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History of St. Mary Catholic Church – Brenham, Texas

St. Mary, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Brenham, Texas.

Established on November 19, 1870 the second Roman Catholic parish in Washington County, Texas, St. Mary's in Brenham, has evolved over the last century and a quarter into a congregation of over 1,000 families. A projected growth of an additional 500 families is expected by the turn of the century.

The parish was founded and supported by Irish, German and Polish Families who were engaged in a variety of business in the early days of Brenham's history. By the early 1870s, a number of farmers, themselves Polish immigrants, began settling in the vicinity of Brenham and began attending St. Mary's.

Over the years, St. Mary's has been the spiritual home of Catholics of Anglo, German, Czech and Hispanic backgrounds. It is the oldest spiritual home to Polish families in the county. In these last years of the twentieth century, St. Mary's has welcomed immigrants from Viet Nam and the Philippines.

The Early Years "Spann's Settlement" at Hidalgo Bluff

It was near Independence that the first Catholic mission in Washington County was founded, In the northeastern corner of the county, on the banks of the Brazos River at a point called Hidalgo Bluff, the families and slaves of John R. Spann and Charles C. Spann settled and developed a sizeable plantation about 1848. The Spanns, from Charleston, South Carolina, were Roman Catholics and saw to it that their slaves were catechized and baptized. A chapel, called Holy Rosary, was built on the plantation grounds. It was there that members of the Spann families and their slaves worshipped together. Later, a cemetery was established next to the chapel and the Spanns were buried next to their servants. The cemetery is all that remains of the plantation and is still used as a burial ground for the descendants of the Africans brought to this community by the Spanns.

The first reference to the mission at Hidalgo Bluff was made in the 1849 Catholic Directory. The entry listed the mission as being under the care of priests from Sts. Peter & Paul Parish in Frelsburg, Texas.

This fact can be substantiated by perusing a bound volume of sacramental records for St.. Peter & Paul Parish which is resident in the Catholic Archives of Texas at Austin.

In 1854, Fr. John Gonnard was assigned to Spann's Settlement in Washington County by the Most Rev. John Odin, first Bishop of Galveston. This was one of only fifteen sites in Texas to be sent a resident priest. In a letter (presumably written in 1961) Fr. Gonard alludes to having ministered to Catholics in Brenham, Washington, Anderson, and Wheelock. From this mention, it can also be assumed that the Catholic community in Brenham was still transient between 1854 and 1861. Fr. Claude Jacquet was sent to assist Fr. Gonnard in 1861, with both being transferred to different locations in 1862. Following their departure, it seems that a missionary, Fr. Sebastian Augagneur, was sent from Sacred Heart Church in Nacogdoches, Texas to minister to the faithful at Hidalgo Bluff. An LDS microfilm of the sacramental records of Sacred Heart in Nacogdoches reveal that F. Augagneur baptized three children in Washington County on June 26, 1861.

Bishop Odin continued to send European seminarians to live with the Spanns a Hidalgo Bluff, where the family helped the young men to learn English. One of the seminarians, John Bellaclas, was even ordained by Bishop Odin in the plantation chapel on January 1, 1865. Fr. Bellaclas stayed at Spann's Settlement through 1867. He was followed by Fr. Jean Louis Bussant, who served there from 1867 until 1869. There is no mention of any priest being assigned to Hidalgo Bluff after Fr. Bussant. Civil marriage records in Washington County indicate that Fr. Bussant conducted the marriages of three couples during his tenure in the county. One other marriage in the county during that time period indicated the presence of a Catholic priest, namely Fr. V. Gury of Frelsburg.

The Early Years-Latium

During this point in time (ca. 1866), Czech settlers began moving into the southwestern corner of Washington County, establishing the community of Latium. The first priest to minister to the Czech Catholics there was Fr. Kroc who offered masses in the homes of farmers in the community. By 1872 Fr. Joseph Cromcik came to Latium on a quarterly basis from his parish a Fayetteville. In the later part of the century, Polish immigrants also attended church a Latium.

St. Mary's-Brenham

On November 19, 1870, brothers Benjamin Harrison Bassett and Thomas Jefferson Bassett deeded an acre of land to the Most Rev. Claude Marie Dubuis, second Bishop of Galveston, for the purpose of establishing a parish in Brenham. Fr. William McSweeny was assigned as the parish's first pastor. Again, the microfilm of the Scared Heart in Nacogdoches sacramental records, reveals that Fr. McSweeny must have been the missionary charged with the care of the faithful in Washington County following Fr. Bussant's departure from Hidalgo Bluff. Fr. McSweeny baptized four children in early 1871, one born in 1869, and the others born in 1870.

Fr. McSweeny has been credited with being St. Mary's first resident pastor, but this seems unlikely. Referring again to the four baptisms entered by Fr. McSweeny into the Sacred Heart records, he is found in Brenham on February 12,1871. No other entries were made until Fr. J.N. Leonard transcribed the four entries into his records and began to add to them on February 4, 1872. Additionally, the civil marriage records of Washington County list Fr. McSweeny as minister to only four marriages, two on November 13, 1870, one on February 6, 1871, and another on February 9, 1871.

This information leads us to believe that Fr. McSweeny served as missionary to Brenham for a time, but was still pastor of the parish at Nacogdoches while St. Mary's in Brenham was being formed.

St. Mary’s first church was built in either late 1871 or early 1872. A copy of a note in the St. Mary's file at the Catholic Archives of Texas tells us that Mr. Thomas Dwyer, a Founding member of the parish, loaned “the Catholic Church of Brenham” the sum of $654.00 at 10 percent interest for furnishing the church.

Things seemed to have settled down a bit in 1872. The civil marriage records of Washington County tell us that only one wedding was officiated by a Catholic Priest. It took place on February 1, 1872 and "Fr. J. Quirat, Catholic Priest" is listed as the minister. The next Catholic marriage took place on January 7, 1873 and list "J.N. Leonard, Catholic Priest" as the officiate. Once again, consulting the sacramental records of Sacred Heart in Nacogdoches shows Fr. Leonard as having baptized a number of children in Washington County during 1872 and 1873. Only one entry is not his and notes a Fr. Chandy administering the sacrament of baptism.

The history of St. Mary’s parish which appeared in the Diocese of Galveston's Centennial book states that a Fr. Mernard followed Fr. McSweeny as pastor. This writer can find no mention of a Fr. Bernard anywhere in the sacramental records pertinent to St. Mary's no does any such name appear in the civil marriage records of Washington County, Texas. It is this writer's belief that Fr. Leonard became Fr. Bernard as his name was passed orally from one generation to another.

From May 7, 1873 until November 10, 1875, the civil marriage records of Washington County tell us that Fr. V. Gury and Fr. M. Weinzapflen from Frelsburg and Fr. Joseph Chromcik were officiating at weddings in the area. About 1871, small groups of Polish families began moving to the area around Brenham. Some of these families had been part of the Second Wave of Polish emigration to Texas in 1867. By the early 1870, they had fulfilled their three-year work agreements with their plantation-owner sponsors, had repaid their sponsors for travel expenses and were now free to settle anywhere they wished. Quoting from Dr. T. Lindsay Baker's book, The Polish Texans, "the earlier (Catholic) settlers (of Brenham) had started planning for the establishment of a Catholic parish, securing the land about 1870. The poles joined them in founding the actual parish in 1875.

This would indicate that the Brenham church had been built as a focal point for the young Catholic community, as a place where masses and the sacraments could be celebrated whenever a missionary did come through the township.

On March 12, 1875, Bishop Dubuis ordained Jozef Mosiewicz to the priesthood, the fourth Pole to be ordained in Texas. By July 16, 1876, he was appointed pastor of St. Joseph's Parish at Marlin, and was assigned to the missions at Brenham and Bremond. His handwritten volume of sacramental records provides us with an excellent overview of the families present and active in St. Mary's Brenham during his pastorate. The book entitled Liber Baptisatorum, Copulatorum et Mortworum, in Misione Brenham comisia mihi a die 15a Julii ani 1876, ac in Marlin et Brenham etc, a die 1-maji ani 1877 Josephus Mosiewicz Pastor Eccla Marlinensis, is resident in St. Mary's Parish at Bremond. It has been microfilmed by the Catholic Archives of Texas and has been indexed by Teana Sechelski of the Polish Genealogical Society of Texas. The first twenty entries in the book are for the Brenham congregation.

It was in 1881 that St. Mary’s first resident pastor arrived. The Rev. Vincent Wiliamowicz can be credited with being the first pastor of the Brenham parish to actually live here.