For more than 150 years, Immaculate Conception Cathedral has been the physical and spiritual home of the Roman Catholic Church in Brownsville.
The Gothic Revival-style structure on East Jefferson Street downtown, dedicated in 1859, still bears 250,000 of its original bricks, retains 29 original stained glass windows depicting dramatic scenes from the Bible and accommodates worshippers in the original wooden pews, which seat almost 400.
“It may not be one of the biggest cathedrals in Texas,” says Tara Putegnat, a lifelong resident of Brownsville and director of the Brownsville Historical Association. “It’s sort of modest in terms of size—but it’s imposing in terms of history and significance.” The cathedral, which has survived major hurricanes and the Civil War, was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1980.
“It’s had a big influence on the city,” Putegnat says. “It’s right next to Market Square.”
The cathedral’s structure and all its adornments are striking. The chandeliers suspended from the vaulted nave ceilings came from France in 1865. Originally designed for candles only, the fixtures were retrofitted with light sockets when Brownsville received electrical service in the early 20th century. Only the crystal in them has been replaced since. A few changes have been made to the cathedral over the years: Depictions of the Stations of the Cross were mounted on the cathedral walls in 1907, and the pipe organ arrived in 1935.
In 1849, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were the first religious order to arrive in the lower Rio Grande region after the establishment of the Diocese of Galveston. They established a parish and built a small frame chapel. In 1853, the Rev. Pierre Yves Keralum, a former carpenter and building tradesman, was transferred from the seminary in Galveston to Brownsville to assist the Rev. Jean Verdet in the construction of a larger church. The stone foundation of the structure was laid in 1854.
Later that year, Verdet undertook a voyage from Brownsville to New Orleans aboard the Nautilus, intent on securing further funding and purchasing timber for the construction effort. After a stop in Galveston, a violent gale capsized the Nautilus on its way to New Orleans, and Verdet perished.
Keralum was then entrusted with completing the church. He modified the plans for the building and saw the project through to completion. He supervised the baking of the bricks, designed the pulpit and altar, fashioned the pilasters, and chose the stone for the floor and the wood for the roof.
He was concerned about the weight-bearing capacity of the roof and got creative with lighter materials. He directed the installation of sky-blue canvas on the nave ceiling. This material imbued the ceiling with a dynamic, ethereal effect that has been restored and maintains its original splendor.
Keralum also oversaw the construction of the priests’ housing and the nuns’ convent. The church’s 83-foot bell tower was completed in 1863, and, over most of the next decade, Keralum assisted with other church projects, including the San Agustin Cathedral in Laredo. Then, on November 9, 1872, he began a missionary circuit to visit the surrounding villages and ranches and, like Verdet, disappeared. Cowhands discovered his remains a decade later.
In 1874, Immaculate Conception Church was established as a cathedral. In the decades that followed, the Immaculate Conception rectory would repeatedly serve as a haven for priests fleeing turmoil in Mexico.
Today, Immaculate Conception Cathedral is still the hub of the Catholic Church in Brownsville, which was established as a diocese in 1965. “You can visit for worship or otherwise, and it’s walkable from anywhere downtown,” Putegnat says.
E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.