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Growth, depression and clouds of war

by Msgr. Michael Howell Contributor
June 29, 2012

In 1938, a fire broke out in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, badly damaging the church and provided the  incentive to plans for a new cathedral.    Archived  Photo
The 1920s was a time of challenge for Bishop Emmanuel B. Ledvina, the new young shepherd of the Diocese of Corpus Christi.

There was the challenge of rapid growth in the Catholic population of south Texas and the need for more churches and other facilities, met partly by the generous aid of the Extension Society. 

It was also a time of challenge with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and their strong anti-Catholic bigotry. Crosses were burned in front of Catholic churches and convents.  Local Catholics in Corpus Christi, such as Maxwell P. Dunne, took turns serving as night security at Incarnate Word Convent in a time that was often hostile to the Catholic Church throughout the United States.

In Corpus Christi, tension erupted into violence on Oct. 14, 1922 when the local sheriff and one of his deputies shot and killed an influential real estate dealer named Fred Roberts, a Klan sympathizer. Nueces County Sheriff Frank Robinson, a Catholic, had a run-in with local merchant G. E. Warren, who was accused of membership in the Klan. Warren’s wife called Roberts to report the matter after Corpus Christi Police Chief Monroe Fox refused to act because he saw no criminal activity on the part of the sheriff. 

In the encounter that followed at Warren’s store, Robinson and his deputy Joe Acebo shot Roberts.  Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, sent by the governor to bring order, arrested Robinson and Acebo.  Both were tried and found not guilty. Robinson, supposedly fearing Klan retaliation, went into exile in Mexico for the next decade and then lived in Laredo until his death. Roberts was buried, with some Klan members present in full regalia, and his associates later built and named in his honor the Fred Roberts Memorial Hospital. 

New persecutions of the Church also broke out in neighboring Mexico with the election of President Plutarco Calles in 1924.  He stringently enforced anti-clerical articles in the Mexican Constitution of 1917 and added more retaliatory laws. This led to the licensing of priests, the expropriation of churches and church property, the deportation of bishops and the killing of hundreds of priests and other clerics as reflected in the Graham Greene novel, “The Power and the Glory” and the newly released motion picture “For Greater Glory, the True Story of Cristiada.”

One of these martyred priests was Father Miguel Pro, who was executed on Nov. 23, 1927, at the age of 36.  Father Pro, who reportedly had relatives in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, was beatified by Blessed John Paul II on Sept. 25, 1988.

This period also saw the arrival of the Franciscans in Hebbronville after months of attempts to find refuge in San Antonio and El Paso. Bishop Ledvina received the friars, gave them charge of the parish and allowed them to set-up their seminary in exile, which was closed in 1957 as the situation in Mexico improved. 

These persecutions continued into the 1930s and gave way to another influx of clergy and Mexican Catholics seeking religious freedom and escape from the violence.

The 1930s also saw the beginning of the Great Depression as economic troubles threatened the whole world and demanded a greater sense of solidarity and sharing if families were to make it through difficult times. Economic troubles in Germany, struggling under restitution burdens placed upon it after World War I, also opened the door to the rise of Hitler and Nazism as a response to what was seen by the Germans as exorbitant, crushing debt.

The Diocese of Corpus Christi nevertheless continued to grow in numbers and need for more facilities, clergy to staff parishes and religious to meet expanding health and educational needs. 

Using about $10,000 collected by Bishop Paul Nussbaum for the education of future priests, Bishop Ledvina made special efforts to fund vocations and cover much of the costs for his clerical students.  As a result, by the end of 1938 the diocese had 43 diocesan priests and 11 young men studying for the priesthood. 

Bishop Ledvina made it his practice to use any offerings given him on his Confirmation tours in the contributing parish, either to improve the conditions of the church or the living quarters of his priests. 

Faced with mounting debt, the Mother House of the Incarnate Word in Brownsville asked to be amalgamated with the community in Corpus Christi.  Despite their own limited finances at the time, the community in Corpus Christi approved the merger in 1931, with one of the older sisters noting that it was only right that the “cradle of the Order in Texas” be given the necessary help to remain in existence.

In some convents, Bishop Ledvina found sisters sleeping on army cots set on brick floors.  In one convent he found the kitchen 75-feet from the main convent, with food cooked in old-fashioned chimney and placed over logs of wood.

It was also a time of strengthening lay spirituality through special lay retreat organizations and large public processions for the Feast of Corpus Christi.  The first two-day retreat organized by the Layman’s Retreat Association of Corpus Christi was held in 1936 at the Corpus Christi College Academy with noted missionary Father Boniface Spanke; it was attended by about 50 local Catholic men. The second annual retreat in 1937 drew more than 100 from the region.

More than 1,000 persons participated in the solemn procession at the Academy held in 1938 for the Feast of Corpus Christi.  By the mid-1930s, the bishop—who had worked tirelessly for some 15 years—was approaching 70.  With such a large harvest field to cover, it was clear he needed some help.

In 1936, the Centennial Year of Texas, Mariano Simon Garriga was made Coadjutor Bishop of Corpus Christi, a position he held for the next 13 years until Bishop Ledvina retired in 1949. Born in the diocese when it was the Vicariate of Brownsville, he was the first native Texan chosen as a bishop in the state.

Bishop Garriga, though born in Port Isabel, finished his grade courses under the direction of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word at St. John’s Orphanage in San Antonio.  He attended St. Marys College in St. Marys, Kansas, and desiring to discern a priestly call he then studied at St. Francis Seminary in Wisconsin.  He was ordained to the priesthood on July 2, 1911 in Incarnate Word Convent Chapel, San Antonio, and said his first Mass in the same chapel the following morning. 

As a young priest, he assisted the newly consecrated first bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi Paul Nussbaum when the bishop celebrated his first Mass in Texas in the chapel of Santa Rosa Infirmary (now Christus Santa Rosa of San Antonio) after arriving in Texas on June 7, 1913. 

In 1915, Father Garriga assisted in founding St. John’s Minor Seminary in San Antonio and the following year was made Chaplain of the Fourth Texas Infantry and later the 144th Infantry of the 36th Division, with which he served during its engagement in France during World War I. 

Within weeks after his consecration in 1936 and arrival in Corpus Christi as the new coadjutor with right to succession, Bishop Garriga went on his confirmation tour and parochial visitations, consuming over a year in visiting practically all the parishes of the diocese.

These were busy years of growth.  From 1920 to 1938 the Catholic population grew from about 125,000 to 145,000.  The number of priests increased from 46 to 111, the number of churches from 31 to 57 and the number of schools from 26 to 40. While Bishop Ledvina presided from the east in Corpus Christi, for much of this period Bishop Garriga presided from the west in Laredo so that the two could be close to most of the parishes of the diocese as they shared responsibilities. 

A diocesan tragedy closed-out the last years of the 1930s and hastened the building of a new cathedral.  On Nov. 28, 1938, a fire broke out in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the wooden structure built by Charles Carroll in 1880.  It left the church badly damaged and gave incentive to plans for a new cathedral.

Parish groups throughout the diocese participated in raising funds for the new mother church of the diocese.  As a site for the new church, the John Kenedy family offered their property on the northwest corner of Broadway and Lipan where their city home then stood.  Msgr. John Lannon, rector of the cathedral for almost 30 years, was active in the building process. 

The church damaged by the fire was moved to the south side of Lipan Street where it was used by the parish and school.

Soon, the world was plunged into a much greater tragedy with the eruption of World War II.  While most of the destruction of property was overseas rather than in the United States, American families, including those in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, suffered from the loss of life as many young men and women went off to support the war effort.

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