“I want to be a saint, but a saint on horseback,” said Fr. Pierre Clos, one of the many Oblate Priests of Mary Immaculate sent to the Lone Star State to minister to Catholic ranchers. From 1849 to 1904, through sweat and suffering, these shepherds who took up the Cross and the saddle were known as the legendary Cavalry of Christ.
Persecution of the Catholic Church was prevalent in post-independence Mexico, which Texas was part of at that time. Along with the forced removal of Spanish clergy, the liberal government of Mexico seized Church property and closed seminaries. This caused severe neglect among Catholic Mexicans who deeply loved their Faith.
When Texas won her independence from Mexico in 1836, President Sam Houston, who was sympathetic to the Catholic Faith, returned Church property in Texas back to its rightful owners. While Catholic Texans were now free to practice their Faith, they met another big problem: few priests.
Alone in the Prairie
Fr. Jean Marie Odin and Fr. John Timon went to investigate the state of the Catholic Church in Texas. They found more than 15,000 Catholics but only five priests. After voicing their concerns with the Holy See in 1847, Blessed Pius IX established the Diocese of Galveston, naming Jean Marie Odin the first bishop of Texas.
Bishop Odin pleaded with St. Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for help. St. Eugene, recognizing the needy faithful in Texas, accepted the task and sent his missionaries to Galveston, where their names would become the stuff of legend.
The Cavalry of Christ
Picture this: A priest rides for nearly 30 miles on horseback. In the distance, he sees his destination: a ranch full of faithful Catholics. Riding up to the ranch, the inhabitants recognize the ‘padrecito’ and make their way to greet him. They invite him to dismount and offer him frijoles (beans), tortillas, and coffee. He then informs the residents of the evening services: catechism for the children, spiritual counseling for the adults, the Rosary, and beautiful hymns to Our Lady. Confession, Holy Mass, and baptisms followed.
Occasionally, he would solemnize a wedding or two. After a short night’s rest, he would give a sermon to the faithful and depart for the next ranch. This was but a day in the life of an Oblate of Mary Immaculate in the Lone Star State.
In 1849, only five oblates went to Texas, but their trials were so harsh that they returned to France. Renewed efforts were made when St. Eugene sent more oblates to Texas, this time having lasting success securing the foundations for the Church in Texas. Mostly going from Brownsville to Eagle Pass (although many went as far north as Dallas and Louisiana on missions), missionaries rode six-week circuits of nearly 400 miles to deliver the Sacraments to ranchers on the Rio Grande.
Two priests, Fr. Jules Piat and Fr. Pierre Clos, rode nearly 175,000 miles on horseback in 25 years – seven times the circumference of the Earth. Similar distances made by priests were not uncommon, as many spent over a third of their life in the saddle.
The mission was arduous. Due to severe neglect caused by anti-Catholic persecution, most Tejanos were ignorant in their Faith. Although the recitation of the Holy Rosary and sincere devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe kept their Faith alive, it became clear to Bishop Odin that the education of the faithful was paramount. Thus, many Catholic schools were built, and new vocations flourished. The Oblates, along with other orders, started successful schools in Brownsville, Galveston, Dallas, and many other cities.
The ignorance of the laity was not the clergy’s only concern. Cattle rustlers, banditos, Indian raids, and liberal Mexicans persecuted the missionaries.
The greatest physical danger in the region, however, was the climate itself, with its harsh landscape, high temperatures, and scarce water. The unforgiving climate led to the tragic death of many priests, including the beloved Fr. Pierre Keralum, whose canonization process is still open.
“El Santo Padre Pedrito”
Fr. Keralum was an architect turned missionary. He built the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Brownsville and assisted in the building of more churches in Laredo, Roma, and other locations. His loving care and apostolic zeal caused him to be named “el santo Padre Pedrito” by the Texans he cared for. Tragedy struck when the good priest left Mercedes on another apostolic circuit. Because of his poor eyesight, caused by the harsh climate, he got lost and went missing. Two cowboys found his remains a decade later, recognizing him by his possessions: a rosary, an oblate crucifix, and a holy book with his name written inside.
Many Oblates suffered similar fates, causing St. Eugene to exclaim in anguish, “cruel Texas missions.”
Faith Moves Mountains
Despite many hardships, the missionaries had extraordinary trust and devotion to Our Lord and Our Lady, praying the Rosary often and invoking the Holy Names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. God saw the crosses they bore for the Church and rewarded Texas, as their sacrifices strengthened the faith and converted many Protestants.
Yellow fever hit Galveston in the mid-1850s, taking the lives of many missionaries who stayed to care for the sick. According to the memoirs of Fr. Pierre Parisot, a Protestant woman came to him and asked why his missionaries didn’t flee from the plague like the Protestant ones did and save their lives. He replied that it was their duty as Catholic priests to care for the sick and dying, and it would be better for them to die rather than abandon their mission. The woman was so touched by their sacrifice that she converted to the Catholic Faith.
What St. Therese of Lisieux said is true: “Sufferings gladly borne for others convert more people than sermons.”
Conversion of Texas
In the 1920s, the growing use of the automobile, urbanization, and an increased number of priests made the Cavalry of Christ slowly fade into history. Yet the early missionaries were responsible for transforming a brutal and unforgiving frontier into a budding Catholic society. The brave Oblates of Mary Immaculate laid the foundations of the Catholic Church in Texas and became the spiritual pioneers of the Wild West.
Their heroic zeal is a beacon of Catholicism in America. Their service to God in the Lone Star State remains for clergy and laity alike an example of selflessness and perseverance.
May Our Lord and Our Lady inspire a new generation of heroic Catholics to follow the footsteps of the Cavalry of Christ – brave men who will fight the enemies of Christ, the errors of our neo-pagan world and hasten the conversion of Texas and America.