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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Cannonball's Tales"

REV. VITALUS QUINON:
EARLY CATHOLIC CHURCH BUILDER OF SOUTHEAST TEXAS - Part II

by W. T. Block

Part I

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:
"Father Quinon was a famous character of those days. He was a great missionary and built churches in various parts of the state. There are a great many stories told about him (which received a great deal of newspaper publicity at the time), in particular, being as follows: In 1880, when trying to build a church at Orange, he went to a public hall to collect funds for the new church. A couple of rough customers . . . drew their guns on the father and forced him, at the point of their pistols, to his knees and demanded that he pray out loud . . ."
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:
"Last Sunday, Aug. 22, there was a grand dedication of St. Vital's Church, Rev. V. Quinon, pastor; Benediction by the Rev. Lichaland; High Mass by Vy. Rev. J. Querat, both of Galveston. Fine music. Sermon by Vy. Rev. A. Badelon of Waco; at night, by Vy. Rev. A. Truchard, president of Galveston University. Over a thousand people were present. The two discourses were eloquent. Great praise is due to Father Quinon for having succeeded in so short a time. The Texas and New Orleans Railroad had given special rates for the occasion."
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.

Part I

W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" >
August 28, 2006 column
Sources: Principally from "A Plucky Texas Priest," Galveston WEEKLY NEWS, February 4, 1892; Beaumont ENTERPRISE, 1880-1881, and other sources.
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