REV. VITALUS QUINON: EARLY CATHOLIC CHURCH BUILDER OF SOUTHEAST TEXAS
By W. T. Block
Sources: Principally from "A Plucky Texas Priest," Galveston WEEKLY NEWS, February 4, 1892; Beaumont ENTERPRISE, 1880-1881, and other sources.
PART I: A Plucky Texas Priest
The decade of the 1980s marked the centennial anniversaries of many Southeast Texas churches. Prominent among the Protestant congregations were Westminster Presbyterian Church and St. Mark's Episcopal Church, both of Beaumont. Two Catholic parishes also witnessed their origins more than a century ago, among them Saint Mary's Church of Orange, Texas, formerly Saint Vital's Church, which was dedicated on August 22, 1880, and St. Anthony's Cathedral of Beaumont, formerly St. Louis' Church, founded in 1881. These Catholic landmarks of the Christian faith represent the accumulative efforts of hundreds of laymen and priests, but outstanding among them was the builder of the latter two churches. Rev. Fr. Vitalus Quinon (pronounced 'keen, yon'). And most certainly, to Quinon is due much of the credit for bringing the Catholic faith to Southeast Texas, where he remained in Orange, Beaumont, and Liberty for only three years, 1879-1882, but he left the legacy that others have built upon so successfully.
The Southeast Texas of 1850 was overwhelmingly Protestant, so much so that when the first missionary priest, Rev. Fr. P. F. Parisot, visited Beaumont, Texas, in 1853, he could not find a single Catholic (although two Catholic families lived a short distance south of the city); and only two Catholics lived in Orange. The few Acadian cattlemen, who had brought their Catholic faith with them from Louisiana, resided principally in the Taylor's Bayou vicinity. However, this condition was soon to be altered (although the great influx of Acadians to Jefferson and Orange counties would not begin until 1910). At first, the numbers were principally augmented by immigrant German and Irish Catholics who settled along the banks of the Neches and Sabine Rivers. No church buildings existed, though, and often, a year or more transpired before some itinerant saddlebag priest arrived to celebrate Mass or hear Confessions in the home of some Cow Bayou or Taylor's Bayou parishioner or elsewhere.
During the Reconstruction years, lawlessness, a byproduct of the frontier-cattle economy, 'carpetbag' government, and Federal troop occupation, became quite prevalent, and every adult male, black or white, carried sidearms for self-preservation. This was especially so at Orange, which gained an unwanted and unsavory notoriety following the wanton murders of Newton and Erastus Stephenson in 1869 and rampant crime during the 1870s. When the first railroad and sawmill industries began to penetrate Orange County in 1876, they were met with resentment and resistance from the lawless element, who feared the social changes they might spawn. It thus fell to a prominent railroader and lay Catholic of Houston, Charles A. Burton, to effect some of the needed change.
As the general superintendent of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad at Houston, Burton frequently rode the pay trains to Orange, and he knew first-hand the problems that the railroad crews of 1879 faced. The town's rowdies often wagered on who would be the first to shoot out the locomotive's headlights, and when these were extinguished, they zeroed in on the brakemen's hand lanterns. Hence, train crews quickly learned to "douse the glim" upon entering the outskirts of Orange.
Burton already knew that the church was a powerful ingredient in the subjugation of the frontier, and he soon turned to Bishop C. M. Dubuis of Galveston for help. As luck would have it, Rev. Fr. Quinon had just returned from an extended visit to France and was without a parish. Tales of his exploits and courage in quelling the border ruffians at Denison, Texas, in 1874 had already preceded him, and the railroader felt that the French priest was the ideal man to send to Orange, Texas, to build a church.
A tall, handsome man, Father Quinon, according to a transcript of his baptismal record, was born in Thizy, in the Lyonnais province of France, in July, 1845, although the Catholic Directory and the 1880 Orange, Texas census list 1849 as being his birth year. While on a visit to Lyons France, in 1870, Bishop Dubuis enlisted the young seminarian for duty on the Texas frontier, and later, the prelate ordained him at Galveston Cathedral on October 27, 1871.
Quinon's first assignment was to the German and Bohemian parishioners of Brushy, Hallettsville, and Indianola, Texas, in 1873. The archives of St. Patrick's Church, the first sanctuary built by Rev. Fr. Quinon, reveal that the priest arrived in Denison in 1874. In one of his extant letters of 1877, Quinon observed that he had celebrated the first Mass in the Chickasaw nation of the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, where he baptized a 99-year-old squaw, the oldest Catholic in the territory. As a result of his swimming his horse across the Red River, he contracted a severe chest or 'consumptive' type of disease, which was to keep him recuperating in Europe for the next four years.
The writer has read several sources of Quinon's encounters with the frontier toughs of his day, and it is indeed hard to determine whether some of them are different tales or varying accounts of Burton's story. Bishop Joseph Lynch of Dallas once related the occasion when the French priest was forced to dance on a billiard table in Denison. Later, when he saw the chief ruffian and instigator enter a saloon, Quinon "followed, and before the assembled drinkers, asked the man if he would rather say his prayers or take a beating. He prayed."
Before his return to Texas in 1879, Father Quinon spent much of the year 1876 touring the Italian cities, including Rome, where he assisted Pope Pius IX in a Mass conducted at St. Peter's, and later he celebrated a Mass there himself.
Early in October, 1879, shortly after his return from Europe, he departed by rail for Orange to communicate personally with that town's Catholic residents and raise subscriptions for a church building. Burton had warned the priest that there was a nucleus of good people there, but otherwise the town was practically governed by the rowdies and millhands, whom even the sheriff was helpless to control. (In fact, in Aug., 1881, the same rowdies dropped the sheriff with a load of buckshot.) Undaunted, Quinon went from store to store, from saloon to sawmill, seeking funds. Often, the people laughed in his face, but as he posed no threat to their way of life, they allowed him to continue his rounds of the community.
As sunset approached, the French priest, while en route home, spurred his horse across the wide field which, in frontier days, separated the edge of Orange from the Southern Pacific depot. Halfway across the field, he was accosted by two bearded and foulmouthed rowdies, with drawn revolvers, who ordered him to rise high in the saddle and recite "The Lord's Prayer."
"This is neither the time nor place for that!" Quinon rejoined.
"Pray or die!" they reiterated, and with the same solemnity he might have voiced at St. Peter's, the priest rose high in the stirrups and recited the prayer. Warned never to return to Orange, he then rode on to the depot, still smarting from the gross indignity he had been subjected to.
Father Quinon immediately realized that if he were ever to return to Orange to complete his mission, he must stand up to the border toughs at once and put them in their place. He borrowed a Winchester rifle from the depot agent, and as the priest rode up to the Casino Saloon, where the millhands congregated, he could hear the loud voices inside of the two town ruffians, thoroughly enjoying the retelling of their field encounter with the visiting cleric. Upon separating the batwing doors of the saloon, Quinon pointed the rifle at his adversaries, then ordered them to kneel in the center of the room and recite the same prayer. With the meekness of lambs, both confessed that they didn't know the prayer.
"Then recite the prayer after me!" he commanded, the barrel of his gun still zeroed on their eyeballs. Their timid voices, barely audible, echoed each word of the priest, and at the end of their prayer, Quinon warned:
No one answered, for the saloon bullies knew without further question that they had met a man of steel as well as a man of God. And with his path wide open all the way back to the depot, Quinon returned to Houston to report his progress to the bishop and to Superintendent Burton. Later, without a single incident, he built St. Vital's Church, now St. Mary's, as Part II of this story reveals.
PART II: Rev. Fr. Quinon As Church Builder
There were other accounts of Rev. Father Vitalus Quinon's first visit to Orange, but C. A. Burton's version is considered the most authentic because it was written much earlier in time and by the man who would have known all of the details intimately. In January, 1924, Monsignor E. A. Kelly published a similar account in the Beaumont ENTERPRISE, but he credited the experience to Father P. A. Levy, a saddlebag priest who circuited the area in 1874-1875. In October, 1935, the Dallas MORNING NEWS published a variation of Burton's story, differing considerably in detail, as follows:
Rev. Fr. Quinon, soon returning to Orange with the deed of a city lot donated by the railroad, celebrated his earliest Masses there in the court house to a congregation of about twenty Catholics. He soon built a residence and conducted a church fair from which he realized about $1,000. Fortunately, lumber at Orange was both plentiful and cheap, and as plans for his church materialized, the priest called in his subscriptions from the local contributors.
Acquainted with the beautiful church architecture of France, he wanted only the best that circumstances and his finances would permit. For instance, with funds never quite adequate for the occasion at hand, the industrious father stained the glass windows of St. Louis' Church himself (a trade he had learned as a youth in Lyons), and the writer presumes that he did the same for St. Vital's Church in Orange.
On April 19, 1880, the cornerstone of St. Vital's Church was laid "in the presence of a large congregation," with Fr. Andre Badelon, the Catholic pastor of Waco, delivering an eloquent address. Fathers Badelon and Antoine Truchard, president of St. Mary's University, were former seminary acquaintances of Quinon in France, and each of them was destined to share many of his special religious functions and dedications.
From extant diaries and the Galveston DAILY NEWS, it is apparent that those special Catholic celebrations at Orange were attended by significant numbers of the Protestant faith as well, and that whatever antagonisms or dogmatic differences existed between denominations, they were easily overcome by sheer curiosity and the harshness and loneliness of frontier living.
Building progressed all summer, and in August, St. Vital's Church, far too small to accommodate the outpouring of visitors and about half of Orange's population was formally dedicated, as reported in the Galveston DAILY NEWS of Aug. 24, 1880:
Also, on August 22, 1880, Catherine McFarlund Russell, a prominent Methodist of Orange, recorded in her diary ("Journal of Thomas McFarlund"-San Antonio, 1942) that "my family and I were at the dedication of St. Vital's Catholic Church today . . . The church will be a fine building when finished."
In 1884, the Catholics of Colmesneil, Texas, considered St. Vital's Church so attractive that they built their own church as an "exact counterpart" of it. Unfortunately, St. Vital's towering steeple became a hazard whenever hurricane winds approached, and on October 12, 1886, the church was the only building in Orange which was totally destroyed by the great storm of that date. The succeeding structure, built by Fr. Granger at 6th and Pine Streets, was equally ill-fated and succumbed to flames in 1911.
Even as the walls of St. Vital's were going up, Father Quinon envisioned other new churches at Beaumont and Liberty. The extent of his parish was from the Sabine River westward to beyond the Trinity River, a large area now encompassing several Southeast Texas counties. One of the amazing facts of his brief career here is that he could devote so much time to building churches, and yet spend so much time in the saddle, caring for his scattered flocks. On one occasion noted in the ENTERPRISE, he celebrated Mass one weekday in Sabine Pass, the following day at Lovan Hamshire's residence at Taylor's Bayou, and the following day in Beaumont.
According to one newspaper account of 1880, he spent the third Sunday of each month at Taylor's Bayou, the first Sunday at Liberty, leaving the second and fourth Sundays for Masses at Orange and Beaumont. In addition, there are numerous accounts of his services at the Terry Mission at Cow Bayou, Orange County, at the residence of Moise Broussard at Sabine Pass, and at the old Sour Lake Hotel in 1881. And in between preaching and building, he planned and carried out the many church fairs, musicales, and festivals that were a part of his means for fund-raising.
The Cow Bayou mission may have been the earliest church in the area devoted solely to Catholic services. On Aug. 13, 1877, the Galveston WEEKLY NEWS reported that: "There are a sufficient number of Catholic citizens in the neighborhood of Cow Bayou to sustain a church." Two months later, the editor added: "The new Catholic Church, 3 miles east of Terry (midway between Beaumont and Orange), is finished with the exception of a coat of paint." In 1881, the ENTERPRISE observed that : "Last Tuesday (Oct. 11), at the neat little chapel at Cow Bayou, Father Quinon baptized fifteen persons."
On New Year's Day of 1881, Quinon baptized three children at the Blanchette Hall in Beaumont, and by the end of January, over $600 had been subscribed toward the building of a church in that city. By March, the site of St. Louis' Church had been purchased and foundation work was commenced. Father Quinon noted that of all the Beaumont citizens and business houses solicited for funds, only one had refused to contribute.
In April, 1881, Bishop Dubuis arrived and confirmed sixteen young confirmants. On the date of his visit, the cornerstone of the new church was laid. During the same month, the plans for the new church, designed by a celebrated architect, N. J. Clayton of Galveston, arrived. It was slated to be twenty-eight by fifty-four feet in size, with a sixty-five foot spire. Later in April, a successful fair was conducted which netted over $300.
Work on the new church advanced steadily during that summer, and although the interior was slightly unfinished, Father Quinon celebrated his first Mass in it on August 28, 1881, without a formal dedication. Instead, during the first two weeks of September, a grand festival was conducted to raise funds; also a grand musicale of sacred songs, with special talent imported from New Orleans; and the first church school, under Angela Y. Burke, was started. Miss Burke also served as organist and housekeeper for the priest. This first school lasted only until the end of Quinon's pastorate in 1882, and about twelve years elapsed before another school was begun.
During the same year, the first Catholic Church at Liberty, with Father Quinon's name inscribed on the cornerstone, was also completed by the French priest.
In August, 1882, the priest left abruptly for another visit to France, but he returned in 1883. In that year, Bishop Gallagher organized a second parish in Dallas, St. Patrick's, to which Quinon was assigned, and the young cleric soon completed St. Patrick's Church there, to become his fifth church built in five years, allowing for his lengthy sojourns in Europe.
In 1889, Quinon returned to France after which he was assigned to a different parish in Dallas. Of his long pastorate there, "Our Catholic Heritage in Texas," Volume V, a definitive history, describes Quinon as being a priest "whose veins were as full of red blood as his heart was of charity."
In 1894, the French priest made his fourth and final visit to his native land. While on a holiday in Marseilles, he was caught up in a cholera epidemic, and being soon infected with the deadly "white plague," he died as he had lived, on July 30, while administering the last rites of the Church to the dying. In 1896, his mortal remains were exhumed and returned to the churchyard of his birth and baptism, at Thizy, France.
The missionary activities of Orange and Beaumont's earliest saddlebag priest, Fr. P. F. Parisot, are skillfully preserved in his autobiography, published in 1899. His and Father Quinon's eventful life narratives only mirror the biographical stories of hundreds of saddlebag priests who traversed the confines of Texas for four centuries, some of them perhaps remembered today, most ot them long forgotten. And as far back as the first Urseline Convent in Galveston, a number of Catholic sisterhoods have added a feminine touch to the propagation of their religious faiths. And throughout Texas, one views every day the results of their labors and handiwork, the thousands of churches, schools, hospitals, convents, monasteries, and universities, which owe their origins and very existence to these courageous, but humble, men and women of God.