“The point of traveling is not to arrive, but to return home laden will pollen that you will work into honey that your soul will feed upon.” Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas expresses his idea of pilgrimage
This is a story about a pilgrimage into the spaces and paths which were once only inhabited by small groups of people and native wildlife. A land first occupied by Native Americans, then Spanish Conquistadors and then Texas’ first entrepreneurs and adventurers. The Wild West path between Galveston, Houston and San Antonio was a hard one for the founders of CHRISTUS.
Times have changed along the route between these major cities. It is only a few hours’ drive between them, with giant gas stations sprinkled along the way. But, the best part of retracing this path, was taking a fresh look at the role of our CHRISTUS founders and what kind of transformational impact they had on Texas life. It also highlights the Sisters’ contributions to the broad story of health care and how often, if anything, they are underappreciated.
Nuns have served as the face of Catholicism for generations of Americans. Although most of us probably know of very few young women today who are called into religious life, Sisters Mary Blandine, Mary Joseph and Mary Ange were all in their twenties when they answered the call to leave the metropolitan city of Lyons, France and sail a month on open waters to Galveston, Texas.
They were arriving in a Gulf of Mexico port town where yellow fever affected almost three-fourths of the population and killed at a rate of 20 people per day. The reality these young Sisters faced was daunting. Talk about brave.
Within months, the Sisters, along with Bishop Claude Marie Dubuis, opened a charity hospital on the eastern end of Galveston. Today, you won’t find the building. Instead of Sister Mary’s Infirmary there’s a plaque commemorating their work. However, surrounding that plaque, marking the spot of the original St. Mary’s Infirmary, happens to be a very active medical hub. Several health care facilities and hospitals surround the area demonstrating the continued effort, started so long ago, to make a difference and nurture the sick and poor.
Health care in Texas today still bears the fingerprints of those early caregivers.
Retracing the area where the Sisters once lived and worked was part of why a group of CHRISTUS leaders from across different regions decided to take this two-day domestic pilgrimage.
Although this pilgrimage was a domestic one, the leaders visited a misplaced piece of Europe, Alsace, in the middle of Texas to a town called Castroville. It was settled by Henri Castro on the Medina River in 1842. It is here where you will find historic cottages including Bishop Dubuis’ first home – where his French colleague and dear friend, Father Matthew Chazelle would die.
After Father Chazelle died from a fever, Bishop Dubuis wrote a letter home that he “had a large cross planted on (Chazelle’s) grave…and not a single day goes by that some Catholic faithful comes by to kneel down near it.”
The original St. Louis Church is where the newly ordained Reverend Dubuis was assigned. Small and rustic, the original church would give way to a larger second church on the block north of the first one. As a way to honor him, Chazelle’s name is featured in marble just to the right of the church entrance.
As one hears the stories of what it was like to minister during this time, one can’t help but think of the hardships and troubles that were lying in wait. Mother Blandine would die from yellow fever. Sister Ange would be permanently weakened by the same epidemic, and only Sister Joseph would be left to carry on.
In addition to the terrible illnesses the caregivers faced, there were natural disasters to contend with. On September 8, 1900 a hurricane with winds up to 130 miles per hour pummeled Galveston, killing thousands of people and destroying the once-thriving city. It remains the deadliest natural disaster in United States history. Among the dead were 10 Sisters and 90 children from the St. Mary’s Orphanage, operated by our founding Sisters of Charity.
One of the few buildings to survive was St. Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston and the Bishop Palace also known as the Gresham mansion. Both are architectural reminders of Galveston Island’s glorious past.
Every historic site visited during the pilgrimage is highly valued and deeply meaningful to CHRISTUS’ history. But no other place gives you more of a renewed commitment to the organization than visiting with those Sisters who are still very much alive and working to support the legacy handed down to them. The lay people entrusted with the future of CHRISTUS Health must continue that mission started 160 years ago—the mission to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.
The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston and Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio share this message from their beautiful convents which hold impressive history and artifacts.
Villa de Matel is the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston Congregation’s Motherhouse. The wooded land on the southeastern edge of Houston serves as a home, worship, retreat and a central gathering place. The chapel is grand and a demonstration of faith and vision still apparent in the members of the leadership team.
The same sort of commitment and leadership is apparent at the Incarnate Word Generalate in San Antonio, where a community of sisters has led the way in education, health care and religious outreach. Their Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word Motherhouse Chapel is Romanesque with cathedral-sized dimensions.
The sisters are rightfully proud of their history and what they’ve built, and the pilgrimage was a way to tell their story beyond just words. It gave our leaders a visual reminder of how powerful and meaningful the CHRISTUS story really is, and how we should all feel proud that our founding Congregations trust that each of us can carry on what was started almost 150 years ago. They had faith to serve those in needs, which also led them to transform health care, and they want nothing more for us to have the same faith and determination.