Pastoral Planning: Looking back as we prepare to move forward
By Father Tom Frank
On July 30, I read this sentence from the Gospel of the day: “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old” (Mt 13:52).
As the Austin Diocese plans for the future, we too are called to value both the old and the new –– treasuring the past and what has stood the test of time, and remembering that God remains active among us and continues drawing us to something new.
With this is mind, I researched some of the oldest parishes and towns that were settled by immigrants from Europe. They brought their families, their skills, their work ethic, their culture and their determined, profound Catholic faith to Central Texas. These communities have produced many priests, deacons and religious sisters and brothers in the last two centuries and they continue to build the faith here in Central Texas.
Rockne (Sacred Heart)
Philip Goertz and his wife, Catherine, came from Wurges, Germany, to Central Texas in 1856. Because of the abundance of wild game, many strong trees, good soil and water, they settled at Walnut Creek. Other German immigrants settled near Sandy Creek at Meuth Hill and these two sites eventually became Rockne and String Prairie, which sit near the southern boundary of the Austin Diocese.
Mass was held occasionally in the Goertz home or at Meuth Hill until 1876 when the two communities became separate parishes. A small church was built on the land near the Goertz home and was dedicated to the Ascension of the Lord. That church burned in 1891, and a new and larger church was built on land donated by John Lehman, completed in 1892, and dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Two wings were added to the building in 1920.
A cemetery on the property is where both John Lehman and Philip Goertz were buried. Names of other early German settlers were Wilhelm, Bartsch, Hilbig, Klaus, Beck and Boer.
In 1900, the pastor of both parishes moved his residence from String Prairie to Rockne and a Catholic school was started with Divine Providence sisters, then Benedictine sisters serving as the teachers.
In 1935 a new pastor woke to prepare for his first Mass at Sacred Heart Parish and torrents of rain were falling. Only dirt roads led to the church and he wondered if anyone would come to Mass. To his amazement, about 30 minutes before Mass, people were walking from all directions, most barefoot and carrying their shoes. When they arrived at the church grounds, they washed their feet at the cistern, put on their shoes and came into the church. Once he saw this, the new pastor knew he had been assigned to a community with a special kind of faith.
Between 1937 and the 1940, the parishioners of Sacred Heart worked together to construct a rectory and a new church.
On May 31, 1952, Bishop Louis Reicher came to Rockne to ordain two sons of the parish –– Fathers Victor and Bernard Goertz. The next day Father Victor celebrated his first Mass on June 1 at 9:30 a.m. and Father Bernard celebrated the next Mass on the same day. Following the Masses, the entire parish joined in an all-day celebration honoring the two native sons.
More than 20 religious sisters (12 Divine Providence, one Incarnate Word, seven Benedictines and two Holy Cross) as well as eight priests have come from this small town. In 1962, Father M.C. Deason, editor of the Catholic newspaper, wrote, “If every community could produce nuns and priests as Rockne does, there would be no shortage of vocations.”
Today Sacred Heart Parish in Rockne has 300 families. The pastor and two deacons also serve the mission of St. Mary of the Assumption in String Prairie.
Burlington (St. Michael)
John Jones and John Nolan came to Central Texas in 1875. Along with others they formed what was first called “the Irish Settlement” of Texas. Nolan’s people came from Waterford County, Ireland, so the area was first named Waterford, but when mail got mixed with Weatherford, so the postmaster changed the name to Burlington (the name of his hometown in Vermont).
In the summer of 1885, eight families worked together to build a small church. When Father Franciscus, a Holy Cross priest in Bellville some 85 miles away, heard that eight families of the Irish Settlement had built a church, he said, “I’m a doubting Thomas. I never heard of even a large parish where the people built a church without a priest.”
He rode on horseback to see it and arrived for the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, Sept. 29, 1885. He blessed the little church, celebrated the first Mass then pronounced that the church should be named for St. Michael.
A second church in the form of a Roman cross was dedicated in 1896. A stucco building in Spanish style replaced that frame church in 1929. The present church was dedicated by Bishop Louis Reicher on March 15, 1959.
A parochial school was opened in 1891 and staffed by the Sisters of Divine Providence, then by Dominican Sisters in 1921, then by Incarnate Word Sisters from Houston in 1935. St. Michael School closed in 1956.
Many descendants of the early settlers have moved to larger cities, but at least eight religious sisters and five priests (including myself) trace their roots back to “the Irish Settlement” of Burlington, which is located about 20 miles southeast of Temple.
St. Michael currently has 45 households and is a mission of St. Ann Parish in Rosebud.
Bremond (St. Mary)
Polish immigrants searching for a better way of life came through Galveston to New Waverley. In 1875, the Joseph Bartula family and a little later the Frank Bienski family arrived in Bremond, 20 miles northeast of Burlington. They wrote letters encouraging other Polish families to come to the railroad and farming town where jobs were plentiful and land could be purchased at $10 per acre. The land was excellent for growing cotton.
In the next few years, large numbers of Polish immigrants came to Bremond, making it the largest single concentration of Poles in Texas and the largest Polish parish in Texas.
In 1877, the 50 Polish families decided to build a church but they could only raise $115. Help came from J.C. Roberts and other Protestants to build the $1,200 structure. The first Mass was celebrated on Pentecost in 1879, and the church was named St. Mary, in honor of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the patroness of Poland. A second church was built in 1908 and the current church in 1971.
Struggling in the early days, the parish did not have the funds to pay the priest his salary so he raised cotton to earn extra income.
The Polish people brought a strong work ethic to Bremond and became successful merchants and farmers. They also brought a strong Catholic faith and became the largest religious congregation in the county.
In 1937, Felician Sisters came from Chicago to staff the parish school –– 10 Bremond girls joined the Felicians, six joined the Sisters of St. Joseph and two entered the Sisters of Charity. Five young men from Bremond entered the priesthood.
St. Mary Parish in Bremond has 300 families, many still primarily of Polish descent. The parish’s two priests (who also serve St. Francis of Assisi in Franklin) celebrate the three weekend Masses. Every year on the third Sunday of October, the parish hosts its homecoming festival and former parishioners return to celebrate their heritage. During the festival a livestock auction is held and cattle, goats, ducks and rabbits are up for bid – it’s quite a sight! All are welcome this Oct. 18.
In November 1879, Theodore Rabroker and his family came from Frelsburg to Central Texas and by 1884, 13 families came to the same area and received 270 acres of land. They were immigrants from Westphalia Province, Germany, and at a community meeting in that year, “Westphalia” was the name given to the new settlement. The small town sits about 26 miles west of Bremond.
These pioneers sought land fitting for a church and school and acquired 100 acres at $6 per acre atop a hill. Construction began and Mass was celebrated in February 1884, but in May a terrible storm destroyed the little church. It was rebuilt in July of the same year, blessed and dedicated the Church of the Visitation.
In 1886, a larger church was completed and the current church was completed and dedicated in 1895. The last renovation was in 1975 when air-conditioning was added. The Church of the Visitation holds the distinction of being the largest frame building in the state.
Some 400 families were in Westphalia in the early 1900s. Corn and maize were raised for the cattle and hogs but cotton was the cash crop –– there were three cotton gins in Westphalia. Many also raised chickens and dairy cows.
In the summer, the families had a “Beef Club” whereby one family each week provided a 300-400 pound calf for butchering and the meat was divided among the families. Large families could get a double portion but would also have to provide two calves. In winter, pork sausage was eaten –– salted pork lasted longer without refrigeration. Currently, many still raise corn crops in the land around the parish.
More than 20 young women from Westphalia have joined the Sisters of Divine Providence, 14 others joined the Dominican Sisters in Houston and 11 young men have joined the priesthood. Two priests, Fathers Sylvester Fuchs and Clyde Holtman were ordained by Bishop Louis Reicher on May 15, 1949. Father Fuchs celebrated his first Mass the next day, then Father Holtman celebrated his first Mass the following day –– it was a powerful three-day celebration for the entire parish.
Now the 244 families of Visitation Parish are served by one pastor and two deacons.
I am most grateful to my friends and fellow priests: Father Victor Goertz, Elmer Holtman, Louis Wozniak and Boli Zientek; and I am thankful for the assistance of Eric Hartmann of the Texas Catholic Archives. They helped me put together the history and stories of these parishes. As we move forward in the next chapter of history in the Diocese of Austin, let us pray for all those who have gone before us rooted in the Catholic faith.