The colonization has had lasting effects to present day in Texas in terms of farming, ranching, oil and gas exploration and much more.
The Mexican government in 1924 – like the Spanish before it – offered land grants to colonize Texas. The Mexicans specified that no more than 200 colonists come with each Empresario and that they had to be Catholic. This rule wasn’t strictly enforced.
The Irish who headed to Refugio—beginning with about 350 colonists—were not the ones suffering from the potato famine exodus, beginning in 1845 and lasting through 1852.
No, the Irish who came to Texas in the Power-Hewetson Colony in 1834 came because of the promise of inexpensive, huge amounts of land.
These Irish were hard working farmers who were not allowed to own the land in Ireland under British rule because they were Catholics. But in Texas, they could own their lands (freedom), and that was the primary reason they sold everything they had, booked passage and bought land in Texas for very little.
Each family could get a league of land, or 4,428 acres, at 4 cents an acre.
Among these colonists were members of the O’Connor and Fagan families. Today, some of the descendants of those families, including the Myers family, reside in North Refugio County.
The Texas Tropical Trails Region conducted a tour of those families’ ranches on Tuesday, March 18.
First stop on the tour was the O’Connor River Ranch, where the St. Dennis Chapel sits just off state Highway 239, west of U.S. Highway 77.
Tom O’Connor had arrived in Texas in 1834 with his uncle: James Power.
By 1876, the young O’Connor had amassed 500,000 acres. He died in 1887, passing his land to his sons: Dennis Martin O’Connor and Thomas Marion O’Connor.
The O’Connor family now is in its seventh generation.
At St. Dennis, the tour group gathered inside the church.
Lawaine Stubblefield, of Victoria, who was on the tour, gave an overview of how the St. Dennis Chapel was constructed.
She said two churches have been on the ranch, the first being St. Anthony of the Woods, which started construction in 1899 by Felipe Quintero. The Rev. Emilio Ylla was the priest.
The first church was dedicated in June 1900 and was cared for by the Rodriguez family.
“Legend has it that Dennis O’Connor, the then patriarch of the family, had lost a wallet containing a large sum of money. It is said that he promised St. Anthony to provide a place of worship for his workers if the money was returned,” Stubblefield said.
“Obviously, his wish was granted because construction of St. Anthony’s chapel was begin shortly thereafter,” she added.
Unfortunately, the church was destroyed by the hurricane of 1942.
The hurricane struck on the day after Dennis O’Connor II left for military duty. That left 27-year-old Tom O’Connor IV to care for the ranches and deal with the storm’s destruction.
Because of World War II, lack of materials and the death of Tom O’Connor Sr. in 1946, the repair or rebuilding of a church was delayed.
“It was not until 1950 that planning was resumed. It was decided to build the new church near the family cemetery at a spot chosen by Tom O’Connor Sr. before his death,” Stubblefield said.
The Corpus Christi Diocese bishop at the time was the Most Rev. M.S. Garriga. The church was designed by Harvey Smith of San Antonio and built by Mitchell Construction of San Antonio.
The church’s architecture resembles that of Spanish missions with walls inside and out of fossilized limestone.
The barrel roof is six inches thick and made from concrete and steel.
And the bell from St. Anthony of the Woods was hung in the belfry. From the air, the church can be seen as a holy cross.
The church’s name and patronage comes from a promise made to St. Dennis by Kate S. O’Connor for the safe return of her oldest son from World War II.
The first pastor of the church was the Rev. Victor R. Stoner, the brother of Kate S. O’Connor. He was pastor 1951-57. Since his death, the chapel has been designated as a mission in the Corpus Christi Diocese.
The mission is used primarily by ranch employees, O’Connor family members and neighboring ranches and townspeople.
“Christmas midnight Mass at this lovely chapel is an experience not soon to be forgotten,” Stubblefield said.
Directly behind the church is the O’Connor family cemetery.
From St. Dennis, the tour group traveled east on state Highway 239 to the Peter Henry Fagan House.
Fagan family descendant Jim Fagan greeted the tour group at the Peter Henry Fagan House, built in 1868.
Jim and his wife Ginger Fagan restored the house in 2012. The house has a Texas Historical Commission marker.
The house is in the Greek Revival architectural style and is made of cypress, oak and Florida pine. M. O’Keefe, a carpenter, built the house.
About half way from Refugio to Indianola or Victoria, the house became a rest stop for travelers. And visiting priests would say Mass on the second floor where Fagan had arranged a chapel.
According to an account titled ”Nicholas Fagan: A Texas Patriot,” by Mrs. Tom O’Connor Sr., Nicholas Fagan and his son John, narrowly escaped the massacre at Goliad when Fannin and his troops were executed by the Mexican army.
Nicholas Fagan had received messages to go to an orchard three times before he obeyed the order to take a quarter of beef to Miller’s orchard and stay there until otherwise ordered.
“Without understanding the strange command, Fagan did as he was told, and had barely reached his designated place when he heard the heart rending cries of his comrades, ‘Don’t shoot! For God’s sake don’t shoot us.,” O’Connor’s account stated.
As well, John Fagan had been sent on a foraging mission and was saved, too. The Fagans’ friend during colonization, Don Carlos de la Garza, had successfully avoided the Fagans’ execution by Santa Ana’s troops.
Jim Fagan said after the massacre, his ancestor Nicholas stole back to where the execution had taken place. He found one of Fannin’s soldiers hanging on to life. It was Col. Hunter.
Nicholas picked the man up, braced him on his shoulder and carried him to the Coleto, “quite a distance,” Jim Fagan said. The wounded soldier was cared for by Margaret Wright and lived to be an old man.
In another account written by Mrs. Tom O’Connor, Nicholas Fagan was credited with saving Refugio.
Jim Fagan said Nicholas has been called the “Angel of Refugio” for his deeds.
O’Connor’s account: “Sept. 20, 1841, Refugio was raided by a band of Mexicans under the notorious Ortegon, bent upon revenging themselves upon the Texans. In a surprise attack upon the town every man able to be out of bed was captured and marched to Mexico. It was upon this march that the gruesome murder of Henry Ryals was perpetrated and Col. Power was captured and made prisoner.
“The town was sacked and looted, even the feather beds cut open and emptied and all food and clothing and supplies of every kind destroyed or taken off by the bandits. The women and children were left in a pitiful state of destitution and unprotected.”
When Nicholas Fagan heard of the women and children’s plight, he organized a rescue.
O’Connor wrote, “Upon hearing of this disaster, Fagan and his neighbors loaded up their ox-carts with food, clothes and blankets and went to the rescue of the families. They conveyed the women and children back to the San Antonio River Ranches. Many stayed with the Fagans until the captive husbands and fathers were released some years later. For this deed of charity Fagan was called the ‘Savior of Refugio,’ and it was in gratitude to him that the citizens of Refugio bestowed upon Fagan the old mission bell of Nuestra Senora la Limpia Conception.”
In addition to the Fagan House, the Fagan mausoleum stands nearby on top a hill.
The mausoleum is made of white Colorado marble and was built for the Fagan family in 1923.
The inscription on the door of the mausoleum: “After all when a man comes to die all that he will have left is what he has given away.”
From the Fagan House, the tour group traveled on state Highway 239 farther east to the Fagan Ranch.
After arriving at the guest house, the group of about 60 people were treated to lunch by Cindie and Wayne Myers. Cindie is a Fagan descendant.
The final stop on the tour was the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in far eastern Refugio County.
The refuge is about 116,000 acres and spreads over three counties, including Refugio County, which accounts for 8,000 acres of the preserve.
The refuge also serves as the endangered whooping cranes’ winter home.
In past years, government sequestration, that is cutting of certain program budgets, has reduced the U.S.. Fish & Wildlife Service staffing at the refuge from about 50 to five.
The Refuge was 110 years old as of March 2013.