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Borderlands: Jesuits Continue to Influence Area 19 (2000)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Jesuits Continue to Influence Area

Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.

by Domini Guillen with research contribution by Melissa Marquez

Franciscan priests were the first Catholic leaders to establish missions up and down the Rio Grande in the 1600s and 1700s. In the 19th century, another religious order provided for both the religious and educational needs of a large number of Texans: the Jesuits.


Image caption: In the 1920s, a new church seating 2,100 was built around the original 1893 Sacred Heart church. Photo by Domini Guillen and Ruben Guillen

Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus (S. J.) in 1540 with an emphasis on education. The Jesuits were the first order to operate a university daily in Messina, Sicily, the model for several later Jesuit colleges.

The first two Jesuits to begin missionary work in El Paso were the Reverend Fathers Charles Persone and Joseph M. Montanarelli from Naples, arriving in October 1881 to take the directorship of the Ysleta Mission. The Jesuits renamed the mission Nuestra Señora Del Monte Carmelo, or Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Father Persone traveled to El Paso once a month to celebrate mass either at the Central Hotel or a private residence. It was clear El Paso needed its own church. A committee raised enough money to buy land on north Oregon Street and built St. Mary's Chapel. Father A. Rossi celebrated the first mass in St. Mary's on Christmas day, 1882.

In 1890, the Jesuits established their first Community House in El Paso. Succeeding Reverend M. Penella as Superior in 1892, Reverend Carlos M. Pinto came to be known as the "apostle and master builder of El Paso," serving until 1917 as Superior. Father Pinto saw major differences between the two dominant cultures in El Paso and decided separate churches for Spanish-speaking and English-speaking Catholics were necessary.

He planned and built Sacred Heart Church and school in south El Paso for Mexican-American parishioners. Sacred Heart celebrated its first mass on April 30, 1893. At the same time that he purchased ten lots on South Oregon Street for Sacred Heart, Father Pinto purchased lots on the southeast corner of Myrtle Avenue and North Campbell for a new church for El Paso's English-speaking parishioners. On Sunday, June 11, 1893, Bishop Edward Fitzgerald blessed Immaculate Conception Church.

Father Pinto became the new pastor of Sacred Heart, a position he held until September 1895. He then went to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Juárez to take charge of the parish. While in Juárez, Pinto refurbished the interior and Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1898, Father Pinto oversaw the completion of the parochial residence next to Sacred Heart, and the Jesuits moved to the large residence. In 1911, a second floor was added to this residence to house all the Jesuit missionary priests in El Paso County.

Father Pinto designed and built St. Ignatius Church in 1905, located at Park and Second. He also built Guardian Angel Church in 1908, at 3025 Frutas Street; Sacred Heart Church in Juárez in 1910; and Holy Family Church in 1914. Father Pinto supervised construction of St. Patrick's Cathedral, completed in 1916, the home of the first bishop of El Paso.

Among the schools opened by Father Pinto and other Jesuits in El Paso were Sacred Heart in 1892; St. Mary's in 1903; St. Ignatius in 1905, the largest parochial school in El Paso by 1917; and Jesuit High School, which operated from 1952 until 1972.

Father Pinto's energy and foresight, along with the work of many other Jesuits, laid the foundation for El Paso to become an independent diocese. Under the direction of the Diocese of Guadalajara until 1620, El Paso then was placed under the diocese of Durango until 1872. The diocese of Tucson next claimed El Paso until 1892 when it was switched to the Diocese of Dallas. Finally in 1915, El Paso was recognized as an independent diocese and given its first consecrated bishop, Anthony J. Schuler, S. J.

The Jesuits also took responsibility for "Revista Católica," the only Spanish Catholic weekly periodical in the Western Hemisphere. In 1918, it moved its operations to El Paso from Las Vegas, New Mexico. The press produced bibles in Spanish and other devotional and historical materials until 1958.

In 1917, during the Mexican Revolution, the Jesuits moved their novitiate to Texas and brought to El Paso a college begun in Fort Stockton. Renamed Ysleta College, it remained there until 1951 when the novitiate returned to Mexico.

When Father Pinto died in 1919, he left an impressive legacy of churches and schools in both El Paso and Juárez and an independent diocese.

Today, the Jesuits have their main office at Sacred Heart Church in south El Paso. Among the Jesuits serving El Paso are Father Louis Lambert, Chaplain at Loretto Academy. Father Gallagher is an attorney for immigrants seeking political asylum, and Father Sotelo is chaplain at the Jesuit Refugee Detention Center. Father Garcia is pastor of Sacred Heart and the Director of the Diocesan Pro-life.

Father Shot is a teacher at Father Yermo High School, and Father Justin is pastor at St. Matthew's Church. Father Renfro is chaplain for the county jail and helps counsel married couples, and Father Concha has been a hospital chaplain for 27 years. Brother Manny Cabral is director of maintenance at Sacred Heart Church.

These Jesuits serving El Paso today follow in the footsteps of their founder St. Ignatius Loyola whose work had as its purpose the greater glory of God.

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