SAN ANTONIO MISSIONS
Proceedings of the Second Annual Mission Research Conference
1983
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The Tenure of the Brothers of Mary at Mission Concepción 1855-1911
Brother Paul Novosal, S.M.
Archivist of the St. Louis Province
St. Mary's University

I am the Archivist for the Society of Mary, the Province of St. Louis, which includes everything west of the Mississippi excluding California and Hawaii.

The Brothers of Mary, a religious order of teaching men, came to Texas in 1852 at the invitation of Bishop Odin because he wanted a school. You will ask why did our teaching order come to Mission Concepción? The Bishop brought us here in 1852, being motivated by a lot of zeal but very little money. He needed some support for the brothers and the new school. Those are the reasons that he bought the 90 acres of the Mission Concepción property.

The director of the school at that time, Brother Edel, was a gardener. He did not want to be a director of a religious community or a principal of a school, but like a good religious he went because he was told. Being a gardener, he must have talked to Bishop Odin and Odin therefore acquired the 90 acres of Mission Concepción property with the idea that Brother Edel and the brothers could grow vegetables and fruit trees and use that in order to feed both the brothers and the students, which Brother Edel did.

He would get in his canoe at the bath house down on College Street, which is now La Mansión Motor Hotel, and paddle to the Mission Concepción property and then in the evening he would paddle all the way back to St. Mary's College.

He had to (portage) but twice. One time at Guenther's Mill and the other at what we used to call the Bishop's House. He did that until he almost drowned and then he was given orders not to go by water. After that, he took a buggy and would go to the Mission property and gather the produce and bring it down for the students and brothers, until one time Brother Edel did not arrive. In looking for him they found him almost dead and the buggy scattered all over the road. The horse was still there in pasture.

Well, after that he walked from College Street to the Mission and carried his produce that way.

Now, in 1859 a contract was made between Bishop Odin and the Society of Mary for a property in downtown San Antonio and Mission Concepción. At this time it was done because the Superior of the Brothers of Mary in Dayton, Ohio, was going to take the brothers out of Texas because the situation was rather poor for their welfare. The Bishop finally decided — he had talked about this but this action precipitated his making the actual contract whereby the property became the possession of the Society of Mary.

The Society owned the property from 1859 until 1911. The only condition was that the property would revert to the Bishop if we ever stopped operating the school. We really were not connected with the Mission in the same sense as the other missionaries, but the property was a means of sustaining the brothers while they were in San Antonio running the school.

After we received possession of the property, the Superiors in Europe gave the go-ahead sign for the brothers to work at the Mission themselves. Therefore, they had to clean up the Mission that had been used for various purposes, to some extent as a stable. I think it was a fellow by the name of Jim Harmon in 1880 who referred to it as the Augean Mess because it had been used as a stable. I suppose he was showing off his classical knowledge.

I forgot to tell you something about the beginning or permanent records of this period. Mainly because of the flood of 1921, we lost all the annals, all the diaries, all the records of the school, everything was lost whether in the water of the flood which got up to the second story of the school, which is now La Mansión Motor Hotel, or in the debris afterwards — there is a photograph of this — all this mess was put into the front yard until it dried and then they burned it.

What I am taking this from are letters and reports of some of the brothers who worked out at the Mission. We are in the process now of writing a history of the St. Louis Province, 75 years, and in doing this some of these letters and these reports are coming to light.

The reports likewise came from some of the brothers who were not teachers, but worked in the Mission fields. One of them reports that when they started cleaning the Mission, the walls were cracked, the cracks were full of snakes, and if he would shoot towards the ceiling he would get a full wheelbarrow of bats. This was the kind of condition into which the Mission had fallen.

In about 1861 they finally cleaned the church — the Mission, rather, and opened it as a church. The boys and the brothers from downtown on College Street, with some of the people, marched out to Mission Concepción with their banners and their candles and then spent the entire day out there singing hymns and having services and afterwards their refreshments. That was the beginning, therefore, of the church.

This whole 50-year period before, nothing had happened. It was simply standing there and deteriorating. Once again, it was a church. On every Thursday, one of the padres would say mass at Mission Concepción and the brothers would march the boys from downtown up to the Mission.

Now, during this period — we are talking now between 1861 and 1869 — Brother Edel purchased some more property. The Bishop originally had 90 acres and he bought some more which amounted to about 128.5 acres of property now, and the four-plus acres on which the Mission Concepción itself stood, so the acreage was a little bit larger.

Brother Edel was relieved of his duties as a principal and director of the school on the river downtown to spend his entire time out on the Mission property. He and three other brothers were living there. Now, they refer to the beautiful and picturesque San Antonio River. Brother Edel had his own little cabin that he built, and he was quite a hermit. He had put it in a cluster of mulberry trees which stood on the edge of the pecan wood that grew very easily in the bottom lands. The land itself was pretty well covered with trees of different kinds.

I wonder if it was the kind of mulberry tree I passed just before I came out here. There were three on the property of St. Mary's University where there used to be a little blacksmith shop and the workmen's cottages. I have wanted someone to sketch those for me because I have tried photographing them and they do not photograph too well, without some better equipment.

Now, during this period there were a number of candidates housed at the Mission in the order to get their training. This lasted possibly four or five years between, say, 1861 and 1869. Then the situation was not quite satisfactory so these candidates were sent to Dayton, Ohio, which was the headquarters for the Society of Mary.

That left Brother Edel and his three brothers there and eventually he, himself, was sent back to Dayton, Ohio. The reason for the Society of Mary being there almost stopped to exist. It was there to have produce in order to help feed the brothers and their students at the college — the school downtown on College Street.

Therefore, in 1869 — there is one thing I did forget. There was one brother also buried at Mission Concepción, Brother Uhlmann. He was buried there in 1867, but he was disinterred about 1873 when the Society bought a plot of ground in San Fernando Cemetery. At least, there was one burial.

In 1869, since the property was not producing very much income, the Society leased the Mission Concepción property to a Mr. Keller who, by the way, happens to be a great-grandfather, or great-grand-uncle of Father Louis Trawalter from San Antonio, who is now Chaplain at the V.A. Hospital here in San Antonio.

He had the contract which was drawn up between Mr. Keller and the Bishop for the Society of Mary, but he loaned it to Brother Joseph Schmitz when he was writing the Society of Mary in Texas and I have not been able to locate that contract again. I still have hopes, but — this was loaned by Father Trawalter to Brother Schmitz who is now dead and it was never recovered.

There were four other men or five to whom the property was leased for about $600 a year. This $600 furnished $120 to the Bishop for repairs and, as one of the brothers put it in his little report, the money was given to the Bishop for repairs, but no repairs were ever seen on the Mission. Money was that scarce and the Bishop did not have any repairs made on it unless it was absolutely necessary.

Then $280 went to taxes and about $200 was left for the Society of Mary for a whole year to help defray the expenses of the brothers who resided there or worked at the school downtown.

At this particular time also, during this period, the brothers were talking about operating an orphanage. The need was there. The Incarnate Word sisters were running St. John's orphanage, but at that time the Order of Incarnate Word — it was in their rules somehow, if I remember correctly — they were not allowed to keep boys beyond the age of eight, so they were trying to urge the brothers to start an orphanage for boys who would be over eight years old. There was much discussion of this going on at this particular time.

They thought they could have a garden here which would furnish produce for them and also the orphans could pick the pecans which would help make some money because if anyone else picked the pecans, whoever picked them got half of the crop.

These were some of the encouraging features that were put forth in order to have an orphanage started. This will bring us up to around 1911 when the Bishop — this is Bishop Shaw — was thinking now that he would like to start a parish and give the Mission Concepción back to the Franciscans and make that into a parish. He was also thinking of starting a seminary and then the orphanage and for that he needed this land, but the land belonged to the Society of Mary.

The Marianist Brothers visited Mission La Pursima Concepción in April, 1914, where they were formerly stationed for more than a half century (1855-1911). Photo courtesy of Louis J. Scherer, San Antonio, Texas

You must remember that in this whole period the land actually belonged to the Society of Mary. Now, if the Bishop makes up his mind that he would like to have his property back, he is usually going to get it back. What transpired, without all the legalities of it, the Bishop gave the Society of Mary unencumbered title to the property in downtown San Antonio and in turn the Society gave back to the Bishop all of the property encompassed by Mission Concepción.

This would then take the Society of Mary from 1855 up to 1911 when Bishop Shaw makes this exchange with the Society.

Now, a couple of things which one of the brothers has mentioned is in a letter I just discovered a couple of weeks ago, and he talked about the long rambling walls of the Mission Concepción and also the dark recesses of the convent, implying that there was quite a bit of the convent and corridors in existence at that particular time.

He does mention there was no plaster on the walls and refers to the place out there where they brought the brothers and the students sometimes as the summer villa, and which they used in the summertime for the students and for the faculty.

That is it; thank you.

Brother Paul Novosal, S.M
Archivist, St. Louis Province
St. Mary's University San Antonio, Texas
Photo courtesy of St. Mary's University


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