After the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War ended, the Rio Grande Valley was essentially a no man’s land filled with drifters, former soldiers, bandits and other people who made settling into the newly annexed into the United States unsafe.
Rio Grande City got its start when Fort Ringgold was established there and a city for soldiers’ families grew up nearby. Roma was the head of navigation for Steamboats plying the Rio Grande River.
Between Brownsville and Roma there were over 300 river miles of porciones in between where ranches represented small cities. Because of its location, Brownsville became a port city where goods could be shipped to other areas of the United States or to Europe.
As more and more families arrived in Brownsville to make their fortunes in the city, they were appalled by the wild western atmosphere that existed with daily shootings in the street and “lynch law” without the benefit of a trial often was the prevailing form of government. For businessmen who lived in the area, smuggling was the top profession.
A cry went out to the Dioceses of Galveston for priests to come and establish churches in the Rio Grande Valley.
Unable to get a local response, in 1845, Bishop Jean-Marie Odin, C.M. traveled to Europe to recruit priests to serve in the Texas wilderness.
“You will not always find something to eat or drink, you will be without ceasing on journeys through unknown regions where the distances are immense, the plains boundless and the forests of vast extent. You will pass night on the moist earth and your days under the burning sun. You will encounter perils of every kinds, and you will have need of all your courage and energy.” The words were part of an appeal to the Lyons Society, warning the future priests of the type of work that faced them if they took the challenge.
The first group of priests arrived on Dec. 3, 1849 in Point Isabel. Father Pierre Telmon, Father Alexander Soulerin and Brother Joseph Menthe held their first service in a barn near the port. Many of those who attended had not been to a religious service in years.
The next day they traveled to Brownsville where they found most families living in shacks under the protection of the soldiers at Fort Brown.
Father Soulerin is credited with starting the apostolate of ranchos that became the Cavalry of Christ when he began making Thursday Trips to the Ranch of Santa Rita where he was greeted by the villagers with zeal.
In 1851 Bishop Odin returned to Europe, visiting France, Italy, Germany and Ireland to recruit more priests for the Texas mission. His call was answered by 38 priests, seminarians and Brothers and Sisters. Priests include Pierre Parisot, Etiene Vignolle, Pierre Keralum, Jean-Marie Gaye and Rigomer Olivier. Joined by lay Brother Pierre Roudet, these groups began service the mission in Brownsville and the missions along the coast.
While services were mainly around Brownsville in the early years, in 1867 the service area was expanded to Roma, a three-day rider for the priests who endured through cactus and brushland filled with wild animals and rattlesnakes. There were no bridges over the arroyos during rainy times. During the heat of summer often there were no sources of water other than the river.
When a priest arrived in a ranching village, he did not dismount until invited to do so. He often received a meal of beans and tortillas along with a cup of coffee.
He visited the jacals (Mexican huts made of wood and mud) and invited the families to evening services. He gave children lessons in catechism, performed marriages and baptized new babies. He often slept on the floor or was given a cot that might be very dirty to sleep on. But he slept there so he did not offend the people who he served. The next morning after prayers and breakfast and a sermon, he mounted his horses and headed for the next ranch.
Father Keralum, known as El Santo Padre Perdito, or the lost priest, is perhaps the most famous of the priests.
Sent to Texas because of his architectural skills, he built the Immaculate Conception Church in Brownsville and later designed churches in Roma and Laredo. But his passion was for saving souls. He suffered from poor eyesight and at one time became lost for three days until he found a trail that led him to the La Lomita Mission.
Located on a porcion near Mission, it marked a half-way spot in the journey from Brownsville to Roma along the river and became a favorite stopping place for the traveling priests.
Father Keralum was so ill from exposure the ranch hand had to nurse him back to health before he could return to his Mission. Suffering from poor health he had the look of an old man by age 52, but he refused to stop riding the circuit. On November 9, 1872, he started a trip that lasted through New Year’s Day 1873. On November 12 he left the Tampacuas Ranch four miles north of Mercedes, heading toward Las Piedras Ranch, 18 miles to the north.
He never arrived.
A search party found his horse grazing without a tether or saddle but no priest. Priests speculated that something happened to Father Keralum, and he released his horse to find his way home. Three months after he disappeared a solemn Requiem Mass was said. But it would be over 10 years before cowboys working cattle would locate his remains in the dense brush north of Mercedes.
Father Keralum illustrates the hard lifestyle faced by the Oblate Priests who answered the call to come and bring Christianity to the Rio Grande Valley. The dedication of these truly extraordinary men had a great influence on the shaping of the Rio Grande Valley by bringing Christianity to what was a lawless land.