Built in thanksgiving for fresh water
Historical church remains a family treasure, testament to early faith in RGV
By Brenda Nettles Riojas
The Valley Catholic
PROGRESO – In the infancy of the Rio GrandeValley, long before established churches and regular Mass schedules, landowners constructed small chapels on their properties for use by neighbors, employees and families.
One of these private churches, recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark in 1965, remains as a testament to the faith of the early settlers.
Dedicated in 1899, Don Florencio Saenz built St. JosephChurch on Toluca Ranch, just a half mile from the present ProgresoInternationalBridge, in thanksgiving for the fresh water found on his land. He named the church after San Jose, patron of laborers.
Patti Fernandez Mayers of Port Isabel, Saenz great granddaughter, said she is proud of her family’s legacy. She and her sister Birdie Fernandez Welker of McAllen shared stories as we toured the church grounds about family baptisms, weddings and funerals. Both their parents are buried next to the church.
Saenz descendents have maintained the church over the years. Restoration efforts in 2007 readied the church for Welker’s daughter’s wedding and Mayers’ granddaughter was baptized in the church in 2004.
Up until a few months ago, visitors could make arrangements to go to the church. Unfortunately on the day I visited, the doors and windows remained boarded. Mayers said the family had no option but to board up the church after vandals caused an estimated $30,000 worth of damages on Sept. 11, 2012, the day of her birthday.
Vandals broke every window pane and damaged the shutters,.
Mayers said, “It has been an extreme challenge to keep up with the repairs, and now with the vandalism I don’t know when we will be able to fix it.”
Her cousin Michael Fernandez of Weslaco, grew up next door to the chapel. “It was so devastating,” he said, “to see the destruction.”
In addition to the damages, the vandals stole a statue of the Sacred Heart. Each of the statues in the church had been restored in 2007.
Mayers said most of the statues are now under family care, including the statue of the Sorrowful Mother, which was donated by her grandmother Manuela Fernandez in 1945, after five of her sons returned safely from World War II.
Looking beyond the boarded doors and windows, the church gives witness to the devotion of the early settlers, and the family members who continue promoting the faith.
The bricks made and fired on the property for the church remain firm. Mayers said her ancestors took great care in each detail, and today descendents read the history at family celebrations.
Built after a design by Father Peter Keralum, the Oblate of Mary Immaculate priest who also designed the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville, the church was dedicated by Father L. Maurel, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, on July 30, 1899. The Oblate priests, known as the “Cavalry of Christ,” for traveling by horseback along the Rio Grande River to celebrate Mass and offer the sacraments, serviced the small church.
While St. JosephChurch may be small with seating for about 80 people, several features set it apart from other chapels. According to family history, the vaulted ceilings were “originally made of canvas from the sails of ships that landed at Port Isabel.”
Also, the silver-lined bell which hangs in church’s belfry was purchased by Saenz in Paris at the World Exposition.
The features, however, do not compare to the history contained in the Gothic revival church built in thanksgiving for finding water back in 1899.
Ernesto M. Fernandez, who died in 1993, provided part of the history in “The Untold Story,” he shared with his family.
According to Fernandez, during the Cristero War, 16 sisters from Matamoros, Mexico were temporarily relocated to the Toluca Ranch where they remained for 18 months. During their time in the Valley, the sisters took care of the church and provided fresh roses for the altar.
Today, the altar stands behind blocked doors. While family members continue to care for the church and the small cemetery on the grounds, Mayers said she and her family are open to ideas for preserving the historic church.
Father Greg Labus, pastor of St. JosephChurch in Edinburg, celebrated one of the last Masses at the chapel two years ago. He said it is important to preserve chapels like St. JosephChurch.
“We need to preserve these places. We have to appreciate our history and the foundation it set for where we are now,” he said.
He said the chapel served an important purpose in gathering the ranching families and providing a place for priests to bring the sacraments in the wilderness. “Remember, there was nothing out here 100 years ago.”
(Originally published in the January 2013 issue of The Valley Catholic newspaper.)