As early as 1845, Texas Bishop John Mary Odin had spoken of opening a school in the historic Alamo buildings,then owned by the Catholic Church. The French-born bishop planned a day school with a section for boarders whose food could be raised on the land near Concepcion Mission.
Bishop Odin went to France and visited a number of seminaries and convents, asking for brothers, priests and nuns to help establish schools and churches in Texas. That’s why, on June 28, 1852, the “La Belle Assise” arrived in Galveston with a variety of religious aboard--some of them to serve in San Antonio. Debarking the ship were 24 Oblates of Mary Immaculate, 18 of them seminarians; three Brothers of the Society of Mary; four sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament; and four Ursuline Sisters, with three postulants.
The names of religious orders have become commonplace in San Antonio--interwoven with the city’s development. The three newly arrived Brothers of Mary plus Brother Andrew Edel from the Society of Mary in Dayton, Ohio, began St. Mary’s Institute by converting an old shop on the southwest corner of Military Plaza into a schoolhouse.
Later, they had the institute built on what today is the site of the Hotel La Mansion del Rio on College Street. It opened on March 1, 1853. San Antonians called it “the French School,” but it offered German, English and Spanish, as well as French. St. Mary’s Institute became St. Mary’s Academy, and eventually was used only as the downtown school of St. Mary’s University.
In 1894, after St. Mary’s Academy downtown had become too crowded, the Marianists moved it to the West End outskirts of the city and changed its name to St. Louis College. Younger students were transferred to what became Central Catholic High School.
Saint Louis College is remembered by many people mostly because in 1916 Lieutenant Dwight David Eisenhower--who was then assigned at Fort Sam Houston, and later was made Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and then served as President of the United States (1952-1960)--coached the football team. St. Mary’s law school, which had been run by the local bar association, came under the University’s control in 1934. Women were admitted to all programs in 1963.
The Society of Mary had a great deal to do with preserving Mission Concepcion, south of the city. It’s the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. In 1855, the Brothers of Mary took possession of the Mission grounds and commenced farming to provide food for St. Mary’s School. At the same time, they began restoring the church of the mission, and on May 28, 1861, the church was blessed and reopened as a place of worship--which it continues to be today.
Across from the mission church, you can see St. Peter’s-St. Joseph’s Home, built in 1913 and now caring for orphaned boys and girls. It’s operated by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word--a French order whose work began in San Antonio in 1869, when three nuns were sent from New Orleans to establish Santa Rosa Infirmary. The Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, whose predecessors lived in Lyons, France, now operate numerous San Antonio institutions: Incarnate Word College, Incarnate Word High School, Santa Rosa Medical Center (General Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Villa Rosa, Outpatient Clinic) and a number of parochial schools in various parishes.
Originally, the large Santa Rosa Hospital we see on Houston and Santa Rosa near Market Square, was in a small building on the corner of West Commerce and Camaron streets. It was called Santa Rosa Infirmary and took care not only of the sick but of orphans. When Santa Rosa was moved to its present location, the old building was converted to St. Joseph’s Orphanage for girls--and an orphanage for boys, St. John’s, was constructed on the infirmary grounds. At St. John’s Orphanage were 92 boys and nine sisters. On October 30, 1912, St. John’s was destroyed by fire, killing five, sisters and three boys.
After St. Joseph’s Orphanage For Girls was built in 1874, young Lucine Roussin, an indomitable French woman who had become Sister Mary of Jesus, would go on five-to six-week trips to towns and military posts to seek donations of food or whatever could be useful to the hospital and to the orphans.
Sometimes the sister would visit places as far away as Fort Stockton, traveling by stage. Often she simply drove herself. Taking an orphan girl or boy with her, she would drive a team of horses across the wilderness. Over her religious habit she’d wear a soldier’s overcoat that reached to her ankles, a pair of heavy boots and a large straw hat. She kept two pistols next to her. One of three young sisters who once went with her on a three-day trip, wrote:
"The days were usually pleasant if we except the heat and the continuous jolting over rough roads in a springless wagon; the nights, however, were dreaded by all except Sister. After tying her horses to the wheels of the wagon, she spread her blanket on the ground, said her night prayers, took out her pistols, and, placing them at a convenient distance, slept as peacefully as if in her bed at home."
While the Brothers of Mary were helping to protect Mission Concepcion from further outside damage, and making use of it for religious services, a French priest was taking care of Mission San Francisco de la Espada, about nine miles south of San Antonio. Mission historian Father Marion Habig wrote in his book The Alamo Chain of Missions that “there would probably be no Mission San Francisco de la Espada today, if it had not been for Father Francis Bouchu, who lived and worked at this mission during the latter half of the nineteenth century.”
Assigned originally to the church of San Fernando, Father Bouchu took a special interest in the most distant San Antonio mission, beginning work there as early as 1858. That year, he found only the facade and the rear wall of the church still standing, according to Habig. With his own hands he rebuilt the side walls on the old foundations and then plastered and whitewashed them. He put a tin roof on the building and doors at the entrances. Inside he laid a wooden floor, built a choir loft, set up a sanctuary railing and installed simple pews for sitting and kneeling. Old statues of St. Francis, the Blessed Virgin and Christ Crucified were still there. He regilded them and put an altar in the sanctuary.
Because there were no catechisms available for use in teaching the children and others in the area, Father Bouchu wrote one, and in 1872 printed several thousand copies on an old printing press. By 1897, according to Father Habig,. four editions had been printed. Bishop A. Forest made it the official catechism for the Spanish-speaking of San Antonio. It also was used in other parts of Texas and in New Mexico.
The August 19, 1907 issue of the San Antonio Light reported on Father Bouchul’s death at age 78 in Santa Rosa Hospital at 4 o’clock that morning. The newspaper said:
"He came to Texas in 1845 and for 52 years has made the Fourth Mission of Espada his home, which property he purchased many years ago. For years he occupied himself by simply holding services at the Mission where he preached to the Mexicans of the vicinity. He lived alone and but for one sister no other relatives survive him...."
Among San Antonio’s distinctive buildings is the Southwest Craft Center, on the site of the former Ursuline Academy on the river at 300 Augusta Street. The Ursuline Order of nuns had begun in Italy in 1535 and spread in Europe, including France. French nuns had been sent to San Antonio from New Orleans and Galveston in 1851 to start the first “permanent” school in San Antonio.
Actually, the school continued until 1992. It was an academy for girls, and, through its 141 years it graduated many young women from all over Texas and from Mexico. The academy was moved in 1961 from its original location to 4802 Vance Jackson, where the sisters taught high school only. Enrollment declined, the school was closed, and in October 1992 the property was purchased by the non— denominational Cornerstone Church, with plans to make it a Christian school for up to 1,300 students.
The buildings at the old location beside the river on Augusta Street were saved from destruction by the San Antonio Conservation Society. After holding it a few years, the society sold the property to the Southwest Craft Center, a nonprofit organization which today offers the buildings and a gifted staff as a community source for education in arts and crafts. In 1971, the buildings were designated a State Historical Landmark. The oldest building had been built as a home by Jules Poinsard, a Frenchman who’d hoped his family would join him there. But his wife chose not to come to Texas, and he sold the property.
Bishop Odin bought it and established the school in 1851. The original academy building had been constructed of pise de terre, or rammed earth. The walls were made of earth packed between wooden forms, which were moved up as the walls rose higher. This was a plain, two-story building, with porches on the south, east and north, and inswinging French windows.
Francis Giraud and other architects are credited with several of the beautiful structures that were added later-- built of limestone blocks and detailed with Gothic and Renaissance Revival elements. In 1866, the cornerstone was laid for an academic and dormitory building with a tower whose clock had been brought from France. Clock faces were placed on only three sides of the square-topped tower--to the south, east and west--because the side to the north faced nothing but wilderness, which seemed likely to remain unchanged. The chapel’s cornerstone was laid in 1867. Besides the convent and chapel, other buildings were built later.
The first group of Ursuline educators had arrived in San Antonio on September 14, 1851. They were four nuns from New Orleans and three from Galveston, accompanied by Father Claude Dubuis, a San Antonio priest. The school grew rapidly and soon more nuns were needed. Bishop Odin went to Europe to obtain additional help for his diocese. Among other helpers, he found Sisters Mary Patrick Joseph and Mary Augustine Joseph at the Ursuline Convent at St. Mary’s, Waterford, Ireland. They agreed to go to San Antonio. Sister Mary Patrick Joseph wrote in a letter to Ireland about the evening in 1852 when they arrived in San Antonio by carriage from Seguin:
"Great indeed was our surprise on entering San Antonio; we saw stone houses in abundance--shops and warehouses lighted up. Altogether it surpassed anything we had seen since we came to Texas: it bids fair to rival Galveston."
The sister added in her letter home:
"Our dear Mother, Sainte Marie, is so delighted that we speak French . ... We must learn Spanish at once; there are English, French, Spanish and German classes in the school. Some of the sisters speak Spanish already and are learning German.”
So the sisters, and all those educators who came after them, taught themselves even more as time went by, and in turn they taught others--thousands of others, during 141 years.
--Frank W. Jennings, 1992
Chris Carson and William B. McDonald, eds., A Guide to San Antonio Architecture (San Antonio: San Antonio Chapter, American Institute of Architects, 1986).
Dan Feldstein, San Antonio Light, Oct 18, 1992, pg. 1B
M.J. Gilbert, ed., Diamond Jubilee 1874-1949 Archdiocese of San Antonio (San Antonio: Archdiocese of San Antonio, 1949), pg 20.
Father Marion Habig, The Alamo Chain of Missions (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1968 pg 225—226.
Lillie May Hagner, Alluring San Antonio (San Antonio: The Naylor Co., 1940)
L. V. Jacks, Claude Dubuis Bishop of Galveston, (1946) pp. 121-122.
Catherine McDowell, ed. Trinity University Press, 1977 Letters from the Ursuline, 1852-1853 (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1977).
J. Michael Parker, San Antonio Express News, March 2, 1992, pg. 7A
Charles W. Ramsdell, San Antonio: A Historical and Pictorial Guide (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959).
Gilberto Reyes , Jr San Antonio Light, July 13, 1991.
August Santleben, A Texas Pioneer: Early Staging and Overland Freighting Days on the Frontiers of Texas and Mexico. (New York: Neale and Company Publishers, 1910)
M. Schultz, “Beginnings of the Society of Mary in Texas,1852-1866,” Mid-America , Vol 25, New Series No. 14, No. l.
Alexander C. Wangler, ed., Archdiocese of San Antonio, 1874-1974 (San Antonio, 1974), pp. 44, 292.
Todd Webb and Willard B. Robinson, Texas Public Buildings of the Nineteenth Century, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974)
June R. Welch, Colleges of Texas, (Waco: G L A Press, 1981), pp 16-19.