By: Steven P. Ryan, S.J.

Type: General Entry

Published: March 1, 1995

Updated: April 5, 2017

The Society of Jesus, a Catholic order of priests and brothers commonly known as Jesuits, has been active in Texas since the 1870s. The order, founded in 1540 by a Basque mystic and saint, Ignatius of Loyola, engages in a wide variety of ministries worldwide, especially as missionaries and teachers. Four distinct groups of Jesuits have ministered in Texas: 1) exiles from periodic religious persecution in Mexico; 2) Neapolitan missionaries, who first came to the United States to work in the Rocky Mountain region; 3) French missionaries of the New Orleans mission of the Jesuit Province of Lyons; and 4) members of the modern-day New Orleans Province, which reaches from Florida to New Mexico. Jesuit efforts have centered in-though they have not been limited to-Seguin, El Paso, Galveston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston.

The rise of an anticlerical government in Mexico led to the forced departure of Jesuits in the summer of 1873. A group of twenty-two exiles, led by Rev. Andrés Artola, S.J., sought refuge in San Antonio. There they were welcomed and aided by Bishop Claude Marie Dubuis of Galveston and assumed direction of the Church of Carmen on the Medina and the missions of Concepción, San José, and San Juan Capistrano. In 1877 the group opened a college and seminary in nearby Seguin. Guadalupe College, as it was called, prospered initially, with a first-year student body of twenty. In addition, the Mexican Jesuits were entrusted with the missions of Seguin, San Marcos, Lockhart, and Gonzales, as well as all those between Luling and Cibolo on the Galveston-Harrisburg line. At least two attempts were made to transfer direction of a series of Brownsville-area Rio Grande valley missions from the overextended Oblates of Mary Immaculate to the exiled Jesuits, but the plans never materialized. Meanwhile, Guadalupe College began to struggle financially; once the political climate changed in Mexico, the exiles closed the school and returned home in 1880.

The Society of Jesus made a more fundamental and lasting contribution in the El Paso area. The first Jesuits to work in Trans-Pecos Texas on a permanent basis arrived in El Paso on October 14, 1881. These missionaries from the Jesuit Province of Naples had previously been working in the territories of New Mexico and Colorado. They assumed care of a string of neglected 200-year-old missions and went on to establish and maintain more than thirty parishes, thus laying the foundation for the modern Catholic Diocese of El Paso. In the early years Ysleta, the county seat, served as the center of an expanding Jesuit apostolate. There the Jesuits assumed directorship of Corpus Christi de la Isleta Mission and renamed it Nuestra Señora del Monte Carmelo, then spread out to cover a network of churches and missions stretching along the upper Rio Grande valley and reaching deep into Mexico. Many of these required extended travel on horseback or, where possible, by buggy. Jesuit concentration soon shifted to El Paso, which was eclipsing its Valley neighbors as it rapidly emerged as an important rail center. The Jesuits built the city's first permanent church, St. Mary's Chapel, which opened at Christmas in 1882. In 1892 the scope and direction of the Jesuit apostolate changed dramatically. A new superior, Carlos M. Pinto, who eventually came to be known as the "apostle and masterbuilder of El Paso," both restructured and extended the Jesuit sphere of ministry. In the years to come the Jesuits opened numerous parishes in rapidly growing El Paso and its environs. The period was not without its setbacks, however. Fire destroyed the historic Isleta Mission in May 1907, but the church was rebuilt and reopened in July 1908.

In time El Paso was made an independent diocese, and on October 28, 1915, a Jesuit, Anthony J. Schuler, was consecrated as its first bishop. Most of the priests of the fledgling diocese were Jesuits. In 1919 the eighty-four Jesuits working in the area came under the direction of the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus, which had been established in 1907. Revista Católica, founded in 1875 and for many years the only Spanish Catholic weekly periodical in the western hemisphere (see CATHOLIC JOURNALISM), transferred its operations from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to El Paso in 1918. The press likewise produced Spanish Bibles and a wide variety of historical, catechetical, and devotional materials. It continued in operation until 1958. In 1917 the Mexican province once again faced an antagonistic government and moved its novitiate to Texas. A college started in Fort Stockton was later moved to El Paso and renamed Ysleta College. It remained there until 1951, when the novitiate returned to Mexico. Throughout the years of exile, the Mexican Jesuits served in many established parishes and also opened new ones.

At the other end of the state, and shortly after the Italian Jesuits arrived in El Paso, Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher of Galveston turned to French Jesuits in Louisiana for help. Since 1837 Jesuit missionaries had been in Louisiana, where an established mission had operated since 1847. The Jesuits were invited to assume control of the struggling St. Mary's University and to establish Sacred Heart Parish in Galveston. The university had had problems since its founding in 1852, and Jesuit direction could not save it from eventual closure in 1922. The parish, on the other hand, thrived. It was formed in 1884 and dedicated its new church on January 17, 1892. The French Romanesque edifice, acclaimed an architectural marvel, was designed by noted Galveston architect Nicholas J. Clayton. Brother Cornelius Otten, S.J., a talented builder responsible for a number of Jesuit structures, directed the project. The Galveston hurricane of 1900, however, badly damaged both the university and the church, especially the latter, which was rebuilt on a smaller scale. The Jesuits continued to staff Sacred Heart Church until 1924. The years from 1880 to 1930 marked the peak of the activity of the New Orleans Province Mission Band, an elite corps of itinerant Jesuit preachers, who led programs of evangelization and spiritual renewal. Widely recognized for their skills of oration, members of the Mission Band covered large areas of the South, including southeast Texas.

In later times the Jesuits in Texas have concentrated their efforts in parishes and schools. In 1932 the New Orleans Province was asked to assume Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in San Antonio, which had previously been under the care of the Claretian Fathers. Father Carmelo Tranchese, the first pastor, eventually became known for his work among Spanish-speaking people. He was instrumental in establishing both the Guadalupe Community Center and Clinic and a parochial paper, La Voz, which in time became the archdiocesan Spanish weekly. Jesuits founded St. Rita's parish in Dallas in 1961. A school opened in 1964, and a new church was completed in 1967. In 1974 the Jesuits assumed care of the historic St. Joseph's Church in Houston. The parish soon became known for its service to the elderly and poor of all faiths in Houston's Sixth Ward. In 1942 Bishop Joseph Lyons of Dallas invited the Jesuits to open a preparatory school in that city. Some years later, Bishop Wendelin Nold of Houston requested that the Society of Jesus begin a similar school in his diocese. Houston Strake Jesuit opened in 1961 despite Hurricane Carla, which baptized the infant school with a fury, forcing the cancellation of the opening day of classes. In 1994, Dallas Jesuit had a student body of 775, and Houston Strake Jesuit 692. The order also operated a high school in El Paso from 1952 until 1972. In 1994 there were sixty-one Jesuits working in Texas, manning parishes in El Paso, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston; the college-preparatory schools in Dallas and Houston; and Mont Serrat, a retreat house in Lake Dallas. Until the late 1980s they also maintained a house, Xavier Hall, in Austin, in which many Jesuits from around the world completed the final year of their training.

Ernest J. Burrus, S.J, "Jesuits Came Late, But Built with El Paso for 100 Years," Southern Jesuits 1 (December 1981). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Catholic Archives of Texas, Files, Austin. Thomas H. Clancy, S.J., "Jesuits in the South: The Last 150 Years," Southern Jesuits 2 (August 1982). Bernard Doyon, The Cavalry of Christ on the Rio Grande, 1849–1883 (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1956). Houston Chronicle, June 11, 1977. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Texas Catholic, February 11, 1967, January 11, 1969).


  • Religion
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Steven P. Ryan, S.J. , “Jesuits,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022,

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March 1, 1995
April 5, 2017