St. Mary's Seminary, the longest-running Catholic theology school in the South, was founded by Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher at La Porte, Harris County, in 1901. Its first building, formerly the Sylvan Beach Hotel, was a five-story wooden structure that was damaged by the Galveston hurricane of 1900 but purchased and partially refurbished by the Diocese of Galveston the following year. During its early period, under the direction of the Basilian Fathers, St. Mary's Seminary not only housed and trained students for the priesthood, but also functioned as a boarding high school and college for boys and young men. Enrollment increased yearly. The lay students were moved to a cement structure added in 1908, leaving the old hotel building for the exclusive use of seminarians and faculty. In 1911 the Basilians withdrew, diocesan priests took over the administration, and Father James M. Kirwin was appointed president of the seminary. During Kirwin's presidency the institution's reputation grew, and several dioceses started to send their seminarians to La Porte for the final year of theological studies. A farm owned by the seminary west of La Porte became the main source of food and dairy products for the students. The Adoue Memorial Gymnasium, a gift from a non-Catholic Galveston family, was added to the facilities in 1914. During World War I the seminarians received military training at St. Mary's from Andrew Jackson Houston, son of Sam Houston.
Bishop Gallagher died in 1918; his successor, Christopher E. Byrne, known for fostering native vocations to the priesthood, set out to modernize the seminary. In 1920 the original wooden building was placed on rollers and dragged by mules a few hundred feet inland, concrete galleries were added all around the building, and modern heating and plumbing facilities were built. In 1922 the seminary researched and published a volume on the history of the Catholic Church in Texas. Kirwin died in 1926. That year St. Mary's Seminary officially became a university when it was granted the 1856 charter of St. Mary's University, Galveston, which had closed in 1922. The large Kirwin Memorial Chapel was built in 1927 with money mostly raised by Louis J. Reicher, later bishop of Austin, who set up a trust fund that gave financial strength to the seminary for years to come. The St. Mary's high school program was discontinued in 1940, and the high school building became an additional dormitory for the growing number of seminarians. In 1943 a storm virtually destroyed the gymnasium. As years passed, the wooden core of the main building seriously deteriorated. Bishop Byrne died in 1950 and was succeeded by Wendelin J. Nold, the first native Texan and St. Mary's alumnus to head the diocese. The following year Nold made public his plan to turn the administration of the seminary over to the Vincentian Fathers and to build a new seminary in Houston. A building fund campaign was conducted, and a fifty-acre site chosen on Memorial Drive. The seminary chapel became a parish church. The rest of the buildings were sold to Harris County to be remodeled into Sylvan Beach Park.
The seminary opened its new campus in Houston in the fall of 1954. Its Romanesque-style facilities included an administration building, a chapel, a dining hall, a convent, two residence halls, and a classroom and recreation building. In 1966 a library building and an indoor gymnasium-auditorium were dedicated. The same year the theology department of St. Mary's Seminary became the Graduate School of Theology of the University of St. Thomas, operated by the Basilian Fathers in Houston. Many changes occurred when seminarians started to take undergraduate courses at St. Thomas and the traditional self-standing seminary model gave way to a university-related one. In 1968 St. Mary's hosted a conference of the ecumenical Inter-Seminary Movement of the Southwest. In 1969 a Presbyterian theologian joined the faculty of St. Mary's. Enrollment declined during the 1970s. The Vincentians withdrew in 1982, and diocesan priests have been in charge of the seminary since. On March 26, 1986, the Dioceses of Galveston-Houston and Dallas reached an important agreement: St. Mary's became solely a seminary theologate and Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving became a college seminary. Prior to the agreement both seminaries offered an eight-year program (college and theology). Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, Bishop of Galveston-Houston, and Bishop Thomas Tschoepe, Bishop of Dallas, signed this historic decision. The new arrangement was implemented in the fall semester of 1986. In a history that covers the twentieth century, St. Mary's counts among its alumni twelve bishops and hundreds of priests, scholars, and civic leaders. In 2001 the seminary had a faculty of twenty-one and a total enrollment of 286, including 59 seminarians, 110 candidates for the diaconate, and 117 lay students preparing for ministry. Rev. J. Michael Miller was president.
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Catholic Archives of Texas, Files, Austin. Robert C. Giles, Changing Times: The Story of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston in Commemoration of Its Founding (Houston, 1972). James F. Vanderholt, The History of St. Mary's Seminary, La Porte, Texas, 1901–1954 (1972).
Theological Seminaries and Colleges
Texas in the 1920s
Texas Post World War II
Upper Gulf Coast
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Aníbal A. González,
“St. Mary's Seminary,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 13, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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