Cavalry of Christ

The Cavalry of Christ is a traditional designation for the Oblates who did ministry on horseback in Texas and northern Mexico from 1849 (the founding of the mission) to 1904 (the creation of the Oblate Province). Some extend the term to include any Oblate who made pastoral rounds on horseback before the automobile came into common use in southern Texas, therefore until about 1914.

During the first period 1849-1851, three priests, a Brother and a scholastic served Brownsville and surrounding areas. In the second period 1852-1883, thirty priests and eight Brothers took care of hundred of ranchos out of three mission centers: Brownsville, Roma and La Lomita; and at times they staffed parishes in Mexico: Matamoros, Ciudad Victoria, and Agualeguas. In the third period 1883-1904, a reduced number of Oblates covered the same territories in Texas plus Eagle Pass and San Antonio.

Father Pierre-Yves Kéralum (1817-1872) may be considered a typical missionary of the second period. He rode a mission circuit in the Rio Grande Valley that reached 120 ranchos. Father Jean-Baptiste Bretault (1843-1934), whose ministry took place largely in the third period, had 180 ranchos along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and in the brush country inland. Their circuits, usually lasting six weeks or longer, were made in cassock and cross, despite the desert heat. Father Jean-Marie Jaffrès (1840-1891) wrote in 1867: “Let me tell you of our Texas campaign equipment. Picture to yourself first of all a horse, and essential part and as we say modestly, the better half of the missionary. If you wish to keep in good humour, choose a good horse; it will cost you no more. Give him a strong harness. Then, with respect, I will place on the pommel of the saddle the bag with Holy Oils and all the necessaries for the administration of the sacraments. On the opposite side I will hang a gourd to hold my provision of water which I renew at every opportunity. A kind of knapsack containing the altar stone, the chalice, the altar-bread and wine, and whatever else is required for the celebration of the holy Sacrifice, with a few articles for the personal use of the missionary, is fastened to the rear. A tightly rolled blanket completes the equipment”. (Jaffrès to Rey, October 15, 1867; cf. Missions OMI,Vol. 7 (1868), pp.320-321).

Throughout the Cavalry of Christ epoch, the vast majority of the population was poor and Mexican-American. Father Bernard Doyon describes a missionary visit to one of the humble ranchos (pp. 130-131):

The arrival of the padrecito at a ranch on one of his rare visits was an event of the greatest importance to the whole colony. The missionary did not dismount without first being asked. That would have been a breach of etiquette. But even more so would it have been impardonable [sic] if the rancheros did not invite the priest to dismount. Then they would offer the priest some tortillas, beans and a cup of what they called coffee… Without loss of time the missionary would visit every dwelling, inviting all the people to attend the evening services. If the afternoon were not too far advanced he would call the children for a catechism class… When night came and the workers had returned from their toil, the faithful would gather in the largest hut, and there they would say the rosary and sing one of their beloved hymns after each decade. There followed an instruction on Christian doctrine, perhaps a few baptisms or even a marriage ceremony… And when, late at night, his ministry finished, the priest sought a little rest after his journey of fifteen, twenty, even thirty miles on horseback, it must be in the same room where he had just preached. Usually there was no bed, so he would wrap himself in his blanket and lie on the earth floor with his knapsack or saddle for a pillow… Next morning at dawn, the Father arose and rang his bell vigorously to awaken everyone. After morning prayers and a sermon to remind them of their duties as Christians, he said Mass for the people huddled around him… After a scanty breakfast, usually of tortillas and frijoles (beans), the missionary started for the next ranch twenty or thirty miles away to repeat the same program.

The Cavalry of Christ Oblates were involved in the tumultuous events of the early Rio Grande Valley history: border lawlessness, civil wars in both countries, yellow fever, and hurricanes. Seven died between 1853 and 1862, causing Blessed Eugene de Mazenod to exclaim: “Cruel Texas mission!” (Mazenod to Augustin Gaudet, November 26, 1858).

Father Kéralum is the most famous member of the Cavalry of Christ. He had been an architect in France before joining the Oblates. Sent by the Founder in Texas in 1852, he designed the neo-gothic Immaculate Conception church (now a cathedral) in Brownsville in 1856, and early churches at Laredo, Roma, Santa Maria, and Toluca. But he is principally remembered in the Rio Grande Valley as the Lost Missionary. While doing a seventy-mile trail with failing eyesight, he disappeared in the brush northwest of Mercedes in 1872. Stories abounded about his disappearance until his body was found ten years later reposed beneath a mesquite tree, his saddle hanging from a branch, and nothing stolen. The mysterious death, probably from starvation became part of the Valley folklore.

Father Jules Piat (1852-1914), according to the calculations made by Father Paul-Émile Lecourtois (1871-1939) [unpublished notes, ch. 19], spent one third of his life on horseback. Each year he was 150 days on the trail out of Roma. Following Lecourtois’ figures, Father Doyon (p.139) wrote: “It is said that in twenty-five years Father Piat and Father Clos covered on horseback at least 175,000 miles or a distance of seven times around the earth at the equator. To accomplish this feat, they would have (had) to average 600 miles a month, or some 10 miles a day, each, in the saddle.”

At the age of 80, Father Clos said that he and his horse were a century old: he eight, and his horse twenty. Father Jaffrès once said: “Tomorrow I have sixty miles to ride to get in good humor again and to collect a few ideas.” Father Piat liked to repeat: “I want to be a saint, but a saint on horseback!”

William Watson, o.m.i.