The ethnic and cultural diversity of the Church in Southeast Texas has been a major part of its development and growth. This diversity of culture was woven into the liturgies and iconography of the Diocese of Beaumont since before its establishment in 1966.
One of the earliest groups to influence the local Church was the French Cajuns from Louisiana who crossed the Sabine River for jobs. They helped cultivate rice, build railroads, and catch shrimp. By 1966 Cajuns made up the largest percentage of parishioners of the most populated part of the Diocese, the Golden Triangle. Many of them settled in Mid-Jefferson County where a yearly Cajun Mass has been celebrated at Port Neches Park.
In the early 1900s Italian immigrants, mostly from Sicily, settled in Beaumont for jobs at the lumber yards. These Sicilians brought with them the St. Joseph Celebration and gained their own parish, St. Joseph in Beaumont. Their celebration of St. Joseph Feast Day has so permeated the diocese that many parishes now celebrate the day with a St. Joseph Altar including even a predominately African-American parish like Blessed Sacrament in Beaumont.
African Americans first came to Texas with the slave trade and later from Louisiana to Southeast Texas for jobs in the developing refineries. The African Americans contributed locally to Catholic education, ministries and music. The Church celebrates their contribution each November with Black Catholic History Month. Their impact on the diocese can be seen through the yearly celebrations of St. Martin de Porres Feast Day. St. Martin de Porres was the child of a freed slave and is the patron saint of people of mixed races.
Like African Americans, Hispanics were present from the Church’s early days in Southeast Texas. However, their numbers have increased greatly in the last 20 years with migration predominately from Mexico. Currently one fourth of the diocese’s parishes and missions have large Hispanic populations. The Mexican influence on the diocese is reflected in the many Spanish-language Masses and in the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is also seen in the iconography of the local Church with the Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Port Arthur and the artwork of St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica.
When Vietnamese refugees fled to the United States following the fall of Saigon, more than 2,000 of them were resettled in the diocese. The first Vietnamese parish in the United States was formed in Port Arthur. Queen of Vietnam in Port Arthur and St. Joseph in Beaumont now have Masses celebrated in Vietnamese. Their influence is also seen in Port Arthur with the Queen of Vietnam Shrine and in the cathedral’s iconography.
Czech and Poles also contributed to the Church in Southeast Texas settling in the area around Eastgate in the early part of the 1900s. The two groups helped build St. Anne Mission in Eastgate in 1918. The mission still has an active Czech community. Polish influence is seen in the cathedral with a relic of St. Faustina, a Polish sister, and an image of the Divine Mercy.
More recent contributors to the diversity of the diocese are the Filipinos. Filipina nurses were recruited by then St. Elizabeth Hospital in the 1970s. Because of the parish’s proximity to the hospital many of them joined St. Anne in Beaumont. The Philippine prayer group Banal Na Espirito currently provides a Philippine Choir for Mass at St. Anne twice a month and also a special novena prior to Christmas.
All of this ethnic diversity has enriched the diocese. Who else? Want more? The East Texas Catholic is beginning a series on the cultural diversity of the diocese with an indepth look at these cultures and others during this anniversary year.