I just spent a couple of days in southern Texas in the Diocese of Brownsville—the most densely Catholic diocese in the nation. As much as 85% of the population belongs to the Catholic Church, and some estimate that the diocese has tripled in population since 1980. As our group made our way to various parishes along the Rio Grande on the U.S.-Mexico border, I was struck not only by the great legacy that Catholic Extension has in this area, but also the great opportunity we have to do so much more.
We visited St. Eugene, a mission parish located in a residential neighborhood in the city of Brownsville. In an unexpected presentation from Rev. Timothy W. Paulsen, OMI, he showed us a picture from 1911, of Catholic Extension’s founders standing with a group of Texas missionaries on horseback. Together, they were celebrating the groundbreaking of the first church in the diocese. Over the years, with the help of Catholic Extension, the Catholic Church has continued to grow throughout the Valley.
St. Eugene’s parish, which currently receives small salary subsidies from Catholic Extension, is a microcosm of that larger story of growth. In the early 1970s, the parish began in a small trailer, where they celebrated Mass and held religious education classes. The community outgrew the trailer, and in 1990 it built a larger facility with Catholic Extension’s support. Twenty-one years later, the parish has grown even more, along with its various social outreaches to the neighborhood. With this continued growth comes the need for a larger church. Over 1,000 people attend their standing-room-only Masses on Sundays, and more than 400 kids are enrolled in their religious education program. Though these numbers are great, the parishioners believe they can still reach so many more people. The purpose of our visit was to learn more about how Catholic Extension can partner with this parish to make the dream for more space and more outreach a reality.
Up the river, we visited parishioners from Immaculate Conception in Lopezville, Texas, a mission where Catholic Extension provides support for ministries to youth and families. Lopezville is an unincorporated residential area outside of McAllen, Texas. The church is a small wooden chapel with a charming steeple. Based on its size, it would be hard to guess that hundreds of people attend Sunday Masses there, and somewhere between 100 and 200 kids receive religious education.
Father Jerry, the pastor of Immaculate Conception, took us for a tour through the neighborhood. One couldn’t help but notice the blight: the graffiti; the flimsy trailers precariously stilted atop cinder blocks; the houses falling apart; the crudely erected chain-link fences surrounding each house; the junk strewn about the yards; and the howling dogs on guard duty at each property, suspicious of anyone walking the streets..
Father Jerry worries about the young people in this neighborhood because of the presence of local gangs. One parishioner, Josefa, who has lived in the area since 1958, worries about the lack of lighting in the neighborhood. Another parishioner, Elisa, worries about the people around her living in abject poverty—her neighbor, who cares for two bedridden children, is confined to a 10 x 10 room.
While the problems run deep in Lopezville, so does the Catholic faith and the conviction that something can be done. Parishioners individually told us about their decades-long commitment to their community. They continue to have bold visions about how the Church can leverage itself to inspire hope and ignite change in their neighborhood. While they still have much to accomplish, they have all been encouraged by the progress that they’ve already achieved. They advocated for a sewage system in the neighborhood and achieved it. They asked for a greater police presence and achieved it. They helped many young people go on to live successful lives because the Church gave them purpose, values and community.
One parishioner, Juan José, who now works for the Hidalgo county sheriff, said that he and his peers are the tangible results that have come from Immaculate Conception. As a young person, the realities of his neighborhood were inescapable. He recalled witnessing a shooting. Yet he says that he and his peers, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended the parish felt the goodness of this Church, and it stayed inside them.
The people of the Diocese of Brownsville see firsthand what the transformative power of faith in the community can do in people’s lives, and they continue to be emboldened to ignite change and do great things.
— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension