The Valley Catholic
A rich and deep tradition of the Catholic faith has endured in the Rio Grande Valley for almost 500 years.
The first seeds of the Catholic faith were planted in 1519 in the time of the Spanish Conquistadores. An expedition under the command of a Spanish captain named Alonso Alvarez de Pineda brought the first Catholics to the Gulf Coast Area.
The teachings, rituals and customs of the Catholic Church have been handed down continuously from generation to generation, fulfilling the mission that Christ entrusted to the apostles and to us.
Today, the Diocese of Brownsville includes more than a million Catholics, who worship in 71 parishes and 44 missions.
The Catholic faith may be deeply rooted in the Valley’s history and culture, but its diocese is young. While the area was part of the Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville from 1874 to 1912, the Diocese of Brownsville was established on July 10, 1965 by Pope Paul VI. The ninth diocese in Texas was formed by detaching four counties – Cameron, Willacy, Hidalgo and Starr – from the Diocese of Corpus Christi.
The Golden Anniversary of the diocese will be celebrated with several events throughout 2015.
The Family Life Office and Young Adult Ministry Office of the diocese are co-sponsoring one-day pilgrimages of historical sites on Feb. 28, June 13, Aug. 1 and Oct. 24.
Bishop Daniel E. Flores is scheduled to celebrate an open air Mass at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 2 in front of the mosaic at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine. The event is open to the public and will serve as the principal event of the Jubilee Year.
Vespers for clergy and religious will be prayed at 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18 at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville.First Bishop: Most Rev. Adolph Marx
Second Bishop: Most Rev. Humberto Medeiros
Third Bishop: Most Rev. John Joseph Fitzpatrick
Fourth Bishop: Most Rev. Enrique San Pedro
Fifth Bishop: Most Rev. Raymundo J. Peña
The first parish
Island named for local missionary
Cavalry of Christ
The Valley Catholic 50th Anniversary Special Issue
Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick was appointed the third bishop of the Diocese of Brownsville on April 21, 1971.
He was installed at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral on May 27, 1971.
Bishop Fitzpatrick is remembered as an ardent advocate for social justice.
“He always worried about the underdog as any social justice-minded person would,” said Msgr. Gustavo Barrera, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, who worked closely with Bishop Fitzpatrick and cared for him in his retirement. “He would do anything possible to improve the lives of those in need.”
Among his many accomplishments in his 20 years as the shepherd of the Diocese of Brownsville, Bishop Fitzpatrick advocated for and traveled with migrant farm workers, promoting “send-off” and “welcome home” ceremonies at each parish to bless the 100,000-plus migrant workers who lived in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1970s and 80s.
He was a co-founder of Casa Oscar Romero in 1982, which sheltered about 130,000 refugees from Central America and served about 2.5 million meals in its lifetime. In 1983, Bishop Fitzpatrick started Valley Interfaith, which worked to improve the standard of living for the thousands of families living in the colonias, many of which lacked basic infrastructure, potable water, sanitary sewage and adequate roads.
Bishop Fitzpatrick’s episcopacy, however, was not without controversy, Msgr. Barrera said.
Many Valley residents and even a few journalists were irked by his option for the poor and marginalized.
“Every day there was an article in the paper against Bishop Fitzpatrick,” Msgr. Barrera said. “When it wasn’t Casa Romero, it was Valley Interfaith that was being criticized.”
Bishop Fitzpatrick never wavered in his support for social justice and took the criticism in stride.
“He used to say, ‘If I don’t see my name in the paper, it’s just not going to be a good day,’” Msgr. Barrera recalled.
Bishop Fitzpatrick was born on Oct. 12, 1918 in Trenton, Ontario, Canada. When he was five-years-old, his family moved to Buffalo, N.Y. where he attended a Catholic grammar school. At age 13, he enrolled in the diocesan preparatory seminary.
After high school, he pursued his studies at the Seminary for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome and the Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
In addition to his studies, Bishop Fitzpatrick worked several jobs to pay his tuition and to help support his special needs sister and his mother, who, by that time, was a widow.
“There were many nights when he didn’t sleep at all,” Msgr. Barrera said.
Bishop Fitzpatrick was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Buffalo on Dec. 13, 1942, where he served in several parishes.
In response to a critical priest shortage in Florida, he transferred to the Diocese of St. Augustine, which then covered nearly all of the state, in 1948.
When the Diocese of St. Augustine was divided in 1958 to form the Diocese of Miami, which would later become an Archdiocese, he became part of the Miami clergy.
Among his many assignments in Florida, Bishop Fitzpatrick was the director of Mission Nombre de Dios and Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, the site of the first Christian Mission in the United States.
He was also involved in the Christian Family Movement and the Cursillo Movement. He was one of the pioneers in the development of Marriage Encounter. He also worked with unwed mothers and helped many couples to adopt children.
Bishop Fitzpatrick was also the editor of two newspapers and the director of the Spanish-speaking apostolate and Centro Hispano Católico as tens of thousands of Cuban refugees arrived in Miami.
He attributed his respect for accuracy and thorough record keeping to his newspaper roots.
“Bishop Fitzpatrick was a newspaper man through and through,” Msgr. Barrera said. “To him, there was no greater sin than a misspelled word. He was a stickler for grammar and for spelling. He had this green pen that he would use all the time to correct errors in written documents.”
Msgr. Barrera added that Bishop Fitzpatrick organized his thoughts on paper and was always prepared when he spoke.
“He never winged it,” Msgr. Barrera said. “He had his script and his notes. He always believed that the people deserved his best effort. He didn’t like to make jokes, especially when he was speaking publicly. He would usually start by saying, ‘This is a very serious occasion. I can think of a few jokes but I’m not going to tell them because I don’t think you deserve that. You deserve my seriousness,’ so everyone would sit up and listen.”
He was consecrated auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Miami on Aug. 28, 1968, three years before his appointment to the Diocese of Brownsville.
He retired as bishop on Nov. 30, 1991 after more than 20 years of service to the faithful of the Rio Grande Valley.
He was in residence at Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in Brownsville until his death on July 15, 2006 at the age of 87.
Bishop Fitzpatrick's motto: “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” - From the Epistle of St. Paul 1:21
Story by The Valley Catholic
Catholic Diocese of Brownsville 50th Anniversary 1910 University Blvd. Brownsville, TX 78520 Phone: (956) 542-2501
Catholic Diocese of Brownsville1910 University Boulevard • Brownsville, Texas 78520 • (956) 542-2501 • (956) 542-6751 Fax 700 North Virgen de San Juan Blvd • San Juan, Texas 78589 • (956) 781-5323 • (956) 784-5081 Fax Contact Us Copyright © 2014 Diocese of Brownsville. All Rights Reserved.