Any discussion about the history of St. Mary's
Born October 31, 1865 in a small village in
In March 1904, after serving several small parishes in Central Texas, Father Gleissner was assigned to
In April 1904, Catholic campus ministry at the college became a reality as Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher of the Galveston Diocese granted permission for Father Gleissner to offer Mass for the young men of
By 1923, Msgr. Gleissner recognized that a campus classroom could no longer accommodate the growing congregation of Catholic Aggies. With full trust and abundant prayer, Father Gleissner decided to approach the Austin Convention of the Knights of Columbus of Texas to plead their case. The Council agreed on the need for a chapel for the Aggie Catholics and by 1926, plans and specifications for the chapel were drawn and a contractor hired. The cornerstone was laid on the Feast of the Holy Family on January 9, 1927. The inscription read: “St. Mary’s Chapel, erected by the State Council of the Knights of Columbus of Texas, A.D. 1927.” By the following April, the Aggie Cadets were celebrating Mass within the new St. Mary’s Chapel. The chapel was a stucco-covered structure in Spanish Renaissance style, measuring 62 ½ feet by 34 ½ feet. It could accommodate 250 and had a basement designed to serve as a student center for socials, conferences and other gatherings.
Through the next several years, St. Mary’s Chapel continued to flourish, and the Catholic population on campus swelled to 300. For years to come, Father Gleissner appeared at every Knights of Columbus convention to give an account of the achievements of the A&M chapel and to assure them of the value of their investment. His reports were always brimming with descriptions of the great spiritual good done, the tremendous numbers of Aggies attending confession and receiving Holy Communion and the abundant vocations to the priesthood – all blessings that continue to this day. Because of his tireless ministry, Father Gleissner was granted the title of Monsignor in 1931.
By 1940, the chapel had become too small. Parishioners were standing and kneeling on the front steps in order to participate in devotions and the
The student body of
On February 28, 1953, Monsignor Gleissner passed away. He was not able to witness the realization of his dream to build a new church but as Bishop Reicher remarked at the Pontifical Requiem Mass, “His untiring work among the Catholic student body of A&M endeared him to an immeasurable degree to every Catholic Aggie during the many years [he] was stationed in Bryan.”
In 1954, Father Charles Elmer became chaplain to the students at A&M and together, they finished raising enough funds to build a student center. Construction began on two lots of land and soon the center housing a lounge, library/classroom and a kitchen began to take shape behind the original St. Mary’s Chapel. The long, low narrow brick building provided the setting for many activities, including numerous Newman Club dances.
After the completion of the student center, the Aggie congregation set their sights on the construction of the new chapel. By June 1956, construction began on the new St. Mary’s Chapel. In accordance with the wish of Monsignor Gleissner, it was a red brick colonial style, with tall white columns supporting the entry portico. The white tower and green slate roof soon became a feature of the Northgate skyline. The building measured 170 feet long by 50 feet wide and was detailed in wood paneling to complete the Monsignor’s vision. Tall, arched windows lined the nave. The original altar of maroon and white oriental and domestic marble remains, but the marble-topped communion rail was removed after the Second Vatican Council. The Stations of the Cross and crucifix behind the altar were executed in
Today’s chapel remains basically unchanged except for a later enlargement of the balcony and the addition of an altar facing the congregation donated by the Women of St. Mary’s. In 1959, the original St. Mary’s Chapel was remodeled into a rectory for the priests. The building continued as a rectory until May 1965, when the one lot of land was sold to Shell Oil Company for $45,000.
In the 1960s dual influences brought significant changes to St. Mary's. The decision of the Second Vatican Council and student growth at Texas A&M worked together to create a transformation in the congregation. The Vatican Council decreed the use of the vernacular in the Mass, an altar facing the people and greater participation of the lay members in decision making in the parish. Until 1968, St. Mary's functioned as a mission chapel from St. Joseph's in Bryan. In that year the Bishop granted parish status to St. Mary's. In 1962, an estimated 8,000 students, all of whom were military, attended Texas A&M College. In 1963, the college opened admissions to women beginning a population boom. In just one decade the university would grow to 35,000 students. Because of the connection between St. Mary's Parish and Texas A&M, it was not surprising that this student population explosion affected the parish and added new demands.
During these years of change, St. Mary's served as a parish for the faculty, staff and their children as well as for the students. The 1958 church soon began to burst at the seams. More seating room was needed and more Masses were needed. Running two completely different programs, one being family-oriented and the other being student-based, proved to be a difficult task. In the final years of the 1960s a number of priests moved through the parish, some staying only a short period. This resulted in instability. At the end of the decade Father Bernard Mahoney was assigned, and he established the first parish council. He was succeeded by Father Elmer Holtman, and finally continuity and a stable environment were established.
In the fall of 1971, a poll was taken at the university requesting students to name their religious preference. The results stated that 2,312 students listed Catholicism as their faith tradition of choice, second only to the Baptist faith. St. Mary's pastoral council members seized the opportunity to enhance student life by offering more student-oriented programs appeal to Aggies. The St. Mary's community recognized that university students were essential to the spiritual atmosphere. Obviously without them would be no need for faculty and staff and no need for a student center. Social events catered to the students, and activities such as the Hamburger Fry, potluck dinners and Freshman Orientation parties occurred each year.
Although social events certainly attracted great crowds to the center, additional organizations to nourish all aspects of spiritual life were created throughout the 1970s. The Newman Club, a group dedicated to student centered programs, revived its activities, and the charitable society of St. Vincent de Paul began meeting at St. Mary's. With a revitalized sense of stewardship and responsibility toward Texas A&M students came an inevitable remodeling of the student center. Between 1972 and 1978, approximately 3,000 Aggies looked to St. Mary's for religious guidance, Mass celebrations, and community support each year. The State Council of the Knights of Columbus supported the Aggies with a contribution of $60,000 for the renovation. The student parish used this donation to add rooms for student meetings and facility upgrading.
By June of 1978, the parish council finally drew their eight-year study and revisions of the parish consitution to a close. The document entitled Basic Norms and Constitution for St. Mary's Parish was presented to the Bishop of the Diocese of Austin. Two decades of radical change concluded with the success of the new constitution. St. Mary's had evolved into a truly unique parish, alive with the spirit of Christ and the spirit of Monsignor Gleissner's "beloved Texas Aggies." The small mission chuch had emerged as a place of spiritual and religious sustenance for innumerable students, a "home away from home" for Catholics and non-Catholics alike throughout the years.
As the only Catholic parish in College Station, St. Mary's offered programs for members of the university community and their families as well as the College Station community at large. Under the direction of Father Al Palermo and Father Bill Brooks, there were coffee houses, dinners with the priests, and, like decades before, the Newman Club. The Newman Club met every Wednesday night, beginning with a Newman Mass in the student center. Following Mass, students met to discuss future activities and projects and to enjoy fellowship during their social hour. The chapel and student center were full of life while under the watchful eyes of these priests, and helped the center grow to accommodate the thousands of Catholic students attending the university as well as the Catholic families within the College Station community.
In 1982, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish was founded on the south side of the city to handle this mounting Catholic population with the mission of serving families. St. Mary's Parish no longer bore the sole responsibility of serving the needs of the entire Catholic community in Aggieland, so the student center situated on the corner of Church and Nagle Streets shifted its focus to center on the needs of the students. All children's religious education was moved to the new parish. As St. Thomas Aquinas Parish grew in south College Station, the community at St. Mary's became even more focused toward quality student ministry at Texas A&M.
As the programs at St. Mary's evolved to concentrate on student life, the community saw the establishment of many exciting new traditions. The tradition of The Big Event, a campus-wide service project, had begun at Texas A&M University by 1982. At the same time, the seeds were planted for a new retreat at St. Mary's. Jay Stockton, an active undergraduate student at St. Mary's, worked for a summer in Baton Rouge, LA, home of Louisiana State University. He was introduced to a Cursillo-based retreat called Awakening while attending Christ the King Catholic Student Center on the LSU campus. After attending LSU Awakening #34, Stockton decided that Awakening might be good for St. Mary's and to bring the idea back before the Newman officers. The proposal sparked some interest and a promise of further discussion. As the discussion progressed, the plan for Awakening was met with some trepidation and resistence from the community. However, according to Stockton, "God switched to Plan B." Father Al Palermo called the LSU Catholic Student Center and enrolled three Aggies in LSU Awakening #37.
After LSU Awakening #37, Aggies Diana Horadam, Don Bagert and Jay Stockton became the planning committee for Aggie Awakening #1, scheduled for October 1983. In the following year, thirty-one Aggies attended subsequent Awakenings at LSU. This core group of Aggies, with the help of adults in the community and twenty LSU students, ran the first Aggie Awakening from October 14-16, 1983. The Awakening program grew along with the Catholic population at the university. The first retreat was held for fifty participants and ninety percent of the attendees returned to staff the following retreat. It was not long before the number of interested students far exceeded the accommodations of the camp, and the retreat was relocated from Camp Kappe to Camp Allen to St. Anthony's Parish in Bryan before eventually landing at St. Ann's parish in Somerville.
In the summer of 1992, Fr. Mike Sis and Fr. Dean Wilhelm joined Fr. Adam Martinez at St. Mary's. When Fr. Adam was given a different assignment, Fr. Mike became the pastor in January 1993. The numbers of programs continued increasing so much that there was no longer room in the student center to hold them all. Thousands of Aggie Catholics were attempting to use a building designed for hundreds of cadets. The sounds of choir rehearsals often disturbed the meetings being held in adjacent spaces. Some meetings had to be held outdoors due to lack of sufficent rooms. The physical condition of the student center was also showing the wear of heavy use over many years.
Members of the community began to realize that there was a serious need for a new facility where they could worship, study and learn the faith of the Church. It should be an inviting and welcoming place where students could find a home away from home. Lots of Aggie Catholics who raised funds for and built the 1927 chapel, the original 1954 student center and the 1958 church sanctuary, the Aggie Catholic family was motivated by challenges. The challenge in 1994 was to raise five million dollars for a new 30,000 square foot St. Mary's Catholic Center at Texas A&M. Thus, the "Building a Tradition in Faith" campaign was born.
While the case for new facilities was obvious, the path to completion involved much hard work. It was thanks to a $200,000 gift from the State Council Knights of Columbus, a $500,000 Challenge Grant from the Mabee Foundation and the generosity of more than three thousand supporters around the state and the world that the dream of a new facility was realized.