Azle author tells story of state’s first Catholic bishop

Posted Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Book signing A book signing for Patrick Foley’s Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans will take place between Masses at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Oct. 27 at St. Patrick Cathedral, 1206 Throckmorton St., Fort Worth.

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While many North Texas Catholics look forward to the naming of a new bishop for the Diocese of Fort Worth, acclaimed Catholic historian Patrick Foley is calling attention to the first Catholic bishop to serve Texas.

Foley’s new book, Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans, published by Texas A&M University Press, indicates that the first bishop of Texas had to deal with tough problems — just as bishops do today.

The priest from France, who belonged to the order of St. Vincent de Paul, arrived in what was then the Republic of Texas in 1840 and was soon faced with removing the only two Catholic priests then serving in early Texas.

“They weren’t living the kind of lives priests are supposed to live,” Foley said.

Both priests, the Rev. Refugio de la Garza, priest at San Fernando Church (now cathedral) in San Antonio, and the Rev. Jose Antonio Valdez, a former priest in Goliad then living near San Antonio, were accused of fathering children by mistresses and ignoring their priestly duties.

Odin took on the formidable task of rallying Catholics in frontier Texas, journeying far and wide to Europe and other parts of the world to find new priests.

“There were 39 priests in Texas when he left the state in 1861 to become archbishop of New Orleans,” Foley said.

Foley spent the better part of two decades researching the book, the first biography of Odin. He traveled to Spain and across the nation, including visits to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, the Catholic University of America and a seminary at Perryville, Mo., where Odin was first assigned.

The Azle historian says Odin has generally been ignored in both secular and religious histories. But archives reveal his major contributions as one of the better-known frontier missionary churchmen.

Kevin Vann, the former Fort Worth bishop who is now the bishop in Orange County, Calif., said Foley’s biography is “a welcome blessing for these days, when valiant missionary events of the past are often misunderstood and not appreciated.”

Light Townsend Cummins, a historian at Austin College, said the new book is “a singular addition to the historical literature on the history of religion in Texas and Louisiana.”

‘I seek the truth of history’

The unassuming Foley is no stranger to honors.

He was knighted in 2007 by Spanish King Juan Carlos I, who commended Foley for his works on Spanish Catholic history.

He was awarded a papal medallion by Pope John Paul II for “distinguished work on the Catholic heritage of Texas” for his essay on the history of Texas Catholics commissioned by John Paul before his 1987 visit to the state.

What caught the attention of the Spanish king is Foley’s lifetime of writings about the significance of Spain’s contributions to Catholic life. His doctoral dissertation at the University of New Mexico, centering on liberalism in Catholic Spain in the 19th century, was published by the University of Michigan Press.

Foley, a professor emeritus of history at Tarrant County College and a lecturer at Catholic colleges nationwide, has won numerous awards for his writings. He’s a former president of the Texas Catholic Historical Society and was the first editor of Catholic Southwest: A Journal of History and Culture, serving in that position for 19 years.

In 2006, the Texas Historical Foundation awarded Foley the Journalistic Achievement Award of Merit for Excellence in Print Media.

At age 80, he’s still writing and teaching.

“I seek the truth of history. That’s what I do,” Foley said recently inside his book-filled home in Azle.

Foley has written numerous articles and three books and has contributed to more than 50.

A strongly traditional Catholic who attends Mass during the week and on Sundays, Foley considered becoming a Jesuit priest during college but realized that his calling was to research history as accurately as possible.

“History is the story of who we are, what we believe,” he said.

At TCC for 27 years

A native of Woodland, Calif., near Sacramento, Foley served in the Navy during the Korean War.

After his Navy stint, Foley received a Bachelor of Arts in history from what is now California State University in Chico. One of his fondest memories there is shaking hands with future President John F. Kennedy when he was campaigning in California.

Foley received a master’s from a Jesuit school, Santa Clara University, doing his thesis on the history of Catholicism in England. Some of his heroes are those Catholics, like St. Thomas More, who refused to knuckle under to King Henry VIII when he was separating England from the Roman Catholic hierarchy during the 1500s.

He has also taught at the College of St. Thomas More, now Fisher More College, in Fort Worth and at the University of Texas at Dallas.

While in college, Foley immersed himself in language studies and is fluent in Spanish and German. “I work at it,” he said. He also knows Latin and continues to study French, Italian and Gaelic.

Before moving to Texas, he taught at Chaminade College in Hawaii and at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico. In the mid-1970s, a professor friend in Fort Worth called to tell him about at an opening at the then-new Northwest Campus of Tarrant County College.

“They hired me as the first professor of history, and I was there for 27 years,” Foley said.

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