The Diocese of Corpus Christi, called by Pope Pius XII "the diocese with the most beautiful name," was until 1912 part of the Vicariate of Brownsville. The area's Catholic origins date to sixteenth-century missionary work of Franciscans, of which little remains except for the La Bahía presidio and chapel at Goliad State Historical Park and the foundation of Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission at Refugio, the last mission to be established in Texas (1795). After his appointment as first bishop of Texas, Jean Marie Odin visited Corpus Christi in 1850 to explore his territory. He found about thirty Catholic families, mostly of Hispanic descent, in the town. By 1888 that population was about 1,500. In 1883 the Catholic population in the Vicariate of Brownsville (the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande) was more than 40,000-of whom at least 37,500 were Hispanic. There were twelve churches, twelve chapels, twenty-one priests, a school for boys under twelve, three academies for girls, and five convents.
Catholic congregations of women were critical in the progress of the diocese. The Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, in Brownsville since 1852, sent one of their members to Europe to recruit volunteers for expansion into Victoria. After a crisis-ridden journey marked by several deaths, the small group of missionaries returned in 1866 and founded Nazareth Academy in Victoria the next year. In 1871 Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in San Antonio came to Corpus Christi and opened a school that operated first in a home given up by the parish priest. The school moved several times before reaching its current location at the Incarnate Word Convent and Academy on South Alameda. The school was accredited by the state in 1885. With a rule based on that of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament with adaptations favoring nursing, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word was founded by Bishop Claude Marie Dubuis, who saw the dire need for nurses. At the invitation of Bishop Peter Verdaguer, the sisters came to Corpus Christi in 1905 to administer Spohn Hospital. The Religious Sisters of Mercy, a branch of the Sisters of Mercy, began work in Refugio in 1875. In 1894 they moved to Laredo and initiated work that led to the establishment of Mercy Hospital.
In 1911, after Verdaguer's twenty-year administration of the vicariate, there were in the area thirty-two priests, fifteen churches with resident pastors, and sixty chapels and stations requiring visitations. Historian Carlos E. Castañeda suggested that the "poor mission life in most of my Vicariate" referred to by Verdaguer may be partly a result of the delay of diocesan status. After the Diocese of Corpus Christi was established in 1912, Paul J. Nussbaum served as its first bishop from 1913 until his resignation in 1920. During those years the diocese endured the destructive storms of 1916 and 1919, an influenza epidemic, and the burden of priests and nuns fleeing persecution in Mexico who looked to the church in Texas for assistance. During the tenure of Emmanuel B. Ledvina, bishop from 1921 to 1949, there was much building (and rebuilding after storms) of missions, as well as of churches and schools in urban areas. Major funding came from the Catholic Church Extension Society, in which Ledvina had held office from 1907 to 1921, and the American Board of Missions. Mariano S. Garriga was named in 1936 as coadjutor with right of succession; he assumed full administration of the diocese upon Ledvina's resignation in 1949. Garriga was born in Port Isabel, and was the first native Texan to become a Catholic bishop. A favored project of his was the education of boys for the priesthood, and the minor seminary operated by the Jesuits opened in Corpus Christi in 1960. Garriga attended only the first session of the Second Vatican Council, but he carried the spirit of ecumenism back to the diocese, where he organized multifaith activities. His last project was the initiation of a drive to raise funds for a chapel of Perpetual Adoration in Corpus Christi Cathedral.
Several months after Garriga's death in 1965, the see's four southernmost counties were separated to form the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. The counties remaining in the Corpus Christi diocese were Aransas, Bee, Brooks, Duval, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Kleberg, Kenedy, Live Oak, Nueces, Refugio, San Patricio, Webb, Zapata, and parts of LaSalle and McMullen-an area of 17,294 square miles. The fourth bishop of Corpus Christi, and the first after the division, was the Irish-born Thomas J. Drury, whose tenure, from 1965 to 1983, was marked by the turmoil following the Second Vatican Council and by legal conflicts over the estate of Sara Kenedy Eastqv. Drury's expansion of diocesan activities from two to thirty-two departments included the establishment of Catholic Charities, the Office of Catholic Schools, the Catholic Youth Organization, the mission to Arteaga, Coahuila, the Family Life Bureau, the Department of Hispanic Affairs, the Catholic Telecommunications Center, the Pastoral Center, the Senate of Priests, and the Council of Religious. In 1966 he established the weekly Texas Gulf Coast Register (later called Texas Gulf Coast Catholic) as the official newspaper of the diocese. The name was changed to South Texas Catholic in 1980. Diocesan resources sustained damage from Hurricane Celia in 1970, when hundreds of people fled to temporary Red Cross headquarters set up in the basement of the cathedral.
René H. Gracida, installed as bishop in 1983, has been an outspoken opponent of restrictive immigration, abortion, and the death penalty. In 1994 the Catholic population of the diocese was 349,500 (of a total population of 740,250), served by eighty-four parishes and forty-seven missions. Sixty-nine of the parishes had resident pastors. The diocese had two homes for the aged, three retreat houses, three hospitals, and nine special centers for social services. Catholic congregations of men in the diocese numbered seventeen; of women, thirty-two. The diocese had six monastery-residences for priests and brothers and twenty-eight convents for sisters. Twenty-nine Catholic elementary and secondary schools enrolled 6,364 students. See also CATHOLIC CHURCH, CATHOLIC HEALTH CARE, CATHOLIC JOURNALISM.