A Brief History of the Diocese of Corpus Christi
Spanish Franciscan missionaries established the first church in what is today the Diocese of Corpus Christi. Nuestra Señora del Refugio, the last of the Franciscan missions in Texas, was established in 1793 at the juncture of the San Antonio and Guadalupe Rivers to Christian- ize the Karankawa Indians at a place the Indians called “El Paraje del Refugio” which prompted Father José Francisco Mariano Garza to place the mission under the protection of the Virgin Mary.
In January 1795, Franciscan Father Manuel J. de Silva accompanied by Spanish soldiers from La Bahía moved the mission to its current location in the town of Refugio and built a stone church. The Spanish priests left the mission after Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Between 1820-30 Nuestra Señora del Refugio fell into total neglect. The church ornaments were removed to Mission Espíritu Santo near Goliad for safekeeping.
New life returned to Refugio with the arrival of the first Irish immigrants. México invited Irish Catholic colonists to settle in Refugio to provide a buffer against the influx of largely Protestant Anglo American colonists making their way to Texas. By 1829, John McMullen and James McGloin brought the first Irish Catholics to Refugio.
Father Miguel Muro returned to Refugio and inventoried the remains of the mission property in preparation for its secularization.
On February 1830, the mission was turned over to the Bishop of Linares who then appointed the first diocesan pastor of the parish. A small chapel was salvaged from the ruins of the old mission buildings and put to parish use.
In 1839, a Yankee land speculator named Henry Kinney erected a trading post on the Rin- cón del Oso land grant owned by Enrique Villarreal. The small village eventually took on the name of Corpus Christi. While Galveston Bishop Jean Marie Odin, C.M. sent priests to minister to the mostly Mexican Catholics in the community, it was not until 1853 that Father Bernard O’Reilly came to permanently settle in Corpus Christi. Father O’Reilly celebrated Mass and administered the sacraments but it took him four years to build a chapel which residents also named St. Patrick.
James W. Byrne, another Irish immigrant and a veteran of the Texas Revolution established the town of Lamar on the channel entrance to Copano Bay in what is today Aransas County and sold land to the Catholic Church in which to build a church. Byrne engaged a French architect to design the chapel, which was completed in 1858. Called Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) Chapel, it was built of shellcrete, a shell-aggregate masonry.
After the Civil War, Father Claude Jaillet built the first church in the hinterland at San Diego. Mexican ranchers began settling around San Diego in the late 1700s and in 1866 built the first chapel. A native of France, Father Jaillet initially spoke only French but with the help of his Spanish-French dictionary, a borrowed missal and chalice and a borrowed horse and saddle he rode into his new home. His head- quarters included his lodging, a chapel and a parlor all together in a 12-foot long by eight-foot wide hut with one door on each side and two one-foot square windows.
In 1874, Pope Pius IX established the Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville and named Bishop Dominic Manucy its vicar apostolic. The new church division included all the settlements south of the Nueces River to the Rió Grande. After only a brief stay in Brownsville, Bishop Manucy moved to Corpus Christi. During his decade of service in Corpus Christi, Bishop Manucy built nine churches and three others were under construction when he Bishop Dominic Manucy was called to serve as the Bishop of Mobile, Alabama.
Pope Leo XIII named San Antonio Bishop Jean Claude Neraz as administrator of the Vicariate of Brownsville. Bishop Neraz appointed Father Jaillet as Vicar General and because the bishop was already too busy with his own diocese, Father Jaillet served as de facto administrator until 1890.
After Bishop Verdaguer’s death in 1911, Pope Pius X raised the vicariate to the Diocese of Corpus Christi in 1912 and the following year he named Paul Joseph Nussbaum a native of Philadelphia as its first bishop. During the two-year span between Bishop Verdaguer’s death and Bishop Nussbaum’s arrival, Father Jaillet again took charge of the faithful as administrator of the diocese.
The following year Pope Benedict XV named Emmanuel Boleslaus Ledvina, a native of Evansville, Indiana, the second bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi. Before coming to Corpus Christi he served as director of the Catholic Church Extension Society. Through his work with the society he gained a basic background on the condition of the Catholic Church in South Texas.
Bishop Ledvina served vigorously for 28 years until he resigned in 1949 due to ill- ness. Under Bishop Ledvina the number of priests increased five fold to 160; he built more than 50 new churches, 53 mission chapels, and 47 rectories. In 1940, Bishop Ledvina oversaw the construction of Corpus Christi Cathedral and in 1947–1948 he built a rectory and chancery office. Bishop Ledvina was well known for his work on behalf of Mexican American Catholics.
Mariano Simón Garriga succeeded Bishop Ledvina as the third bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi. A native of Point Isabel, Bishop Garriga was the first Texas-born bishop of a Texas diocese. He had served as Bishop Ledvina’s coadjutor since 1936. During his administration Bishop Garriga encouraged Catholic education throughout the
Bishop Garriga died in office in 1965 and was succeeded by Thomas J. Drury, a native of Ireland, who served until 1983. Shortly before Bishop Drury was named head of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, the Holy See removed the four southernmost counties to establish the Diocese of Brownsville and later in his tenure, Goliad County was ceded to the new Diocese of Victoria.
Bishop Drury served during the difficult years following the Second Vatican Council. Among his accomplishments during his 18-year term were establishment of the Diocesan Pastoral Council composed of laity, religious and priests to advise him on the needs of the diocese; expansion of the diocesan departments from two to 32; and creation of the Permanent Diaconate. He established a Bishop Thomas J. diocesan newspaper and authorized the beginning work toward acquiring a license for a diocesan radio station.
Bishop Rene H. Gracida next served as the Shepherd of the Diocese from July 11, 1983 through April 1, 1997. During his time as ordinary of the diocese, Bishop Gracida issued a decree of erection of the Western Vicariate of the Diocese of Corpus Christi. The decree states that the vicariate was created to promote the pastoral good and unity of all the people of God in this area, "especially in the view of the possible erection of a new diocese in that region in the not so distant future." The Western Vicariate encompasses the counties of Webb, Zapata, Jim Hogg, and the southern portion of La Salle County.
On June 26, 1995, Bishop Roberto O. González, was officially welcomed to the diocese as the coadjutor bishop. He became the sixth Bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi on April 1, 1997. During his time as shepherd of the diocese, Bishop González worked toward consolidating the diocesan infrastructure and uniting the faithful throughout the diocese. He stressed that the present era is one of hope as the universal and local Church prepares for the anniversary of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in the Great Jubilee Year 2000. He became Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Corpus Christi and Archbishop of San Juan de Puerto Rico on May 8, 1999.
In 2000, three and one-half counties on the Rio Grande were lost to the new Diocese of Laredo. On March 17, 2000, Bishop Edmond Carmody was installed as the seventh Bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi.