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Interview with: Bishop Wendelin Nold
Interviewed by: David Courtwright
Date: August 20, 1975
DC: 00:03 August 20, 1975. Interview with Bishop Wendelin J. Nold. In order that future researchers might have more insight into your recollections, we’d like to begin the interview by asking a bit about your background, starting with your early career. When did you first decide to become a priest?
WN: I suppose there was no time growing up when I didn’t think that I wanted to be a priest and eventually would be a priest. From the very earliest childhood it was sort of taken for granted that I would go to seminary, and if they didn’t throw me out, I would be ordained eventually.
DC: You grew up in Texas.
WN: I was born in Bonham, but I grew up in Fort Worth. And from there I, having finished elementary school, came down to La Porte, which at that time had a high school department, and finished the high school and two years of college work and then went to Rome for four years of theology and studied there from 1921 to 1925.
DC: Did you consider it an opportunity to study in Rome?
WN: Oh, yes. I was eager to go there, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Coming from the wilds of Texas to the grandeur of Rome was quite an experience.
DC: Is that why you were ordained in Rome, because you’d completed—
WN: No, that was a normal thing. The students were sent to what is called the North American College, which prepares— That is, the college over there is the place where the students live. They go to the university, you see? But all the Americans, particularly back 50 years ago, who went to Rome, because of the length of travel involved, were ordained over there as a matter of course.
DC: What were your feelings on hearing that Pius XII had elevated you to coadjutor bishop of Galveston?
WN: One of disappointment, frankly. I didn’t want to leave the bishop of Dallas, who was quite strongly attached. And he was getting old, and I had been helping him, and I was hoping that if I had an opportunity, I could be of service to him. So that was my first reaction, though I had lived seven years of my early life down here in these environs of La Porte and Houston and many of the men down here were friends and classmates, so I didn’t feel exactly as a stranger being sent to Galveston. That was before, of course, the diocese was hyphenated into being the diocese of Galveston-Houston.
DC: 03:41 Right. We were going to later in the interview pursue that. Well, in fact, we may as well get into it now. First of all, why did you decide to reside in Houston after you were made bishop?
WN: For the simple reason that Houston was the metropolitan growing city and Galveston, while it had its historical import, there were five parishes in Galveston, and there were some 75 in Houston, and being here and trying to run the diocese was much more satisfactory for all concerned. In other words, priests coming down to do business with the bishop had to make a hundred-mile journey—50 miles one way and 50 miles back. And when I first was made a bishop, Bishop Byrne, to whom I was named coadjutor, remained in Galveston in his residence down there and asked me to stay up here in Houston. After his death, I just continued to reside in Houston. And as Houston kept on growing and Galveston kept on decreasing in population, I asked the Holy See to hyphenate, as it’s called, the diocese, and that was granted in 1959.
DC: Did anyone in Galveston complain about that? Was there a little jealousy?
WN: Oh, indeed there was. My name is still mud with many of the Galvestonians. But it was utterly a question of practicality and—
WN: Right. It was just common sense. In other words, as long as Galveston was the head of the diocese, it was the tail wagging the dog. Most of the territory was to the north and west of Galveston, and so besides Houston being a sort of a metropolitan area, it was the center of communications. A bishop has to do some traveling, and it was much easier to board a plane or a train in those days in Houston than it was in Galveston. And so for practical reasons, I wanted a long time to make the change, but I didn’t want to do things too rashly and precipitously, so I waited about seven years after I had succeeded before going through the proper channels of having the Holy See name Houston as the co-see city of the diocese. Now, the reason that Galveston still is named before Houston is because of the historical importance of Galveston. Galveston was made a diocese in 1847, and Rome doesn’t like to suppress a see for historical reasons. And so whether it tickles the fancy of the Galvestonian and humbles the pride of the Houstonian, I don’t know, but the diocese is Galveston-Houston rather than one might expect the Diocese of Houston-Galveston, you see?
DC: 07:40 What sort of a man was your predecessor, Bishop Byrne?
WN: A very gentle, gracious gentleman whom everybody loved. See, I was only with him two years, and our paths didn’t meet too frequently because his residence was in Galveston and mine was here. And I would help him out by going on missions such as confirmation and that sort of thing in part of the diocese while he took care of the other. But a fine man. He was born in Missouri. He was very conscious of his Irish heritage and a delightful old gentleman.
DC: When you first came to Houston, what was the condition of the diocese? Was it quickly apparent to you that this was a diocese with growing pains and that a lot had to be done?
WN: Well, remember that I came here in 1948, and the war had just ended. The freeze on all building materials was over, and there were parishes requiring to be built and ready to be built, but during the war there was no opportunity of getting the materials to build them. When I was in Dallas, I was in a part of the city that was growing, and it took us two years to get the necessary clearance to build a very badly needed church in the new parish to which I’d been assigned. The situation was similar down here. Houston was growing in all directions, and I was put to the task of finding sites and appointing pastors and getting parishes started, some 25 or so within a decade span. Besides that, there were other things that had to be done. We needed high schools. I put on a drive and was responsible for building the three big high schools now. And of course, the seminary down in La Porte had become obsolete, and I put on a drive and built a seminary and moved it from La Porte—St. Mary’s Seminary at La Porte—to Memorial Drive area and it was by reason of the fact that Houston was just popping at the seams in that particular decade following the war. And of course, that net growth has not yet ceased, but we have kind of caught up the slack with regards to church institutions and parish needs.
DC: So it was actually the delay caused by the ban on war materials.
WN: Correct, correct.
DC: 11:07 I have read that your total accomplishment in terms of building was staggering—something like 47 parishes and 14 missions, not to mention the seminary and the other institutions. Did any other denomination in Houston experience nearly so great a growth at this time as the Catholic Church?
WN: I’m not in a position to answer that. That was in the days when we were friendly but not quite so ecumenical minded, you see? And I don’t know the statistics of these other churches. Perhaps they didn’t grow so rapidly as did the Catholic churches. Perhaps they grew in numbers of parishioners, but our growth was a little bit different inasmuch as our parishes require schools and buildings of that nature that the other denominations for the most part don’t have to build or do not build.
DC: I was wondering if you had made any effort to keep track of where all of these Catholics were coming from, which part of the countries.
WN: Most of them were Yankees, unfortunately. (laughter) No. They were being sent down here by the big oil companies and the corporations that were coming into Houston and having their center here, largely from New Jersey and Ohio and that part of the country. Now, a similar situation took place in Dallas. By the end of the war, there were only 12 parishes in Dallas, and then in 4 or 5 years, why, that number doubled. Most of the people coming to Dallas, however, came from a different part of the country. They came from Illinois, Kansas, and that area, whereas the people who came to Houston seemed for the most part—those that came from out of state came from the New Jersey or New York areas as these big companies like Shell and now more recently—what’s the name?
WN: Exxon. They just take a whole division and bring them down by the hundreds, and many of them are Catholics. And coming down here, they increased our growth naturally and also caused us something of a problem to provide facilities necessary to take care of them.
DC: Right. How did you finance all of that growth?
WN: The people provided the funds to build the institutions. The diocese had a good credit rating at the bank, and so we’d go down and borrow the money and give it to the priest in charge of a new parish. And I had an ironclad rule, which wasn’t popular with some of the priests who were eager to get ahead, that I wanted half of the building funds or the funds necessary to build on hand before giving permission to begin a plan. But there was no problem of financing. The people, knowing that they wanted these facilities— For example, I remember the first piece of property that I bought was out where— What’s the place right over here by Corpus Christi?
WN: 15:21 No, but I was going to mention Sharpstown. Westbury.
DC: Oh, right.
WN: I bought the first parish site in 1950 there at Corpus Christi, and all that area was just prairie. Well, they began to build, and I advertised the fact that this church site was here, so the Catholics came to buy a home close to the church so they’d be within easy access to the school and the church. That was typical. Sharpstown was another area of that nature. I bought land out there and established a parish. Sometimes it took some years before it could actually begin, but the sign was up and the Catholics knew that a church would be built on that site, and they bought their homes as close as they could to the parish. That multiplied all over the area up around the Spring Branch area and up and down on the way to Galveston—I forget now—the Sun Valley area. Is that the name of it?
DC: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
WN: So that’s how we went about things.
DC: So not only did you play catch-up, but you actually tried to anticipate the growth of the city.
WN: I had read, with some doubt frankly, a few months before I was named bishop an article in some magazine—and I forget now what magazine it was. Perhaps it was US News and World Report. On the plane there was an article on Houston and its prospects for the future. And the thing that struck me was the statement that by the end of the century, it would be one of the three great metropolitan areas of the world; namely Sao Paulo, Brazil, London, and Houston would be the three biggest metropolitan areas in the world. Well, I was a little bit dubious about that. But coming down here I saw how rapidly things were building. I’ve been blind now for some 12 years. Every time I go downtown, somebody says, “See that new building?” and describes where it is. And on all sides there is evidence of continued growth, and of course, with that growth there is an increase in religious needs.
DC: 18:20 That’s true. Those buildings are like mushrooms.
WN: That’s what they were doing back in 1950, you see? I forget the name of the buildings. The Cullen Center was building at that time and all these others, and Shell was building, and these big office buildings were built in order to house these employees, most of whom were sent from the headquarters up North. And a great portion of those people coming down here were Catholics, and that’s the reason for our increased growth. Now, there was quite a number of Central Texas Catholics coming from the small towns. There was quite a number of, let me call them national settlements: Polish, Bohemian, German settlements in Central Texas. As the farms sort of petered out, the young people came down to the industrial area, and the great portion of our growth came from these smaller towns within the state. But the majority of the Catholic growth came from the immigrants from the North, and I say generally from the New Jersey area.
DC: Bishop Markovsky mentioned that you had had to import many priests because the number of priests that were just indigenous to the area was nowhere near enough to handle the needs.
WN: That’s not quite accurate. I did bring in some religious orders to serve the needs. For example, I brought in the Carmelites, but I didn’t bring in those I might have brought because I built a new seminary and I had facilities to train them. I wanted to retain the parishes for our own diocese and clergy, and I didn’t bring in as many as I might have. In fact, I turned away requests from several religious groups. You know what I mean by religious groups? Religious brotherhoods—
DC: Like the Christian Brothers—
WN: —like the Benedictines and—yes. And I didn’t bring in as many as I might have. I brought in a number, but relatively, the number was small. We began to have a number of vocations sufficient to our needs up until about 1960, and then the tension in the church and throughout the world—you know—the ‘60s you read about. How old are you, may I ask?
WN: Oh. Well—
DC: I’ve lived through it.
WN: The unrest on the campus, you see? And in the ‘60s, why, that unrest gravitated down into the seminaries too, and so the numbers of our young men who presented themselves for education as priests diminished, and right now we’re in a bind. But around 1960, I was congratulating myself and the people for the wealth of clergy that we had. In other words, we had sufficient to our needs without importing priests from outside.
DC: 22:19 Did you notice any of this tension at St. Mary’s Seminary?
WN: Yes and no. See, when I went blind, Bishop Markovsky was sent down here as apostolic administrator, and he was in control of the running of the diocese, and that particular function was under his jurisdiction. And my relationship with the seminary after he came here was not as great as it had been before, and so some of the unrest that I heard about, I heard about rather than experienced it. I knew it through hearsay rather than through face-to-face confrontation with it.
DC: Let me ask you this: Why did you invite the Vincentian Fathers to staff the seminary?
WN: Very well. The Vincentians, part of their reason is to train seminarians. They’re all men with degrees in these various disciplines, say scripture, canon law, and what have you. Men have to be trained for that particular expertise. I didn’t have in the diocese a sufficient number of docents and priests to meet the needs, and so I asked this group of professional seminary teachers to come in and to staff the seminary, in other words.
DC: Have they done a good job?
WN: Oh, I think they have—a very good job.
DC: Of course, seminary wasn’t your only project. You were busy building schools. And I was wondering at the time that all these schools were going up if there was ever any sort of campaign to seek government support in building these parish schools. Sometimes in the Eastern United States—
WN: Never in Texas.
WN: No. We knew from past history that there was no chance at all. There was some legislator or other that would make a bid to get free textbooks for parochial schools, but it never got off first base. They do have that help in Louisiana, but there was never any attempt on our part in Texas because we knew it was just a hopeless cause.
DC: In spite of that handicap, do you feel that the schools you built compared favorably in quality with those of the Houston Independent School District?
WN: 25:29 Well, I think they did eventually because one of the things that I instituted—and I say I did because, because of the wartime conditions, Bishop Byrne couldn’t insist upon that—was that every parochial school should seek and obtain accreditation with the public school system. Now, it is true that up in some of the rural areas there might be a school that by lack of the rather elaborate requirements couldn’t meet that accreditation. In other words, they didn’t have the PE facilities, the libraries, that sort of thing. But in the city, I insisted and after some effort usually obtained the accreditation of every Catholic school. Now, if there was some standard to gauge by, we know that when our students from the Catholic schools went into another public school, they never had any trouble meeting the tests for admission. So yes, I think so. After the first couple of years after the war was over and we got things more or less on an even keel, our schools were on a par in terms of academic standing. We didn’t have all the perhaps frills that some of the public schools had such as swimming pools and that sort of thing, but we had the library and the cafeteria and the accredited teachers.
DC: That’s one thing I wanted to ask about. Given the declining number of vocations in the 1960s, how did that affect the operation of the schools?
WN: Which school?
DC: The parochial schools.
WN: Well, you see, the priest didn’t teach in the schools; it was the sisters.
DC: But I assume that vocations were declining for the sisters as well.
WN: Exactly, and they had their problems, and again, that’s an area that you ought to question Bishop Markovsky about because it came more directly under his supervision. I think that they suffered, not in terms of academic standard. They did suffer from the lack of manpower, but one doesn’t necessarily have to be religious, wearing a nun’s garb, in order to teach in a Catholic school. So lay teachers, though they were not religious women, went in the classroom and did the work that had been done exclusively by the sisters before this shortage of manpower came into being.
DC: Let’s turn back then to the period before Bishop Markovsky came. One thing that was happening during the 1950s was, of course, the segregation issue. That was a topic that was very much on people’s minds. Did you take a strong stand urging all Catholics to—
WN: I put in a fiat.
DC: Pardon me?
WN: 28:53 Yes. I mandated the integration. Now remember, this is in ’47, I believe. What year was the—
DC: The decision—
WN: The famous—
DC: —was in 1954.
WN: 1954. In 1955—and I remember I was living in a different residence at that time—I mandated that not immediately but that they would go by grades, a gradual, complete integration. And within three years, all our schools were integrated inasmuch as they could practically be integrated. To explain—and I don’t have to draw you a picture—there weren’t too many colored children living in the Parish of St. Anne’s, don’t you see?
WN: So they wouldn’t— It was those days that with transportation, the neighborhood school was the natural and logical means of education. So down in Galveston, there was some complaint on the part of some of the old diehards, but I did mandate and succeeded in integrating, practically speaking, our Catholic schools. We did not allow the Catholic schools to be the haven for those who were trying to escape mandated integration on the part of the governments. But again, what do you mean by integration? We said that any child living in the confines of the parish, if he were black, could be readily admitted into the Catholic school parochial school. But over here in this area is entirely black. There were very few white children going over there, though there were some. It’s a colored neighborhood right across the street here. We used to call them colored; now they’re black. That was integrated. It’s a salt and pepper parish or had been up until a few years ago, and now it’s completely black. There, there were integrated classrooms. That’s because the neighborhood was integrated. And right here, this area has almost gone entirely black since I’ve been living here. That was reflected in our conduct of our Catholic schools. The closest parish here is St. Peter’s. Just beyond that is an area that has gone completely black, so St. Peter’s there, the majority of the children there now are black.
DC: 32:02 So your philosophy was to let the racial composition within the boundaries of the parish determine the makeup of the schools.
WN: Well, yes. But remember that according to custom and canon law, the parish church serves a definite territory. That’s called a parish. The parochial school was built and was supposed to serve the inhabitants of that particular territory. And unless a very special reason was present, the children of Parish X didn’t go to the parochial school of Parish Y, you see?
DC: Do the various ethnic groups, or what you referred to earlier as national groups, of Catholics in Houston maintain a strong sense of identity and tradition?
WN: I think that they are developing a sense of identity which they seem to have lost to some extent right after the war. It all depends which group you’re speaking about. The Czech group was very self-conscious. The Polish group was less self-conscious. The Mexican American group, perhaps they were conscious of their ethnic and cultural background, but they sort of muted it, don’t you see? It’s only in the last decade that ethnicity has come to the fore. And so they’re clamoring now in a way they didn’t clamor before. Not because of any disregard or contempt of or scorn for these ethnic groups—let’s speak about the Mexicans—I built numbers of Mexican parishes exclusively for Mexicans. Why exclusively? Not to exclude anybody else, but you know how the Mexicans do. They go to colonia, as they call it, and that is a little Spanish-speaking enclave. So in those days—and we still do—we had to have priests that could speak Spanish to take care of these Mexican people. We didn’t have the manpower sufficiently versed in Spanish to man them, so we brought in—I didn’t do it, but way back before Bishop Byrne’s time back in 1909—the hablase, they’re called, who work quite extensively down in South Texas and the Valley area and who all speak Spanish, we brought them in to man these Mexican parishes. We had to, because our Texas born priests—I’m talking about these East Texans now, not the West Texans—were not sufficiently versed in the language to take care of the people. Now, in the seminary, of course there was a course in Spanish, but you know how we learn a foreign language in the United States. We learn a few words and that’s the end of it. So, to get back to this other ethnic group, most of these ethnic groups came into the country, into Texas, as farmers. And they farmed these settlements all up and down this central and southern part of the state. And of course, you see the towns like La Grange and Hallsville and Needville, and the church is whatever ethnic group settled around that. And they had to have their own Czech or Polish speaking priest to take care of them in those days. That was more true for the older people because many of the people who went to church at that time had come over here, and being relegated to or having settled upon the farms, never acquired a fluent use of English. And they required their own language priest to hear confessions and take care of them and so forth and so on. Now, in some instances, I was required to bring in that kind of a priest in order to meet the needs of these ethnic groups, but that was by way of an exception. And again, many of these men in the seminary came from these settlements, and they learned Czech or Polish as a mother tongue and English only secondarily. Well, when they became priests, naturally they, if it were feasible, were sent back to minister to their own proper ethnic group.
DC: 38:01 Bishop Nold, we’re talking in terms—
WN: Please, speak a bit louder.
DC: All right. Bishop Nold, we’ve been talking about things that had been happening in the 1950s. I want to take you a little bit closer to the present time and talk about John F. Kennedy’s candidacy in 1960 for the presidency. He was the first Catholic who was elected to the presidency in the United States, and I was wondering how Catholics in the diocese reacted to his candidacy.
WN: You know, I don’t think the Catholics reacted one way or the other to Kennedy by reasons of religion. A Democrat will vote for a Democrat, and a Republican will vote for a Republican, regardless of what his religion may be. So far as I know, Jack Kennedy’s religious affiliation cut no ice with the Catholics of this diocese. He was here. I happened to be in Honolulu the day that he had that confrontation with the Protestant ministers, so I was utterly uninterested, frankly, in his candidacy. He was just another—as far as I was concerned, and I think that was true of most of our Catholic people—man, just another presidential candidate. Remember that some of us older people have seen the Al Smith fiasco, and we went through that all again. We were hearing that if Smith was ordained, why, the pope would move over to the White House and that sort of thing. A little bit earlier—perhaps you don’t want this in this history—
DC: No. Go ahead.
WN: I came from Rome a year after a lady named Ma Ferguson passed the anti-mask law to cope with the Klan, and I can tell you up in Dallas it was not so nice to walk down the street with a Roman collar on in those days. And then in ’28, a few years later with the Al Smith candidacy, there was a recurrence of anti-Catholic feeling that was manifested in various ways. It was much worse in Dallas, I can assure you, than it ever was down here in South Texas. I think the reason is there was more of a relationship with Catholics down in South Texas than there was in North Texas. So with regard to Kennedy, therefore, there was no— As far as I know—and I have my ear to the ground—there was no particular interest in Jack Kennedy as a Catholic. As a young and a new face on the political scene, yes, he was attractive and what have you, but I think a lot of them rather thought he was too much of a liberal Catholic to be the kind of Catholic we wanted in the White House.
DC: 41:53 This brings up another question I had about Kennedy, specifically his appearance here in Houston. When he met with those Protestant ministers here, he made the statement that he would not allow any Catholic prelate to influence him as president. In later times he has been criticized by Catholics of conscience for this statement. I was wondering if you had any feelings about that or if there are any feelings in the diocese about that.
WN: I don’t know what is generally believed. I think many who are not Catholics think that if a Catholic gets into an office that he’s priest-ridden and he must obey the behests of the priest or the prelate or what have you. Well, he just flatly said that he is not of that kind and he wouldn’t ever be of that kind of official that would take any suggestions from any clergyman, Catholic or Protestant. And so that was just a normal reaction. His reaction to that question was, in our opinion, the normal reply that he should have made.
DC: All right. You mentioned that there was possibly more prejudice in the Dallas area against Catholics running for office and obviously the presidency. Were there any overt or covert manifestations of prejudice here in this diocese?
WN: That goes back a long time ago. The Klan had its first meeting in a place called Houston in 1921, and as sort of a young and fervent Southerner, I was very happy to hear the Klan was on the move again. But a Father Kirwin, who was quite a historical character down in Galveston, he set me aright. He said, “This is another one of the 57 varieties of anti-Catholicism.” And the Klan in South Texas here and Louisiana—I remember the details now—they castrated a Negro dentist here in that year, and there were other of those kinds of atrocities in Louisiana. But then I went to Rome in ’21, and when the Klan rode at its height, I was in Italy. When I came back in ’25, Ma Ferguson had just curbed the Klan’s activities by the introduction of this anti-mask legislation, and things gradually tapered off. But yes, there was all sorts of acts of hostility. Now, there were no burnings or dynamitings or anything of that sort, but one of the biggest halls in Dallas was the Klavern of the Kleagles. Down in City Hall, there was no man on the police force or in the city administration that wasn’t a Klansman or was not a candidate of the Klan. That was in Dallas, you see? As I went down the street, I could hear hisses and that sort of thing and they would chuck rocks at me. I had an uncle who was an elder in a Methodist church. He refused to attend my first Mass as I came back home, because what would that do to him and his standing in the Klan? (laughter) His wife was my mother’s sister. It was just 50 years ago last week that I came back and went to Fort Worth at the time. I hadn’t seen my family for those four years, and I was scheduled to say Mass, so my Aunt Anita started putting on her hat and says, “I’m going down”—they called me Sonny—“to Sonny’s first Mass.” And my uncle says, “Anita, I forbid it. What will they think in the Klan if they know my wife is going to a first Mass?” And she looked him in the eye and says, “Well, Malcolm, I’ve been married to you for 30 years. I’m going to Sonny’s Mass if I have to go over your dead body.” (laughter) So the feeling was there in direction, trying to get rid of Catholic employees in a firm and all that sort of things. Now, that was not so bad down here, but they had gone through that about a decade earlier in the ‘20s. One of the famous incidents was when this Father Kirwin refused to salute the flag that was flying about where the— Do you know what I’m talking about?
DC: 47:54 Yes.
WN: You’re familiar with that incident?
DC: No. Please, go ahead.
WN: There was a newspaper man who worked for the Press, and he made capital out of the fact that Monsignor Kirwin, who had been a chaplain in the Spanish-American War and was a great friend of the powers that were in the military at that time, came up here—
[end of 053_D1] 48:28
WN: [beginning of 053-D2] 00:10 And they were having some sort of a parade, I believe on the 11th of November on Armistice Day. At that time, downtown Houston stopped about where South Main— Is that the name of that bank and trust?
DC: Yeah, on South Main.
WN: There was a great flagpole there, and the Klan had given a flag to the city, and it was flown on this occasion. Monsignor Kirwin, who was afraid of nothing, refused to salute the flag. He said, “That’s just a dirty piece of bunting given by the Klansmen.” Well, he shouldn’t have said it, but it made quite a lot of— Nobody could doubt his patriotism and that sort of thing. But oh, this was a nine days’ wonder. So this hostility that I encountered in Dallas about the first five years of my priesthood until about 1930 had already died down in this area.
DC: So there’s nothing within the last 10 or 15 years that would be comparable in any way.
WN: No, no.
DC: Did Father Coughlin have a following in Houston during the 1930s, the man they called The Radio Priest?
WN: He had a following in every city in the United States. He was a very popular priest. If you’d go down to Dallas in the bank buildings when Father Coughlin was on, why, the elevator stopped running so they could listen to Father Coughlin. A following. Perhaps that’s not the proper word in the sense that he was a leader who had followers. No, I don’t think it’s that. He did up in the Boston area and the Detroit area. He never had that kind of a following down in these parts. But the man on the street, Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile, listened to him avidly. Remember that was the beginning of the Depression and nobody knew where we were going or what or how, and he had a message. Whether the message was valid or not, he was an able orator and he held their interest and he held them spellbound. So in that sense, yes, Father Coughlin was a household word. I don’t know whether you are old enough to know anything about Amos ‘n’ Andy.
WN: 03:05 Everybody listened to Amos ‘n’ Andy or Charlie McCarthy on Sunday evening, and just as many as listened to those two entertainers listened to Father Coughlin. But he didn’t have a following in the sense that when he joined up with Gerald K. Smith and Mr. Townsend and tried to get a third party started that they followed him in droves as a political leader. No, they were interested in his social doctrines at that time and his so-called monetary philosophy.
DC: We interviewed a Jehovah’s Witness a little while back, and he said that the Witnesses had suffered great persecution in Houston during the war. And one of the allegations that he made was that he had been beaten himself by a mob led by a Catholic priest, which surprised me greatly when I heard that. Were those kinds of incidents common?
WN: That’s the first time I’ve heard of it. Did you get the name of the priest? I would have known the priest, I’m quite sure, but I never heard of that and I think I would have.
DC: It was either a Father Carney or a Father Carnahan—some Irish name beginning with C. But I was just wondering—
WN: Carney? There’s no Carney in Houston. There was a Carney down in Galveston at the time, but there’s no Carney. What’s the other name possibly?
DC: Carnahan. But I only wanted to ask a general question to ask if any—
WN: I would have heard—
DC: —Catholics were perhaps intolerant. We’ve been discussing intolerance against Catholics. Do you recall any incidences where perhaps the shoe was on the other foot?
WN: No, not at all. I’m not trying to say that we’re so liberal and don’t have some of us who are intolerant too. But the Jehovah Witnesses— Cut it off, please. (recorder stops) 05:21 …incident of any what you just stated, that a Jehovah Witness was set upon by a mob led by a Catholic priest. Now, during the war—I’m not that familiar with their tenets—were the Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors?
WN: 05:49 Well, that may have given rise to this antagonism to them. But there were plenty in Dallas, and I never heard of any difficulties.
DC: I just thought I would check the man’s claim. That was my only purpose.
WN: I would have heard of it. Definitely I would have heard of it.
DC: Okay. Let’s progress now a little bit closer to the present time and talk about the Ecumenical Council that was called by Pope John XXIII. You were present in Rome for the second session, I believe, of that Ecumenical Council in 1965.
WN: See, there were four sessions. I was operated on for my eyes on the day that the first session opened in ’62. I wasn’t able to make that one, but I made the three succeeding sessions.
DC: Okay. I’m wondering whether the American church had a unified stand on the major issues that were raised in Rome or if there were various factions.
WN: I don’t know how to answer the question. There was no stand on which the American church took a position.
DC: Okay. Was there a kind of comity of belief upon the issues of, say, using the vernacular in the Mass instead of Latin?
WN: There was more of a trend toward the use of vernacular gradually, and I think that we never thought that we would live to see a change in the vernacular—I’m talking about most of the American bishops over there. But having once succeeded in introducing the question, it wasn’t long before the vernacular was introduced. But I’ve heard many of the bishops say that they never thought it would come during their lifetime. Well, it came so fast and furiously after Vatican II closed—in fact, it came in ’66, the rules that ordained that the Latin should be supplanted by the vernacular. No. There was no American policy. In fact, I don’t know of any particular national group being represented in the Vatican on any given issue. I will say, however— Cut it off, please. (recorder stops) 08:33 One of these schemata, it’s called, one of the chapter headings of the Vatican Council was called The Church in the Modern World. The very first paragraph of that schema had to do with war and peace. At that time, the Cold War was still on, and there was some question about whether it was necessary to have this equilibrium of terror—is that the name of it? I remember it in Latin. I don’t remember how they phrased it in English. But that balance of—
DC: Of terror.
WN: —terror, and shouldn’t we denounce that? Well, a number of French bishops got up and says, “Yes, we should, as followers of Christ, go on record as being opposed to war absolutely.” Then there were some bishops, mostly Arabs from the Middle East and the Near East, who were suffering from the Arab-Jewish conflict and they were fresh out of that difficulty and had memories of what war can do. They asked that we might go on as a body and as Catholic bishops all over the world oppose war under all aspects, under all circumstances. Some bishops from France got up and pointed out what I said a minute ago, that the leaders of nations have a duty to protect their nations, to protect their people against unjust aggression. Otherwise they’d be derelict in duty regarding the lives and properties of their people. Now, you can’t fight a war without having arms in your hands, and so just to say that we would oppose war in all circumstances and that no war is justified, why, that was utterly silly. As I say, the more articulate group was these bishops from the church in what is now the Near East—Lebanon and Syria and Israel—where the Arab and the Christian and the Jewish conflict was very close, this particular group of bishops, the upper nether millstone of Arab hostility and Jewish hostility, you see?
DC: 11:27 Yes.
WN: And the two races, if you will, had been warring, and they wanted us to denounce all war. Well, a young bishop got up who is now presently the archbishop of New Orleans. He had been a paratrooper during the war, and he got up and spoke an impassioned appeal for the recognition that if it wasn’t for the stockpile of American arms, half the world would be under Communist domination and how necessary it was for America to maintain this stockpile of deterrents. So when the matter finally came to a vote, it was by a great majority this proposition of denouncing war in all conditions was defeated.
DC: The Just War Theory, though, the traditional teaching of the church was reaffirmed, correct?
WN: Yes, yes. Correct, correct. There is no war of aggression. Again, another man who spoke out boldly for it, I think much to the disgust of some of the younger men later who got involved in the Vietnam War, was Cardinal Spellman. He was a military chaplain of all servicemen. He got up and gave a very cogent argument for the necessity of the United States maintaining this stockpile of deterrent weaponry.
DC: In general, at the session of the Vatican Council you attended, the divisions were ideological and not national, is that correct?
WN: No, I don’t think it’s correct. I don’t think it’s quite accurate. Ideological seems to have sort of a political connotation to it. Remember, we were all having to deal with that word that is not so popular but with dogma, with church doctrine, and there’s no ideology that concerns that. It was a question of it is pastorally proper to follow this particular mode of action or not? For example, this question of the vernacular in the liturgy, would it be pastorally—that is, for the spiritual good of the people—to desert the Latin and to go to the vernacular? That was a kind of matter that was debated, not ideology; for example, Marxism or existentialism—that’s a word I can’t pronounce either. No. There was no ideological grounds. In fact, there was unanimity if you want— We all belonged to the same ideology, which was, if you will, Christian philosophy. Perhaps I didn’t understand the question.
DC: Perhaps I should have said theological.
DC: That was the basis for argument, competing theological interpretations and not nationalities.
WN: 14:54 All right, then I think I can answer the question correctly by saying when Pope John called the council, he did not intend it to be a discussion of dogma or the definition of dogma—it was merely a restatement of the dogmas already possessed or held or taught—but how to confront the spiritual needs of the people of the modern world. And this was denominated a pastoral approach, so most of the matters under discussion were how best can we serve the people? And by that, not only economically—and that’s not the word I want to use. I meant together with this, because the people are both in the church and in the world, how best to meet the people in terms of the crises and the tensions of the modern world. So it was a question of how best to do it, and those from one part of the world had an idea that perhaps was not quite agreed with by those of another part of the world. I’ll give you an example. More recently in terms of this ecumenism, there’s been some question of should we continue the old missionary activity of the church in the sense of going out and preaching the gospel primarily on the part of our missionary personnel? Or should we let that take second place and go out and engage in social betterment? In other words, instead of building churches, build schools; instead of teaching the catechism, teach people how to form better methods. That sort of a thing was debated, and there’s been a tendency more recently to say that this latter approach is the proper approach, and we should sort of let the good people who are not Christians, whether they’re white, brown, or yellow, have their own religion, and we should go over there as Christian folk and help them socially rather than religiously. There’s still some of that going on, but the pope just spoke out against that attitude only a couple of weeks ago. That was the kind of matter debated, and again, with regard to how can we improve the seminaries. How can we do this, that, or the other with regard to the life of the church rather than the teaching of the church? That was what was debated and discussed.
DC: Right. This raises the question, since the council was aiming to better shape the church’s functions towards the needs of the people, how the people reacted to the council and whether they accepted the new way and understood it, specifically the people in Houston?
WN: I think for the most part, our Catholics are traditionally obedient and accept the authority of the teaching church and accept it without debate, for the most part. There may be individuals who when it came to the vernacular didn’t like the vernacular and protested. But for the most part, there was no difficulty whatsoever.
DC: There is still a Tridentine Mass.
WN: Oh, yes. I know what you’re getting at. How many are there? Four hundred families out of the entire Catholic population of Houston, which is just a splinter group. Now, I am in sympathy with them in the sense that I love the Latin Mass too. But I am obedient, and they should be obedient. If they are told that, “This is to be suspended for the time being, the use of the Latin Mass,” why, they should obey their spiritual authority.
DC: Right. You mentioned earlier the new ecumenical movement, and I’m curious as to how Catholics in this diocese responded to it and what parts they take in.
WN: I told you that Bishop Markovsky came in here just about the time the council opened. He had had a history in San Antonio whence he had come of partaking in ecumenical activities. Right after the council—almost 10 years ago now—there was a sort of a hope of great achievement in the area of ecumenism, and there were attempts of group meetings of all faiths and that sort of thing. After the novelty wore off, the movement sort of quieted down. I know of no particular ecumenical activities going on in the city today. There may be, but I’m not familiar with them. Oh, there are meetings of this individual pastor or that individual minister, but in terms of interfaith groups, I know I don’t know what is going on. Remember, I am somewhat out of the current of things, being here blind and can’t read the newspapers and that sort of thing. But I think Bishop Markovsky might be able to answer that better.
DC: 21:22 Let me ask you this: Was there any kind of interfaith cooperation in the 1950s before it became fashionable?
WN: Not at all, not at all. We stayed with our respective jurisdictions, and we worked together in patriotic endeavors, but in terms of exchange of pulpits or interfaith liturgical or religious activities, no, absolutely none. And that was true all over the world. About the extent of my ecumenizing is I went to the funeral of this uncle of mine who was an elder in the Methodist Church and sat on a platform while the funeral service was being conducted. That’s like my aunt coming to attend my first Mass. She was just an onlooker and not a participant. No. It was not done in those days.
DC: In theory, realizing that you have been out of touch with the actual happenings of the diocese for a while, do you think there are more benefits than dangers toward this type of interfaith communication and dialogue?
WN: It’s been my experience— Frankly, I was never a great exponent of ecumenism. The idea is perfect, but the methods required to achieve it have grave and serious dangers, namely of diluting one’s principles, one’s beliefs, and one’s practices. So I don’t know. I know that the movement is not dead, though it is moribund throughout the United States. I think the reason that it is moribund is that the expectations were too high in the beginning, that by a wave of a magic wand of ecumenism, why, all barriers would be leveled and we’d all clasp hands in just one great religious family. Well, of course, that didn’t happen, and there are a very profound difference of beliefs and practices amongst the Catholics and the Protestants and the Jews. So it’ll take long efforts of goodwill and prayer and letting the Holy Ghost lead us and guide us instead of rushing onward with a lot of fanfare and activity to try to achieve this object which is altogether to be desired. But it’s not going to come in our lifetime. Did that answer your question?
DC: 24:47 Yes. In 1961, you commented on the approaching Ecumenical Council by saying, “Other religious bodies may be indulging in agonizing self-appraisal and self-scrutiny. Not so the Mother Church of them all.” Now, what were your expectations for Vatican II, and how did they differ from what—
WN: Did I say that?
WN: Where’d you get that quote?
DC: It was from a pastoral letter, a pastoral letter that you gave in May, I believe, of 1961.
WN: Perhaps it was pious rhetoric—I don’t remember. (laughter) That’s back in ’61. Perhaps I had in the back of my mind something going on on the American scene as is going on with the Missouri Synod and the Seminex and that sort of thing. So I really don’t remember what prompted me to write that sentence. Would you mind repeating it?
DC: Certainly. “Other religious bodies may be indulging in agonizing self-appraisal and self-scrutiny. Not so the Mother Church of them all.”
WN: Well, I admit that we had no doubts of where we stood in those days. And whatever tension is present in the church today is the lack of understanding of what the council said and promulgated. We hear much invoking of the spirit of the Vatican Council II, and well, the spirit of the Vatican Council II, what crimes are committed in thy name. There are a lot of innovators and experimenters who have thought that what the church directed—and there was a period there when experiments were permitted—would give them the leeway just to upset the apple cart entirely. And there is still a lot of that going on in the church, and the Holy Father speaks about it, and it is all over the world. Is it a result of Council II? No, I don’t think so. It was said at the very beginning that this particular council keeps and abides by all the doctrines and decrees of all the other 20-odd ecumenical councils throughout the ages. So there was nothing new as far as doctrine is concerned that was introduced at the Vatican II. Now, because of the pastoral council, many disciplinary things were introduced. For example, everybody knows it used to be that a Catholic was a fish eater on Friday. Things like that or the language of the Mass are all disciplinary measures rather than doctrinal matters, and they were introduced with the idea of meeting the needs of modern man. And the word relevance was invoked.
DC: Right. It’s a byword for the century.
WN: 28:31 Byword. I don’t know.
DC: You had the opportunity of serving under three—I suppose we can say—controversial popes: Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI. Would you care to offer some sort of appraisal of these men?
WN: For what it’s worth, I don’t think they’re controversial. I would question that adjective as a reference to any of those men. I have met and talked to all three of them. That’s not boasting; it’s just a fact that in my duty I had to make every five years an appearance in Rome to report on the diocese, as every bishop does. Pius XII was eminently an aristocrat and a scholar and a saint, and that shone forth from his presence. He was a great brain, and his encyclicals were chock full of erudition and he was recognized as one of the great scholars. You’ll say, “Well, he had some ghost writer write all those things and make all those speeches.” He did not. He had access to a tremendous library, and it was well known that he used to stay up until about 2:00 every night writing these and studying and researching. So of course, he was there during the war period, and those were trying years. Incidentally, you spoke about Jehovah Witnesses. I can say this. Cut it off, or if you want to listen to it—
DC: Go ahead.
WN: I was making my liminal visit, that’s an official visit to the Pope in ’53, and he was in Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence, and I was to have an audience with him at 10:00. So I got there about 9:30 to be on time. He was very punctual. Well, 10:00 struck, 10:15, 10:30, quarter to 11:00, and I still was waiting outside when the door opened and here a little secretary of state, whose name was Montini, came out. He had been closeted that morning with Pius XII for his daily report. He was looking very harried. So I was introduced after he had finished his business, and the pope spoke. He looked like a camellia blossom—white, flaxen skin and very frail and thin. He spoke in English. He asked me where I was and he says, “We’re having problems. We just got word today that the Reds have arrested Cardinal Wyszynski in Warsaw, Poland, this morning.” And he says, “You are from Texas. Is Abilene in your diocese?” I says, “No, Your Holiness. It happens to be in the diocese of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.” What he was talking about is the Jehovah Witnesses had caused a riot in Frascati a few months earlier. Some Jehovah Witnesses and Disciples of Christ had gone into Frascati, which is a small town just under the side of where his village lay, and started distributing their leaflets, their tactics. That was all right; the Italians are tolerant.
But they began to do something that the Italians didn’t like. They began to cast aspersions upon Mary, the mother of Jesus, don’t you know? That is getting a little too close to home, and so there was a riot. And of course, being American, this grabbed the headlines. It was proclaimed that the pope was responsible for it because it was right on his doorstep. And he says, “And nobody spoke out in defense of the Holy Father.” (laughter) But I explained who they were and that they were mostly the term we used earlier, religious freaks. This group of five or seven men and women—young people; not youths but they weren’t middle-aged either—had come over there with the idea of converting the Italians. And you know how they speak about the Catholic Church—the Jehovah Witnesses and these others. So I remember that, that he was very gracious and thoughtful and kind and a wonderful figure and a wonderful intellect and a wonderful, saintly man.
34:45 John was a little roly-poly— Cut it off. (recorder stops) 34:55 He was a saint too, but his experience was entirely different. He was a peasant of the peasants and Pacelli was of the upper aristocracy in Rome, you see, and the two were just diametrically opposed as personalities. I don’t think he realized what he was doing when he convoked the council. The one fault, I think, that the council is guilty of or one criticism that can be alleged against his calling it was that it was called too quickly. In other words, there should have been some 15 years of preparation before rushing in to this debate because we bishops, most of us brick and mortar bishops like me busy building parishes down at Mansfield or out at Sharpstown, what did I know about these nice, fine theological differences? What did I know about the relative merits of ABC warfare, don’t you see? Anyway, he knew that he had cancer and that his days were numbered, so he wanted to bring in this council as perhaps a solution to some of the ills that confronted the world. That was the aftermath of the war, and we’re still living through it, but I think it was a little more acute in the ‘60s than it is now. Perhaps things have boiled down a bit. But you remember the campus uprisings and all that sort of thing, the burnings all over the country. That was going on in Europe too—similar things. So he was a great, saintly man. Everybody loved him and everybody admired him. I think he’s one of the most beloved popes of modern times.
Paul VI is a scholar, and I think he’s one of the greatest popes of modern times, and that sounds like you’ve got a shot for glory. I don’t mean in that sense, but having succeeded to the ministration of the church on the heels of the Vatican Council, he has to contend with all sorts of crises and tensions that were brought about by the council. And they’re very difficult and the times are trying, and the complexities and the polarizations and all that sort of thing present great problems for him to cope with. But I think he’s a great pope. I think he’s quite an intellect. He would stack up with, in terms of intellectual acuity and acumen, Pius XII. John was more of a pastoral pope. And I think history will finally acclaim Paul VI as the greatest—I don’t mean in terms of accomplishment—in terms perhaps of leadership. Right now he seems not to be able to make up his mind. He’s been criticized and has been called one thing and another, but he’s a very hardworking man in terms of his hours and all the orders that you have to give. He writes it all by hand and writes it all himself, these long acclamations. He gives weekly, not acclamations but long discourses that he gives weekly. He feels it is his duty to teach, and he takes this means of teaching and, if you will, counteracting some of the silliness of some of the more advanced theologians or so-called theologians of all schools. Does that answer your question?
DC: 39:58 Yes. You say that history will eventually—
WN: I think it will acclaim him as a great pope that measured up to the needs of his time. Sometimes he seems to go too slowly, but I think he is providential.
DC: Let me say that I think historians will be very interested to listen to your remarks.
WN: Who would?
DC: Historians and researchers.
WN: Oh, I see, I see.
DC: We’ve had you evaluate these other men, but I’d like to ask you now to, in a way, evaluate your own career. Looking back over your active days as bishop, what would you single out as your single most lasting achievement for the diocese?
WN: You ask such personal questions. (laughter) No. I suppose, if I may say so, the building of that seminary is the only thing of any noteworthy enterprise that I can point out. I was responsible for that personally, if you will. I delegated these other priests, pastors, to build the churches and the schools in their own respective parishes, and so I suppose the seminary. And I am responsible for building that chancery office, and as long as the diocese is operational, it’ll have a place to function from. So I suppose those two are the outstanding material achievements. Now, the other things are so intangible I wouldn’t know how to try to evaluate them.
DC: 41:55 Earlier, you used the phrase brick and mortar bishop. Is that sort of the way that you look at yourself and your own career—as a builder?
WN: Oh, definitely. I can explain that perhaps a little better by pointing out that in Europe, most of the bishops come to their office by way of a professorial chair. They are teachers in the seminary, university, or what have you. Remember that over in Europe, most of—I’m talking about normal conditions, not the destruction that came with the war. But in Europe, the diocese that was several thousand years old or 800 or whatever it may be, everything was built and completed in the material sense, or the government built these buildings, these schools, whereas in the United States or any missionary country, the bishops have to be concerned with literally building—material growth rather than intellectual growth. That’s providing a place to worship in and to provide the priest to minister in those churches and teachers to teach in the schools. Well, it was in my time and is for most bishops in the United States a busy time that keeps us from the books and from the wishes we might want to entertain of delving into dogmatic niceties or historical intricacies and so forth and so on. So it’s a common term that most priests in this country, the United States, use in about the last hundred years when the tide of immigration began to come into this country. As you know, the history of the Catholic Church is that of an immigrant church. Most of the bishops and priests have been builders rather than authors of books and great scholars, you see? But on the other hand, there are great scholars in the episcopal sees—you know what a see is, of course—in Europe, like Cardinal Koenig and Doepfner. They have been all their lives in the seminary as professors of dogma, moral or what have you. And of course, over there they still have the use of the Latin in the seminaries. All my lectures were in Latin 50 years ago, and at that time, I could have a faltering command of the Latin. But after all the years, I am no longer able to converse as fluently as I did 50 years ago, whereas these men only a year or two removed from their professorial chairs could get up and be a Daniel Webster in Latin in the debates or in the discussions.
DC: Perhaps someday St. Mary’s will produce a great scholar.
WN: I hope so. There’s no reliable road to knowledge, though. Any young man that wants to become a scholar is going to have to dig it.
DC: Yes. We know that all too well. We’ve gone through our list of prepared questions, but at the end of every interview, we ask the interviewee if there is anything else that he would like to mention, something that perhaps we’ve missed in our research. Are there any other remarks you’d like to record?
WN: 46:18 No, I don’t think so. I understand that you’ve already got Bishop Markovsky’s interview and mine. As I told Mr. Marchiafava, it could be much of a duplication of effort. Whether it has been or not, I don’t know.
DC: Not at all. Very enlightening.
WN: No. There’s nothing that I can add to that. I remember, though, I might say that I came down here just at the blossoming out of what was called the petrochemical era and how great a change that’s been. When I was a youngster in La Porte, there was nothing from the ship channel to La Porte down the ship channel, you see? And all those refineries and complexes and that sort of thing were building or had just been built when I came down here in ’48. These cities grew. Pasadena was just a strawberry patch when I was a youngster—literally a strawberry patch. And then it got to be a small city, and it’s still a sizeable city. I had to buy land and be responsible for buying land to build the three or four churches that are there now. That’s just typical of what went on all during that first decade of my administration. Then as I say, we kind of got caught up in terms of material needs, and then Bishop Markovsky came because I lost my sight, and he took over and has been doing a wonderful job since.
DC: On behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives, I’d like to thank you for a very interesting interview.
WN: Cut it off, please.
[end of 053_02] 48:28