Bretault, Jean Baptiste (1843–1934)

By: William L. Watson, O.M.I.

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1994

Jean Baptiste Brétault (Padre Juanito, Padre Juan de la Costa), early South Texas Catholic missionary, the son of Pierre Jean Charles and Anne Marie (Audoin) Brétault, was born at La Tournerie de Fief-Sauvin, near Angers, France, on October 22, 1843. After joining the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1869, he was ordained a priest and sent to the Texas missions in 1872, despite the loss of a lung to tuberculosis. He arrived at Point Isabel on August 11 and was stationed at Immaculate Conception Church, Brownsville, where he took up the pastoral circuit of Father Pierre Keralum upon the latter's mysterious disappearance on November 12. Brétault's huge mission field, known as La Costa (the lower Coastal Plains), comprised today's Hidalgo, Willacy, Kenedy, and Kleberg counties. It was arid, brushy, and almost empty land, about which were scattered some 150 ranchos that averaged one to ten families each. By his own account, during thirty-nine years of active ministry Brétault traveled 23,400 leagues (about 70,000 miles) on horseback, performed 927 weddings, and baptized 6,406 infants. The rough conditions of early South Texas come to life in his remark, "I believe that a sixth of the children I baptized died before reaching the light of reason, which means that I have 1,077 little angels praying for me." During the course of his travels Brétault was lost in the desert twice and pinned down six times by snowstorms and five times by hurricanes.

From 1896 to 1901 he rode the mission circuit out of Rio Grande City (Starr, Jim Hogg, and Brooks counties); afterward he rode La Costa again until, his health broken, he retired in 1908 to the Oblates' La Lomita Mission, after which the city of Mission was later named. Brétault passed his last years in quiet prayer at La Lomita, tending a garden and regaling Oblate novices with tales of early Texas. Once a year John G. Kenedy, son of Capt. Mifflin Kenedy, sent a special train to bring the old missionary to visit La Parra Ranch and King Ranch, where for decades Brétault had been padrecito to the cowhands and their families. Brétault died on May 31, 1934.

Archives of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Southern United States Province, San Antonio. James Talmadge Moore, Through Fire and Flood: The Catholic Church in Frontier Texas, 1836–1900 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992).
  • Peoples
  • French
  • Religion
  • Catholic

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

William L. Watson, O.M.I., “Bretault, Jean Baptiste,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994