Impacting the Diocese of Beaumont for more than 40 years
By Mallory Matt
Through the past 50 years many clergy and religious have ministered to the Catholic faithful of Southeast Texas leaving an impact on the lives of the people in Southeast Texas. Some were here only a short time; others longer.
One priest has quietly made some significant impacts on people in the 50 years of the Diocese of Beaumont – Msgr. James Vanderholt.
He has taught at Msgr. Kelly Catholic High School, been superintendent of Catholic schools, director of communications, director of continuing education for clergy and religious, and ministered to faith communities at more than 10 churches.
He was also well known for hosting two Catholic shows: Catholic Times on KFDM radio and Catholic Church Today, a Sunday morning television show that he co-hosted with Msgr. Richard DeStefano. He oversaw the East Texas Catholic becoming an independent publication from the Texas Catholic Herald of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. And, in addition to diocesan and parish ministry, he taught at Lamar University-Port Arthur, was spiritual director at St. Joseph Seminary, Covington, rector of Assumption Seminary in San Antonio and contributed Catholic writings to many state historical publications.
Not one to have his mind stay still for very long, after his retirement July 1, 2012, historian Msgr. Vanderholt has used his free time to research deceased priests, publishing his findings (and a little bit of wisdom) in his columns that can be found in each issue of the East Texas Catholic.
“Church history is my hobby,” he said. “I’ve been able to write stories on priests that had kind of been forgotten. It always bugged me that some priests worked for 30, 40 or 50 years, die and go to Heaven, and then everyone forgets about them. I want to capture their stories.”
Now 83, Msgr. Vanderholt reflects on his more than 40 years of service in the Diocese of Beaumont. He has forgotten a few minute details, like how many years he’s spent at one parish versus another, or the titles of his coworkers whose jobs were to, as he put it, “stay out of my way.”
Msgr. Vanderholt was one of the priests who were transferred to the Diocese of Beaumont after its establishment. Although he was raised in Beaumont, he was working in Galveston in September 1966.
“I was not intending to come back. I just figured I was there and there I’ll stay — until I got a letter from the bishop saying to come back,” he said. “And when he signs the letter, that ends the discussion.”
He said the Beaumont Diocese separating from the Galveston-Houston Diocese came as no surprise, because it had been rather talked about. But the request to transfer back to his hometown was — even though he describes the transition as a happy moment in his career as a priest.
Msgr. Vanderholt’s first assignment in the new diocese was teaching at Msgr. Kelly Catholic High School in Beaumont and was quickly named superintendent of Catholic schools.
He said that in terms of the number of students, the Catholic school system when the diocese started was about the same size as Nederland and Port Neches-Groves school districts are today, but that number gradually decreased. He remembered having to close down the Catholic high school in Orange.
“That was one of the toughest, most difficult things I did,” he said. “I had to announce it in a way to where the people would not get angry at the sisters or the pastor. Well they all got angry at me, the messenger, so I must’ve handled that announcement well.
“I was standing in the auditorium with about 500 people, and I got booed and hissed at,” he said. “That was a unique experience — knowing there was really nothing I could do. Maybe that’s why I don’t have any hair on the top of my head today.”
When talking about the various parishes he has served in over the years, many in South Jefferson County, Msgr. Vanderholt remembered a trip he and his secretary took to St. Joseph in Port Arthur as it was being built.
“One of the construction workers was working on the roof and he kept telling his wife, my secretary, ‘They’re building it wrong, it’s going to leak.’ And I kept telling my secretary, ‘It’s not my business, I’m not going to get involved.’ Well, the next year, I got transferred to that church and it leaked like everything,” his eyes glistened as he chuckled, remembering the leaky roof. “That construction worker knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, I was the one who ended up getting wet.”
He said the Diocese of Beaumont has given him many great adventures and he wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
“Years ago, I fantasized living to be 100, but now that all of my close friends and relatives have died and gone to Heaven on me, I’ve kind of lost interest in that,” he said. “Just if I can live to the next day, I’m happy enough.”