Podcast: The History of St. Mary’s Basilica in Galveston, Texas

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In the year 1847, while businessmen, movers, and shakers in the American North East had found their footing in the young United States and were formulating well-known American institutions next door to churches and cathedrals that were already a century old, Galveston Island was still a growing community with pirates, Mexican invasion, and Texas annexation fresh in their memory, Galveston Island caught the eye of catholic authorities in the U.S. and the Vatican.

One of Galveston's foundational pillars is its religious institutions that formed early in the young city on the Gulf. Evolving from open-air religious services to small wooden church buildings to large cathedrals and synagogues and back to open-air services after a hurricane would blow through. St. Mary Cathedral Basilica is one of two cathedrals of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Today, St. Mary's is covered in stained glassed windows and has an organ equipped with 3,000 pipes fitted from wall to wall and is considered the Mother Church of the Catholic Church in Texas. When St. Mary's Galveston was founded, the island was essentially a barren sandbar that sometimes lacked basic necessities for economic growth and survival during a cold winter or yellow fever outbreak. The church's growth reflects the aspirations that settlers and religious decision-makers had for Texas and Galveston island. In 1840, the Reverend John Marie Odin, a Frenchman, was selected as the resident Vice-Prefect of the Republic of Texas. The Vatican was very interested in rebuilding catholic ties and influence in Texas after its decline with the secularization of the missions in the early 19th century and the Texas Revolution.

Odin embarked from New Orleans on a schooner bound for Galveston, arriving in 1841. Galveston had other religious presence, such as episcopal services at a small church building at Trinity on 22nd Street. When Odin arrived, he found a community of eager Catholics to build a church for their small congregation.

St. Mary's opened for service in 1842 as a small wooden-frame church house. In 1845, Reverend Odin ordered 500,000 bricks from Belgium for a permanent church. The bricks were shipped to Galveston as ballast on a vessel and used to construct the base of the structure we see today. The wooden frame church was moved into the street, and the St. Mary's cornerstone was laid in March 1847. The first architect to have a hand in the Gothic Revival Cathedral was Theodore E. Giraud. However, Nicholas Clayton would make his mark on the Cathedral a couple of decades later.

Shortly after the foundation was laid, Pope Pius IX approved the establishment of the Diocese of Galveston. He named John Marie Odin its first bishop. This Cathedral became the headquarters of the Diocese of Galveston on May 4, 1847. This diocese covered the entire state of Texas.

The Yellow Fever outbreak of 1853 heavily affected the Galveston population. You can see a memorial obelisk commemorating the yellow fever victims of Galveston in 1853. The church remained a landmark and place of worship during the Civil War. It was even in the direct line of fire from the Union Navy during the Battle of Galveston in 1863.

For catholic immigrants passing through Galveston, St. Mary's was one of the first stops upon arrival to the island before making their way into the expansive American West.

Through the 1870s and 1880s, architect Nicholas J. Clayton added a transept tower to the sanctuary's roof, heightened the twin spires at the front of the Cathedral to eighty feet, and topped them with crosses. An 11-foot-tall cast-iron statue of Mary, Star of the Sea, was added to the tower. Mariners formerly used the lighted crown of the statue as a beacon to guide them into the port of Galveston.

St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica has weathered many destructive hurricanes since its founding in 1847. It is one of the few Galveston landmarks from the era to survive the Great Storm of 1900.

St. Mary's Cathedral was documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1967 and, in 1968, was named to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1979, Pope John Paul II made the Cathedral a minor basilica, an honor bestowed on selected churches because of their antiquity or historical importance.

St. Mary's is not the only church on the island with roots stemming from major historical events and people. But it is one of the places of worship that shows up in nearly every bird's eye view sketch or photograph of Galveston Island since its founding.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."