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History of South Texas Catholic

In the 45 years since the South Texas Catholic began publication on May 6, 1966, two of its staff members have gone on to become bishops. One became a nun. The newspaper has a long and storied history.

The newspaper got its start because Bishop Thomas J. Drury, who was installed the year before, had always wanted a diocesan newspaper, said Msgr. William Thompson who served as Vicar General for Bishop Drury. It was one of the bishop’s first major decisions.

Two Catholic newspapers were already covering the area, but neither was able to cover the entire diocese or its many activities, Msgr. Thompson said. Alan Baca had been publishing the Corpus Christi Parish Post since about 1951, but its coverage was limited to Corpus Christi and suburban parishes. The diocese at that time stretched south to Brownsville, north to Goliad and west to Laredo, so the Post’s reporting was somewhat limited in terms of news of the entire diocese.

The other newspaper was the Southern Messenger published in San Antonio by the Menger family. Msgr. Thompson said the Messenger covered most of the dioceses in Texas but it became apparent that it could not cover “the details in the life of the diocese.” For that, Bishop Drury felt the diocese needed an “official” newspaper for the diocese.

The need for a diocesan newspaper had even greater urgency as the bishop was entrusted with implementing the changes brought about by Vatican II, which had finished its work the previous December. Moreover, Pope Paul VI had issued a decree entitled “The Media of Social Communication” in which he urged bishops to promote and guide the means of communications in their dioceses.

At its inception, the South Texas Catholic was known as The Texas Gulf Coast Register and was part of a national Catholic newspaper chain published in Denver. Leonor Quesada, who was a secretary at the newspaper, remembers that they had no computers and stories were composed in typewriters and mailed to Denver.

The newspaper’s first editor was Father William Gough. He was the first of a series of priests that served as editors.

“Continuing of the teaching ministry established by Christ,” was the mission of the newspaper, wrote Father Gough in his inaugural editorial.

The newspaper’s objectives included fostering a sense of community in the diocese; keeping open the channels of communication between the bishop and the people; and serving as a sounding board for diverse Catholic viewpoints. Quoting St. Augustine, Father Gough said his compass was: “In things of faith—unity; in doubtful matters—liberty; and in all things—charity.”

Father Gough’s assistant editor was a young local priest named Father Raymond Peña, who went on to become the bishop of El Paso and Brownsville.  In May 1970 Father Peña took over as editor from Father James Ullrich who had succeeded Father Gough. Father Peña was principally responsible for the newspaper’s Spanish section.

In October 1970, Father Peña shepherded the newspaper to a new era when they cut their ties with the National Catholic Register and began publishing locally as the Texas Gulf Coast Catholic. The newspaper was edited, assembled and printed locally. The change afforded the newspaper later deadlines, allowing it to better cover local news.

The change indicated a new editorial policy, Father Peña wrote, “to make the church in the modern world relevant to modern man.” Father Peña remained as editor until October 1975 and a year after that he was named auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

“There has always been a need in every diocese to communicate to the faithful items not covered by the public press,” Bishop Peña said.

Father Hugh Clarke replaced Father Peña as editor and served until January 1978 when Father Robert Freeman became editor. Father Freeman served as editor or executive editor on and off for the next decade. Like Father Peña before him, Father Freeman was pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe at the time. He also served as director of Catholic Charities.

In October 1978, Father Freeman hired Terri Ackerman, a “professional journalist,” as news editor. But, in August 1979 Ackerman left to enter the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. Joe Michael Feist replaced Ackerman as news editor.

At the start of January 1980 the newspaper changed names again to the South Texas Catholic. The new name, said Bishop Drury, satisfied the feeling of some that Texas Gulf Coast Catholic was “too provincial.”  The newspaper also took on a new tabloid format, which mirrored what most diocesan newspapers were doing at the time.

News editor Feist renewed the newspaper’s mission to “look no further than the Gospel message to evangelize, teach and inform.”

The newspaper continued to serve as a medium for the bishop’s messages; a venue to report activities of parishes, institutions and organizations; a way of keeping the faithful abreast of national and international issues facing the church; and a vehicle to promote the work of diocesan departments, programs and services.

In May 1983, the pope accepted Bishop Drury’s resignation and named Rene Gracida bishop. Feist was named editor and was the first layperson to serve in the position. The newspaper was published 45 times a year, weekly from September through June and biweekly from July through September. Before the close of 1983, Feist took a position with the National Catholic Press Service and Kerrie Clos was named interim editor.

A month later, in January 1984, Bishop Gracida hired William G. Bilton as editor. “It is important that in teaching through the press, the integrity of the doctrine be presented in a clear and appealing fashion,” Bishop Gracida said.

Along with a new editor, the newspaper now had a new location as they were moved from the chancery to the Pastoral Center at the Lantana campus.

Bilton took ill and resigned in March 1985. Bishop Gracida replaced him with Dr. Don Miehls, a laicized Dominican priest with degrees in philosophy, theology and European history.

In September 1989, three years after Miehls left and Msgr. Freeman was named executive editor, the South Texas Catholic entered the computer age—“finally”. Rachelle Ramón was editor at the time.

As the year 1991 wound down, the South Texas Catholic came full circle from its beginnings. In 1961, it had been part of the National Catholic Register; 30 years later it announced plans to print various editions, including editions for the diocese’s Western Vicariate based in Laredo and for the dioceses of Brownsville, San Antonio and Victoria. The South Texas Catholic would carry 16 pages of national, state and local news. Each diocese would have four pages for their news reports.

The newspaper was, by this time, being printed in the diocese’s print shop, which was under the management of Gregory Seagrave in the Fiscal Office. Deacon Lucas Graywolf replaced Msgr. Freeman as executive editor and general manager. Ramon continued as editor and Father Daniel Flores, later Bishop Flores of Brownsville, was named associate editor.

The proposal to publish editions for the other dioceses never materialized and five months later, the South Texas Catholic reduced the number of issues from 45 to 26 as it began to publish biweekly.  Later that year, in October 1992, yet another future bishop appeared on the newspaper’s masthead; Msgr. James Tamayo, V.E., Episcopal Vicar of the Western Vicariate, who later became the first bishop of the Diocese of Laredo.

As 1992 came to end, Father John Vega was named editor. He was the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Portland, and admitted to having little journalism experience. “We strive to carry out the wishes of the bishop as outlined in the second synod,” Father Vega wrote.

A year later, the newspaper announced it had a “permanent editor.” Anthony Riley, former assistant editor of the Baton Rouge Catholic Commentator took the mantle. Father Vega continued as associate publisher, a supervisory role “safeguarding Bishop Gracida’s interests as publisher.”

Riley promised to “renew efforts to strengthen local coverage, and to establish close contacts at the parish level.” Riley’s tenure did not last two years, and in June 1995 Paula Espitia, who had been on the staff since 1989, was made interim editor. For the first time in the newspaper’s history, a theological consultant, Father Bradley A. M. Barber, was also named at that time.  Espitia was elevated to editor at the start of the following year.

In August 1997, the diocese was required to make severe budget reductions, including closing the diocesan press office, vacating the building and moving the South Texas Catholic back to the chancery.

Bishop Gracida retired in April 1997 and in August of that his successor, Bishop Roberto Gonzalez, directed the newspaper to publish monthly. It took on the name of South Texas Catholic Monthly.

In 2001, with the appointment of Bishop Edmond Carmody, the newspaper returned to publishing biweekly and it began to mail copies directly to parishioners’ homes.