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SAN AGUSTIN CHURCH, LAREDO

SAN AGUSTÍN CHURCH, LAREDO. San Agustín Church in Laredo began in 1760 when the bishop of Guadalajara sent the first resident pastor in response to the pleas of the first settlers, who had founded Laredo in 1755. For their spiritual care the residents had depended on the Franciscan priest at the town of Revilla, fifty miles downriver. The new Laredo pastor and his successors were all secular clergy (see CATHOLIC DIOCESAN CHURCH OF SPANISH AND MEXICAN TEXAS). The first chapel was a simple mud-plastered palisade construction. When the townsite was measured off in 1767, the east side of the plaza or main square was reserved for the construction of a church and a priest's house. At the same time the territory across the river (now the site of Nuevo Laredo) was annexed to Laredo and thus also came under the care of San Agustín parish. When the Diocese of Linares or Nuevo León was established in 1777, Laredo came under its jurisdiction. Raids by Apaches and Comanches intensified in the 1770s, and a military company was permanently garrisoned in the town. The Laredo pastor took on the additional responsibility of chaplain to the troops. By 1789 the people had constructed a small stone church. Probably due in part to the Apache and Comanche pressure, a sizable group of Carrizo Indians had taken up residence at the edge of town by then, and in time several became assimilated into the Hispanic Catholic community of Laredo. Another sign of Laredo's hard-won permanence was the succession of three long-term pastors, with the brief stint of a fourth priest, between 1789 and 1851. In 1805 the town received its first episcopal visit in the person of Bishop Marín de Porras from Monterrey. Except for the same dignitary's hurried stopover in 1811 on his flight from advancing insurgents, Laredo did not see another bishop until 1850.

The church may have been rebuilt around 1800. Another rebuilding effort begun in 1815 was abandoned in 1824 with only the foundations completed. The people's straitened economic conditions-a result of the combined effects of the Mexican War of Independence, Indian raids, and extreme weather-only allowed for the repair of the old church, which measured sixteen by 120 feet. The pastor who retired in 1808 after serving for two decades was a staunch royalist, but his two successors during the revolutionary decade apparently sympathized with the insurgent cause although Laredo never joined the revolt. From 1814 to 1818 the pastor of San Agustín added the care of the short-lived upriver settlement of Palafoxqv to his duties.

During most of the period of the Mexican republic Laredo had to struggle for survival. The town and its ranches were seriously affected by the efforts of Mexico in the 1830s to retain control of Texas (which at that time comprised only the territory above the Nueces River) and those of Texans after 1836 to extend their control to the Rio Grande. Father José Trinidad García pastored the people through the momentous political changes of those times. He buried Laredoans who died resisting Texas raiders and noted the pillaging of the town and the mutilation of the parish records by the Somervell expedition in 1842. After the Mexican insurgency and through the Federalist movements of the 1840s, the various military groups who passed through Laredo often exacted forced and permanent "loans" from the dwindling parish funds.

After the United States conquered and annexed the Rio Grande country in the Mexican War, Hispanics continued greatly to outnumber the few non-Hispanic immigrants in Laredo. The town remained culturally and religiously Hispanic and Catholic, while politically and economically an alliance was forged with the Anglo newcomers. A good number of immigrants married Hispanic Catholics, thus forging interethnic bonds that proved decisive for future social and political relations in Laredo. San Agustín remained the sole church in town until the late 1870s. In fact, its priests also continued to care for the people on the other side of the river, now separated by the international border and renamed Nuevo Laredo, until 1869.

The parish was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Mexican Diocese of Nuevo León to that of the new Texas Diocese of Galveston in 1850, when Bishop Jean M. Odin of the latter diocese first traveled into the lower Rio Grande country. Three years later the bishop was able to send his own clergy, secular priests recruited from France, to take over the administration of the parish. These priests adapted themselves to the Spanish language and Mexican culture, and began visiting the outlying ranches such as San Ignacio and later Los Ojuelosqv. One priest always had the supervision of a school for boys as his primary duty. The beloved "Padre Alfonso" Souchon arrived in 1857 and remained until his death in 1902. Among his many accomplishments, between 1866 and 1872 he initiated and saw to completion the present San Agustín church, which at that time measured fifty by 110 feet. He also supervised the final work on the convent school for girls that had been under construction since the 1850s. The Ursuline Sisters arrived in 1868 and moved into the new convent school in 1869. Another priest from this time, John Claude Nerazqv, later became the second bishop of the Diocese of San Antonio.

In 1874 Laredo was part of the new Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville (see BROWNSVILLE, CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF). Railroads connecting Texas and Mexico reached Laredo in 1881, bringing about a great increase in trade and population. This helped stabilize the first Protestant congregation, begun in 1876, and led to the introduction of other communions and the founding of the Methodist school later called the Holding Institute. At this time the priests at San Agustín were visiting eighty ranches in the countryside. Laredo's growth and its strong Hispanic heritage convinced Peter Verdaguer, a Catalán who was named the second bishop for the Brownsville vicariate in 1890, to make his residence at San Agustín in Laredo. This made the church the bishop's cathedral until 1912, when the vicariate was upgraded and renamed the Diocese of Corpus Christiqv and the bishop's residence was transferred to the latter city. Bishop Verdaguer built the present priests' residence at San Agustín in 1905. Laredo's growth also led to the development of other Catholic parishes in the city, beginning in 1896. From 1891 to 1918, Catalán diocesan priests recruited by Bishop Verdaguer helped serve San Agustín parish and its filial chapels. In 1911–12 the front wall and façade of the church were rebuilt after cracks caused by a violent storm in 1905 worsened. The revolutionary turmoil of Mexico in 1914 to 1918 caused many propertied Mexicans and some Mexican clergy to establish themselves in Laredo and add their resources and energy to Catholic life there. The first bishop of the new diocese of Corpus Christi was a member of the Passionists and placed San Agustín under the care of that Catholic congregation in 1919. They increased the height of the church tower in order to place a clock in it and renovated the inside of the church.

In 1922 the next bishop entrusted San Agustín and its two filial chapels and five outlying missions to the care of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, whom he had come to know well before being named bishop. The Oblates built St. Augustine's School, which was opened in 1927 by the Sisters of Divine Providence. Between 1926 and 1928, during the Calles persecution of the church in Mexico, many people from that country crossed over to San Agustín to receive the sacraments. Several priests and religious from Mexico also took temporary refuge in Laredo during those years. In 1945–46 the church was enlarged by the addition of a new forty-foot altar area to the east end of the building, with a sacristy on either side. A new baptistry and chapel were built at the west end, and the entire interior of the church was renovated. In the early 1950s the filial chapel of San Francisco Xavier was built with the Salesian Sisters as catechists, while the filial churches of Cristo Rey and San José were made independent parishes. In 1958–60 a new convent was built on the church property. In 1963 the church received a Texas historical marker. By the 1970s the area around San Agustín Plaza had ceased to be the social and commercial center of the city. To protect and preserve the old historical center, the San Agustín de Laredo Historical District was formed in 1973. In 1976 St. Augustine's School was moved to the former Ursuline School buildings. Several blocks of nearby residences were eliminated in 1979, and access to the church was impaired when the expressway was extended to the new Rio Grande bridge. In 1985 San Agustín Church was transferred from the care of the Oblate Fathers back to that of the diocesan clergy, who had begun the parish 225 years earlier. In 1989 the San Agustín Church Historic Preservation and Restoration Society funded a $375,000 renovation project for the church. See also CATHOLIC CHURCH, CATHOLIC CONGREGATIONS OF MEN, CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF GALVESTON-HOUSTON.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Angel Sepúlveda Brown and Gloria Villa Cadena, San Agustín Parish of Laredo: Abstracts of Marriage Book I, II (2 vols., San Antonio, 1989, 1993). Stan Green, A History of San Agustín Church of Laredo (Laredo: Webb County Heritage Foundation, 1991).

Robert E. Wright, O.M.I.

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Robert E. Wright, O.M.I., "SAN AGUSTIN CHURCH, LAREDO," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ics11), accessed December 22, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.