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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Cannonball's Tales"


by W. T. Block

PART I: A Plucky Texas Priest

Rev. Father Vitalus Quinon, Beaumont, TX ca. 1881

The decade of the 1980s marked the centennial anniversaries of many Southeast Texas churches. Prominent among the Protestant congregations were Westminster Presbyterian Church and St. Mark's Episcopal Church, both of Beaumont. Two Catholic parishes also witnessed their origins more than a century ago, among them Saint Mary's Church of Orange, Texas, formerly Saint Vital's Church, which was dedicated on August 22, 1880, and St. Anthony's Cathedral of Beaumont, formerly St. Louis' Church, founded in 1881. These Catholic landmarks of the Christian faith represent the accumulative efforts of hundreds of laymen and priests, but outstanding among them was the builder of the latter two churches. Rev. Fr. Vitalus Quinon (pronounced 'keen, yon'). And most certainly, to Quinon is due much of the credit for bringing the Catholic faith to Southeast Texas, where he remained in Orange, Beaumont, and Liberty for only three years, 1879-1882, but he left the legacy that others have built upon so successfully.

The Southeast Texas of 1850 was overwhelmingly Protestant, so much so that when the first missionary priest, Rev. Fr. P. F. Parisot, visited Beaumont, Texas, in 1853, he could not find a single Catholic (although two Catholic families lived a short distance south of the city); and only two Catholics lived in Orange. The few Acadian cattlemen, who had brought their Catholic faith with them from Louisiana, resided principally in the Taylor's Bayou vicinity. However, this condition was soon to be altered (although the great influx of Acadians to Jefferson and Orange counties would not begin until 1910). At first, the numbers were principally augmented by immigrant German and Irish Catholics who settled along the banks of the Neches and Sabine Rivers. No church buildings existed, though, and often, a year or more transpired before some itinerant saddlebag priest arrived to celebrate Mass or hear Confessions in the home of some Cow Bayou or Taylor's Bayou parishioner or elsewhere.

During the Reconstruction years, lawlessness, a byproduct of the frontier-cattle economy, 'carpetbag' government, and Federal troop occupation, became quite prevalent, and every adult male, black or white, carried sidearms for self-preservation. This was especially so at Orange, which gained an unwanted and unsavory notoriety following the wanton murders of Newton and Erastus Stephenson in 1869 and rampant crime during the 1870s. When the first railroad and sawmill industries began to penetrate Orange County in 1876, they were met with resentment and resistance from the lawless element, who feared the social changes they might spawn. It thus fell to a prominent railroader and lay Catholic of Houston, Charles A. Burton, to effect some of the needed change.

As the general superintendent of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad at Houston, Burton frequently rode the pay trains to Orange, and he knew first-hand the problems that the railroad crews of 1879 faced. The town's rowdies often wagered on who would be the first to shoot out the locomotive's headlights, and when these were extinguished, they zeroed in on the brakemen's hand lanterns. Hence, train crews quickly learned to "douse the glim" upon entering the outskirts of Orange.

Burton already knew that the church was a powerful ingredient in the subjugation of the frontier, and he soon turned to Bishop C. M. Dubuis of Galveston for help. As luck would have it, Rev. Fr. Quinon had just returned from an extended visit to France and was without a parish. Tales of his exploits and courage in quelling the border ruffians at Denison, Texas, in 1874 had already preceded him, and the railroader felt that the French priest was the ideal man to send to Orange, Texas, to build a church.

A tall, handsome man, Father Quinon, according to a transcript of his baptismal record, was born in Thizy, in the Lyonnais province of France, in July, 1845, although the Catholic Directory and the 1880 Orange, Texas census list 1849 as being his birth year. While on a visit to Lyons France, in 1870, Bishop Dubuis enlisted the young seminarian for duty on the Texas frontier, and later, the prelate ordained him at Galveston Cathedral on October 27, 1871.

Quinon's first assignment was to the German and Bohemian parishioners of Brushy, Hallettsville, and Indianola, Texas, in 1873. The archives of St. Patrick's Church, the first sanctuary built by Rev. Fr. Quinon, reveal that the priest arrived in Denison in 1874. In one of his extant letters of 1877, Quinon observed that he had celebrated the first Mass in the Chickasaw nation of the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, where he baptized a 99-year-old squaw, the oldest Catholic in the territory. As a result of his swimming his horse across the Red River, he contracted a severe chest or 'consumptive' type of disease, which was to keep him recuperating in Europe for the next four years.

The writer has read several sources of Quinon's encounters with the frontier toughs of his day, and it is indeed hard to determine whether some of them are different tales or varying accounts of Burton's story. Bishop Joseph Lynch of Dallas once related the occasion when the French priest was forced to dance on a billiard table in Denison. Later, when he saw the chief ruffian and instigator enter a saloon, Quinon "followed, and before the assembled drinkers, asked the man if he would rather say his prayers or take a beating. He prayed."

Before his return to Texas in 1879, Father Quinon spent much of the year 1876 touring the Italian cities, including Rome, where he assisted Pope Pius IX in a Mass conducted at St. Peter's, and later he celebrated a Mass there himself.

Early in October, 1879, shortly after his return from Europe, he departed by rail for Orange to communicate personally with that town's Catholic residents and raise subscriptions for a church building. Burton had warned the priest that there was a nucleus of good people there, but otherwise the town was practically governed by the rowdies and millhands, whom even the sheriff was helpless to control. (In fact, in Aug., 1881, the same rowdies dropped the sheriff with a load of buckshot.) Undaunted, Quinon went from store to store, from saloon to sawmill, seeking funds. Often, the people laughed in his face, but as he posed no threat to their way of life, they allowed him to continue his rounds of the community.

As sunset approached, the French priest, while en route home, spurred his horse across the wide field which, in frontier days, separated the edge of Orange from the Southern Pacific depot. Halfway across the field, he was accosted by two bearded and foulmouthed rowdies, with drawn revolvers, who ordered him to rise high in the saddle and recite "The Lord's Prayer."

"This is neither the time nor place for that!" Quinon rejoined.

"Pray or die!" they reiterated, and with the same solemnity he might have voiced at St. Peter's, the priest rose high in the stirrups and recited the prayer. Warned never to return to Orange, he then rode on to the depot, still smarting from the gross indignity he had been subjected to.

Father Quinon immediately realized that if he were ever to return to Orange to complete his mission, he must stand up to the border toughs at once and put them in their place. He borrowed a Winchester rifle from the depot agent, and as the priest rode up to the Casino Saloon, where the millhands congregated, he could hear the loud voices inside of the two town ruffians, thoroughly enjoying the retelling of their field encounter with the visiting cleric. Upon separating the batwing doors of the saloon, Quinon pointed the rifle at his adversaries, then ordered them to kneel in the center of the room and recite the same prayer. With the meekness of lambs, both confessed that they didn't know the prayer.

"Then recite the prayer after me!" he commanded, the barrel of his gun still zeroed on their eyeballs. Their timid voices, barely audible, echoed each word of the priest, and at the end of their prayer, Quinon warned:
"I have come here to erect a church, with your assistance if I can get it, or unmindful of your objections if you don't desire it. We will be friends if you wish it so, but if you molest me or my people, I will show you that, although a priest, I can meet you on your own ground. To such of you who think you can shoot better than myself, the street is big and wide, and the invitation is extended now to any of you for a trial."
No one answered, for the saloon bullies knew without further question that they had met a man of steel as well as a man of God. And with his path wide open all the way back to the depot, Quinon returned to Houston to report his progress to the bishop and to Superintendent Burton. Later, without a single incident, he built St. Vital's Church, now St. Mary's, as Part II of this story reveals.

PART II: Rev. Fr. Quinon As Church Builder >
W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" >
August 28, 2006 column
Sources: Principally from "A Plucky Texas Priest," Galveston WEEKLY NEWS, February 4, 1892; Beaumont ENTERPRISE, 1880-1881, and other sources.
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