St. Monica celebrates 130 year history at festival

By Mary P. Walker

Senior Correspondent

St. Monica Parish in Cameron will celebrate their 130th anniversary with prayer, thanksgiving and fellowship at its annual festival on Aug. 18. Throughout its history, the parish has overcome many challenges, and today looks toward the future with optimism and the perseverance that has lasted more than a century.

The celebration will kick off with a rosary led by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist at 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 18. The intention of the rosary is for the New Evangelization, promoted by Blessed John Paul II and embraced by the community. A Mass of Thanksgiving with music honoring the Czech and German roots of the parish follows at 10 a.m. Father Dimitrij Colankin, the current pastor, and former pastors will concelebrate. After Mass, all are invited to a festival of food, games, music and fun.

With a proud history of fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the parish was the spiritual home to seven priests, one brother, and 16 sisters, including Father Danny Garcia, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Austin. Father Garcia attended the parish school and is returning to concelebrate the Mass.

The founding of the parish can be traced to the trek of European immigrants, who made their way inland from the Port of Galveston, settling in and around Cameron. Although they did not have a church or regular access to Mass and the sacraments, they were determined to live their Catholic faith as best they could.

In 1883, a priest from Austin celebrated Mass for the Catholic community in the home of Mr. and Mrs. David Meyer. Afterwards, the Meyers donated 5 acres of land; and in 1889, the community built a mission church under the patronage of St. Anthony of Padua. Seven years later, two Sisters of Divine Providence came and established a Catholic school, holding classes in the church until the school building was completed in 1904.

With a spirit of enthusiasm and pride, the community committed to hosting the Katholischer Staats-Verband von Texas (the Catholic State League of Texas) convention in 1905. They needed a larger church to accommodate the visitors and growth, so they mustered their resources and built one. For reasons lost to history, the new church was dedicated under the patronage of St. Monica, rather than St. Anthony.

In 1927, a fire destroyed this church, which provided the motivation for the parish to rally together and build an even larger one to accommodate the growing immigrant population. Throughout the years, St. Monica’s faithful and friends have repeatedly risen to embrace opportunities to further Christ’s mission, and sponsored many other building and improvement projects, including a new school building in 1935.

The parish history is also a celebration of the church’s universal nature. Prior to World War I, the school enrollment had increased with children of Czech and German immigrants. To ease the discord that developed during the war, the sisters emphasized their American identity.

Another opportunity for cultural unity occurred in 1976. Blessed Sacrament Church, located a few blocks away, burned down. This mission served Catholics of Mexican descent. Instead of rebuilding that church, Bishop Vincent Harris asked the two communities to become one. Today, St. Monica Parish is enriched by families of Mexican, Asian and European heritages, and celebrates weekly Masses in English and Spanish.

Derek Brazeal, age 23, is a fifth generation member of the parish. He praised the volunteer spirit of the community, especially in the area of youth formation. He also explained that one of the challenges facing the parish is the need to reach out to those who have fallen away from the church.

Recognizing that many Catholics are comfortable using new media to communicate and receive information, the parish is embracing technology for evangelization during this Year of Faith. There is an active Facebook page with posts on spiritual topics, as well as parish news. Subscribers receive a daily e-mail message with an excerpt from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Sunday Mass readings and bulletin information.

In recent years, the parish has faced financial challenges. Yet, the parishioners have responded with the spirit of sacrifice. As a result, St. Monica’s has strengthened its financial position, and recently conducted a successful stewardship campaign.

This generosity has allowed the parish to renovate the St. Anthony School building. In 1971, economics and the lack of religious sisters forced the parish to close the school. During the last three years, the building had fallen into such disrepair that it could no longer be used.

In the meantime, the religious education program was scattered across different locations, making it difficult to manage and eventually causing the cancellation of some classes. Monica Schiller, a committee chair for the renovation, said that $150,000 in cash and in-kind donations were raised from gifts, fundraisers and outreach to St. Anthony School alumni. The parish is also grateful to the Diocese of Austin for a $50,000 grant toward this project.

Honoring their historic ties with Blessed Sacrament Church, a bell salvaged from there will be used in the landscaping.

"The school now accommodates all religious education classes, the church office, parish library, and a religious articles store," Schiller said.

Father Colankin is proud of the initiative that the community showed in renovating St. Anthony Center, stating, "The parish had the idea and motivation to restore the center. The parishioners continue to love this parish and community."

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