The tenth Catholic diocese in Texas, the Diocese of Beaumont, was established on September 29, 1966. On territory now belonging to the diocese occurred some of the earliest Catholic activity in the state. Concerned over French exploration of eastern Texas in the 1680s, Spain sent a series of expeditions to strengthen the Spanish presence there. Catholic missionaries, including Francisco Casañas de Jesús María, accompanied these forces. Casañas founded Santísimo Nombre de María Mission on the edge of the Neches River, roughly five miles north of the site of modern-day Weches, Texas. Accounts differ as to whether the mission lay on the east or west bank. If the former, it would stand as the first mission within what, in time, would be the original boundaries of the Diocese of Beaumont, though the area was later assumed into the Catholic Diocese of Tyler. The first Mass was celebrated there on September 8, 1690. A flood destroyed the mission in 1692.
As the French presence waned and Indians grew increasingly hostile to the Spanish, missionary activity in East Texas was suspended, in 1693. Beginning in 1716, however, Franciscans returned to establish a string of East Texas missions. In 1718 San Antonio de Valero Mission was begun in San Antonio as a supply center for the network. War between the French and Spanish temporarily halted activity, but missionary efforts were resumed after 1721 and continued for over 100 years. In 1834, however, Padre José Antonio Díaz de León, the last of the Franciscan friars in the area, was killed in Polk County, and more than 140 years of Spanish Catholic activity in Texas came to an end.
Traditionally the Catholic Church in Texas had been under the direction of bishops in Mexico. Mexican independence and the establishment of the Republic of Texas, however, weakened this structure, and the Texas church came increasingly under the influence of French Catholics in Louisiana. In 1840 John Timon was appointed prefect apostolic of Texas; he was raised to vicar apostolic in 1842. On May 4, 1847, all of Texas became the Diocese of Galveston. Many new dioceses were established over the subsequent years as the original diocese was divided again and again. Beaumont was among these.
During the tenure of Galveston bishop Claude Marie Dubuis (appointed in 1861), the Sisters of Charity (see SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE INCARNATE WORD, SAN ANTONIO) came to Texas, where they established a number of hospitals, including St. Mary's in Port Arthur and St. Elizabeth's (formerly Hotel Dieu) in Beaumont. During the administration of Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher (appointed in 1882) church ministry to Blacks increased significantly, especially under the Josephite Fathers (see BLACK CATHOLICS). Bishop Christopher E. Byrne, appointed in 1918, continued these efforts and initiated others to serve Hispanics, especially those who migrated to East Texas in the wake of the Cristero Revolt in the 1930s. The Spanish Augustinian Fathers continued this ministry.
In 1966 the Diocese of Beaumont was formed from the Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston. It included thirteen counties (Angelina, Cherokee, Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Nacogdoches, Newton, Orange, Polk, Sabine, San Augustine, Shelby, and Tyler) and the parts of Chambers and Liberty counties lying east of the Trinity River and Galveston Bay. The area covered 11,790 square miles of the Sabine region of East Texas. Bishop Vincent M. Harris was appointed to lead the new diocese, which had a Catholic population of some 83,000, most of it concentrated in the Beaumont-Port Arthur-Orange area. The diocese comprised thirty-two parishes and fifteen missions; seventy priests and 278 nuns staffed its various units. Warren L. Boudreaux served as the second bishop, from 1971 to 1978, then was transferred to a Louisiana diocese. The resettlement program "The Vietnamese," produced by the Diocese of Beaumont, won the praise of Pulitzer Prize author Frances Fitzgerald in the New York Times and was the cover feature in Texas Monthly in June 1976. Beaumont received its third bishop, Bernard J. Ganter, on December 13, 1978; Bishop Ganter died in 1994 and was replaced on May 9 of that year by Joseph A. Galante.
Over the years the diocese has continued to grow. On December 12, 1986, the Vatican established the Diocese of Tyler. Transferred to the new see were six northern counties previously in the Beaumont diocese: Angelina, Cherokee, Nacogdoches, Sabine, San Augustine, and Shelby. Afterward, the Diocese of Beaumont included an area of 7,080 square miles with a Catholic population of nearly 84,000. Major ethnic groups and nationalities of Catholics in the area include African Americans, Germans, Hispanics, Irish, Italians, Vietnamese, and Cajuns. In 1994 eighty priests, sixty sisters, thirty-two permanent deacons, and four brothers served in a variety of ministries. The diocese ran forty-three parishes, ten missions, and two pastoral centers. Eight schools in the diocese enrolled 2,785 students on the elementary and secondary levels, and St. Mary's and St. Elizabeth's hospitals continued to provide health care in Port Arthur and Beaumont. The Beaumont edition of the Texas Catholic was replaced by the Diocesan paper, the East Texas Catholic, first published on February 12, 1982. In 1994 the paper's circulation was 15,000. (see CATHOLIC HEALTH CARE, CATHOLIC JOURNALISM). At the time, the Catholic population of the diocese numbered 89,124.