The presence of the Catholic Church in what is now the Diocese of Austin dates from the seventeenth century. The Spaniards had established missions in East Texas as early as 1690, largely through the agency of Franciscans from the colleges of Santa Cruz de Querétaro and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas. In 1721 three East Texas missions were staffed by Queretarans and three by Zacatecans. By July 27, 1730, the Queretaran missions had been combined and reestablished as one mission on the south side of the Colorado River near the site of present-day Zilker Park in Austin. This mission, the only Spanish mission within the territory of the present diocese, remained in the area for only about seven months, then was moved to San Antonio de Béxar and split into three. After the secularization of the missions in the early eighteenth century, the church maintained its presence in Texas through Mexican dioceses (see CATHOLIC DIOCESAN CHURCH IN SPANISH AND MEXICAN TEXAS). As immigration from the United States increased during the later Spanish and Mexican periods, a scattering of Catholics came with the new residents. Mexican law required the rest of the colonists to adopt the Catholic religion. After Texas independence from Mexico, however, the majority of the populace reverted to its Southern Protestant origins. The Catholics who remained were in need of care.
In 1840 the Republic of Texas was made a prefecture apostolic, and Fr. John Timon was named prefect apostolic. Timon appointed Jean Marie Odin, another Vincentian, as his vice prefect. The two Vincentian fathers arrived in Austin in November and negotiated successfully with the state legislature for the return of mission lands to the Catholic Church. After annexation the whole of Texas was made a diocese, the Diocese of Galveston, in 1847. Odin was bishop.
The Diocese of Galveston was subsequently split into other dioceses. The Diocese of Austin, the seventh of these, was formed in 1947 by a decree of Pope Pius XII, from territory that had formerly been in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the Diocese of Galveston, and the Diocese of Dallas. Louis J. Reicher was made bishop, and St. Mary's Church in Austin became St. Mary's Cathedral. The new diocese comprised thirty-one counties that cover 25,000 square miles; the Catholic population was counted at 75,495. The original diocese had fifty parishes and forty-three missions served by 132 priests, 196 sisters, and 24 brothers. The Catholic population comprised immigrants from many origins; among them were Germans, Czechs, Poles, Italians, Irish, and French. Mexican Americans had long maintained the Catholic faith on Texas soil. Black Catholics had an established community in Washington-on-the-Brazos as early as 1849; Holy Cross Church, founded in Austin in 1936, operated the first black Catholic hospital in the state, Holy Cross Hospital.
Bishop Reicher lived at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel for a while, then at St. Edward's University. He used two rooms at Newman Hall, near the University of Texas, for a chancery. In 1958 a new chancery, designed by Walter Koch, Jr., of Waco, was opened at Congress Avenue and Sixteenth Street, on property purchased from Southern Methodist University. The diocese began publishing a newspaper, the Lone Star Catholic, in 1957; Catholic Spirit was the diocesan newspaper in the early 1990s. Reicher conducted a synod in 1960; a second Synod of Austin was begun in 1988 and completed in 1992. In 1959 the Catholic Archives of Texas were transferred from Amarillo to the chancery building in Austin.
Upon the formation of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo in 1961, four northwest counties-Coleman, McCulloch, Brown, and Callahan-were transferred from the Austin see to the new jurisdiction. The Diocese of Austin thus assumed the boundaries it had in the 1990s, reaching from Sealy and Bryan in the east to Mason in the west, and from West in the north and San Saba in the northwest to Luling in the south.
Bishop Reicher established many new parishes and built more than 200 buildings. Upon his retirement in 1971 the diocese had grown to 85 parishes and 31 missions served by 147 priests, 152 nuns, and 37 brothers. Reicher resigned because of ill health in 1971, and Vincent M. Harris, who succeeded him, presided over continued growth and handled some difficult fiscal problems. Harris had a stroke in November 1984 and resigned the next year. Auxiliary bishop John McCarthy of Houston was named to succeed him and was installed as ordinary on February 26, 1986.
The diocese has long engaged in a wide variety of ministries, especially education, health care, and social service, many of which began while the Austin region was still a part of the Diocese of Galveston. St. Edward's University, founded in 1885, had an enrollment of 3,086 in fall 1990–91. Catholic student centers were located at the campuses of the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Southwest Texas State University, Blinn College, and Temple Junior College. Catholic elementary and secondary schools enrolled some 3,500 students annually. Six Catholic hospitals operated within the diocese: Seton Medical Center, Austin; St. Jude, Brenham; St. Joseph, Bryan; St. Edward, Cameron; and Providence, Waco. Holy Cross Hospital closed in 1989, after serving East Austin for nearly fifty years. The St. Vincent de Paul Society and Caritas were two of many social-service organizations operating within the diocese. In the 1990s the Diocese of Austin had grown to eighty-eight parishes and a Catholic population of nearly 250,000. Serving the church were 195 priests, 142 religious women, more than 70 permanent deacons, and 43 religious men.