The earliest known Catholic activity in the Austin area dates to the 18th century Spanish era with the founding of a mission near modern-day Zilker Park. Although that mission no longer exists, the church has had continuing interests in the area.
In 1841, the Vicar Apostolic of Texas, Bishop Jean Marie Odin, traveled to Austin and successfully argued with government officials for the reclamation of church property, which had been confiscated by the Republic of Texas. The Diocese of Galveston was formed in 1847 and served the entire state of Texas until 1874, when the second diocese was established in San Antonio. Growth and development of the area necessitated the establishment in November 1947 of the Diocese of Austin as the seventh diocese in the state. The original boundaries consisted of some 30 central Texas counties encompassing 25,477 square miles. The population at that time was 762,383, of whom 75,495 were Catholic. With the founding of the new diocese, St. Mary Parish, the oldest Catholic church in Austin built in 1884, was elevated to the status of cathedral.
Catholic Schools Emerge in a Time of Expansion
As of January 1, 1948 there were 39 elementary schools with a total of 3,185 students and 2 high schools with a total of 165 students. The first superintendent was Rev. Joseph J. Schmitt who served in this capacity until Bishop Louis J. Reicher was named first bishop of the Diocese of Austin. From offices at Newman Hall on the edge of the University of Texas campus, Bishop Reicher guided 55 parishes and 43 missions, as well as 87 priests, 196 sisters and 24 brothers.
By 1957, the Chancery had outgrown its quarters in Newman Hall and Bishop Reicher began construction of a new building. Completed in 1958, the Chancery is located on Congress Avenue, two blocks north of the State Capitol. Despite the loss in 1961 of four of its northwest counties when the Diocese of San Angelo was formed, the Austin Diocese continued to grow. Bishop Reicher was actively involved in the building of many new parishes.
A Time of Change and Growth for the Community
The 1970s represented a period of change for the diocese. Bishop Reicher retired in 1971, and was succeeded by Bishop Vincent M. Harris. Continuing in the same vein as his predecessor, Bishop Harris was responsible for the building of several new parishes. He also spoke out on numerous social issues, including abortion and capital punishment. Bishop Harris retired, and on Feb. 26, 1986, Bishop John E. McCarthy, a native of Houston, was installed as the third bishop of Austin. During the 15 years that he led the diocese, there was tremendous growth, not only in the Catholic population, but also in expansion of diocesan services, outreach to the general community and the development of several institutions, including new schools, expanded campus ministries and health care, and the diocesan retreat center, Cedarbrake.
On June 2, 2000, Bishop Gregory Aymond was appointed coadjutor bishop of Austin. He became the fourth bishop of Austin on Jan. 2, 2001, when Bishop McCarthy’s request for retirement was granted by the Holy See. Under the leadership of Bishop Aymond, the diocese flourished. Several new Catholic schools were opened, as the population in Central Texas rapidly expanded. Bishop Aymond was installed as the Archbishop of New Orleans in August 2009, and for the first time in its history the Austin Diocese was left without a bishop. Msgr. W. Michael Mulvey served as administrator for several months before he was appointed bishop of Corpus Christi in January 2010.
On March 8, 2010, Bishop Joe S. Vásquez was installed as the fifth bishop of Austin after serving as the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston since 2002. His episcopal motto is “Sígueme” or “Follow me,” in reference to Jesus’ words to Peter in the Gospel of John (21:15-19). The Catholic population of the diocese today stands at roughly 500,000. About 220 priests currently serve in the diocese, along with more than 400 deacons and vowed religious and countless lay men and women. These dedicated servants offer their time and talent to the church and their communities, as catechists, teachers, liturgical ministers, parish social ministers, in youth ministry and more.
Our Schools Today
There are 22 Catholic schools in the diocese - find a Catholic school in the Diocese of Austin. Along with campus ministries, these institutions provide important formation that complements catechetical formation happening in parish life. Catholic Charities of Central Texas offers an overarching vision of charitable care and social advocacy intended to support the dignity of each individual. Many programs supported by diocesan offices provide opportunities for sustained spiritual growth.
Historical information provided by the Catholic Archives of Texas