbaum also instituted a lecture series and promoted hymnal songs during Mass, which strengthened adult faith. To attract the youth in the diocese, he encouraged the sisters of the Incarnate Word to further expand education to children and worked with San Antonio to establish a Catholic school of higher learning.

One of the special devotional exercises Nussbaum encouraged was the Forty Hours.  He arranged the parish schedules throughout the diocese starting with the cathedral, and then moving to other parishes so that there was Forty Hours Adoration in a diocese parish each Sunday of the year.

Bishop Nussbaum also maintained a hectic schedule for himself by celebrating Mass in the cathedral every morning and attending most church functions, as well as overseeing diocese activities. In 1913, he began a confirmation tour in Brownsville and the Valley.  In Brownsville, he confirmed almost 1,000 people.  Nussbaum moved to San Benito and confirmed another 500 people.  He continued this tour to Mercedes, Mission, Rio Grande City, Roma, Rockport, Aransas Pass and Port Aransas.

He made numerous ventures throughout south Texas in an effort to spread the Catholic faith.  His early years were marked by the assistance of his brothers in the Passionist Order as well as the Catholic Extension Society.  However, unexpected weather events severely curtailed his untiring dedication to the diocese, especially the 1916 hurricane that destroyed many chapels newly erected by the Extension Society. It was followed by a terrible drought that economically devastated south Texas. 

The many refugee clergy that fled the troubles in Mexico and were in need of support also presented a challenge.  His final years in the new diocese were also marked by burdens that wore down his stamina. 

Returning home from Houston on Jan. 25, 1918 aboard the Gulf Coast line which left the Robstown station nearly 30 minutes late, the passenger car Nussbaum was on had just stopped to pick up a few passengers in Clarkwood and was leaving the station when it was rear-ended by a Texas-Mexican passenger and freight train traveling at full speed.  Because of the thick heavy fog, which hindered visibility, the accident killed the train engineer and injured eight people. 

Among the injured were Father John Schied, the Chancellor the Diocese, and Bishop Nussbaum.  The bishop suffered severe bodily damage with cuts, a broken arm, torn fingers, bruises and pain, which followed him throughout the remaining years of his life.

To add to his suffering, Bishop Nussbaum lost several devoted clergy and several close friends the following year. The Yellow Fever, or Spanish flu, that claimed millions of lives worldwide, hit most virulently in the beginning of 1919 in south Texas.  In January 1919, Father Schied, and the pastor of St. Patrick Cathedral, Father Paulinus Doran, both passed away less than an hour apart at the sanitarium on North Beach. 

Then, just seven months later, Father Patrick Walsh—the bilingual priest in charge of Sacred Heart as well as assistant at the cathedral—succumbed to a foot infection and also died at the sanitarium at the age of 43.  These deaths coupled with the devastating hurricane of 1919 that ravished the area, left hollows in the bishop’s army. 

The first Corpus Christi Catholic Daughters of the Americas member to serve on the state board of that organization, Winnie van Cleve, was among the hundreds of victims. Mother Thais was swept away from the Spohn Sanitarium on North Beach along with several patients when half the hospital was torn away by the winds and waves. Bishop Nussbaum was in a meeting in New Orleans and personally escaped the tremendous hurricane, but many parishioners feared his death until they discovered his absence from the area.

In January 1920, Bishop Nussbaum embarked on his Ad Limina to Rome.  His spirit and body were shattered with pain. Traveling to Rome as well as visiting the parishes in the vast diocese proved too much for Nussbaum to continue to bear. Three months after he left St. Patrick’s Cathedral, news of his resignation arrived in Corpus Christi.

Although Bishop Nussbaum served the Diocese of Corpus Christi for only seven years, by the end of his administration the diocese could boast of having 31 churches, 83 missions and 46 priests. Catholic education also surged during his tenure with twice as many students in 1920 then when he established the diocese.

These feats were accomplished despite extreme adversity from border disputes, hurricanes, drought, sickness and death.  By implementing strong progressive ideals, Bishop Nussbaum laid the foundation for a robust Catholic Church to flourish within south Texas.  

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