Father John Gonnard: Missionary, pastor and educator
September 5, 2012
“I wish now a cross.”In November 1905 the remains of Father John Gonnard and three companions were transferred from the cemetery next to the parish church in Corpus Christi to Holy Cross Cemetery for final interment under the supervision of Msgr. Claude Jaillet. This was the final journey in this world for a young man who had traveled far from his home in France to nurture the Catholic faith in a rugged area called Texas.
John Gonnard was a 25-year-old seminarian when Bishop Jean-Marie Odin, whose diocese at that time spanned the entire state of Texas, recruited him in 1852. The young seminarian embarked on the Belle Assise with a group of remarkable young priests, seminarians and some of the first Sisters of the Incarnate Word bound for Galveston, Texas.
He completed his studies in Galveston and was ordained in 1854. Writing to Bishop Odin, while serving near the Brazos in 1861, he pleaded that his zeal as an educator be put to fuller use. His letter notes, “I wish only I had a larger number of children to instruct in their catechism. I wish a congregation where I will grow rusty in performance of the sacred rites of the Church.”
“I offered myself daily to Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrament. He has accepted. Ever ready—I wait in all submission—I was a drowned in voluptuousness and comfort. I wish now a Cross,” he wrote to his bishop.
Two years later, in 1863, he was sent to Corpus Christi to take charge of what became Corpus Christi Cathedral. At that time, the parish was housed in a small adobe and brick building that was under the patronage of St. Patrick because of its large Irish membership.
He also had his hopes fulfilled as he was put in charge of the local Catholic school, Hidalgo Seminary. This was a school for boys to which the youth of the city and much of the surrounding country came. Many of the future leading citizens of this section were educated there.
His work was critical to the spiritual and educational growth of the Nueces County community at that time. The Federal blockade of Gulf ports during the Civil War had some devastating effects on the local communities, but Father Gonnard, convinced of the importance of education was ready to found a seminary for boys even in the midst of a wartime blockade and the Federal bombardment of the city that had greeted his arrival in 1863.
He used his own meager salary as collateral to erect a two-story schoolhouse. Situated on the corner of Leopard and Carancahua Streets, the lower floor contained classrooms and the upper story served as a dormitory for boarders. Naming it the school Hidalgo Seminary, Father Gonnard hired two teachers for the younger boys, while he taught the older ones.
Within a year (1865-66) he had about 120 students. His school was a blessing for the whole community, as there were no public or private schools left in Corpus Christi after the Civil War. His interest in education was not confined to just the boys. Before he opened his school, he also aided a day school for girls, taught by Mother St. Claude who had come to Corpus Christi at the request of the previous pastor, Father John McGee.
Father Gonnard assisted Mother St. Claude in instructing the girls in catechism, and no one was turned away because of inability to pay. In June the school year of 1866-67 closed; and in July of that year yellow fever was brought to the city.
Death seemed to leave no home untouched. Priests, ministers, doctors and laymen served faithfully and with little rest in trying to aid the stricken citizens. Father Antoine Miconleau had come to the city to assist Father Gonnard in early 1867, and he died in that first month of the fever. Father Gonnard, at length exhausted also fell a victim to the plague. After an illness of two weeks, he died in September 1867 at only 40-years of age.
He had received his wish—a cross—in his tireless work and ultimate sacrifice.
The entire community deplored the loss of this young prelate from Loire, France, as all knew, loved and missed him. The Corpus Christi newspaper of that time, The Advertiser, described him as “a gentleman of retired, unassuming manner, frank in the expression of his opinions, and true as steel to his faith, his charge, his friends. During the war, when our city was fast drifting from all the landmarks of peace, Father Gonnard established, under Catholic auspices, a school for the education of the youth who were loitering about the streets. His noble efforts bore its fruit.”
Father Gonnard was initially buried next to the church in Corpus Christi alongside Father Miconleau and seminarian Louis J. David of Lyons, France (only 22-years-old when he died of the yellow fever at the time of his arrival in Corpus Christi with Msgr. Jaillet). In those years it was common for the citizens of the city to bury their beloved departed on the property where they resided so that they could easily keep their remains nearby. As city customs changed, bodies were disinterred and removed to local cemeteries such as Old Bayview, New Bayview, Hebrew Rest and Holy Cross.
Because the community wanted these beloved departed buried in consecrated ground, Msgr. Jaillet celebrated a special Mass and transferred the remains of these early soldiers of the faith to a tomb he had prepared for them in Holy Cross Cemetery. Their tomb may still be seen to this day as a testimony to these early pioneers in the faith in South Texas.