Villa de Matel Cemetery
Burials ca. 220
Sisters of Charity
“Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by.”
– William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
In 1866 the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Galveston, Claude Marie Dubuis, founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, a religious institution of women. He elected to staff the congregation with sisters from his native France. Three sisters (Mary Blandine, Mary Joseph and Mary Ange) answered his call and came to Galveston. They established what became known as St. Mary’s Infirmary and Hospital.
A year later Galveston was ravaged by a Yellow Fever epidemic. As a result of the death toll the sisters opened St. Mary’s Catholic Orphan Asylum. Unfortunately Sister Blandine was a victim of the epidemic.
On September 8, 1900 the city of Galveston was hit by the largest hurricane to ever strike the United States. The carnage and destruction would be massive. Sadly the Orphanage was located on the beach at 57th street directly in the storm’s path. Huge waves began to hammer the wooden structure. The staff consisted of 10 nuns who attempted to save the 93 children. Each sister tied themselves around their waistline to about nine orphans with clothesline.
As conditions worsened everyone sought shelter in the girls’ second story dormitory. The sisters attempted to calm their charges by singing the hymn Queen of the Waves (you may hear an audio of this song by clicking on this link, scroll down to the song). The integrity of the structure was finally totally compromised and the roof collapsed, killing all the sisters and 90 of the children. All that was left of the Orphanage were a few bricks. The victims’ bodies were found as far as away as three miles from the site, still linked together in deathly chains of rope.
In all between 7,000 to 12,000 persons died in this catastrophic storm. As a result of the massive number of decaying bodies the victims were buried, due to health concerns, where they were found, including the 10 sisters.
The Sisters outgrew their facilities in Galveston. In 1925 they purchased 72 acres of swampy marshland just south of the Houston city limit. Houston architect Maurice Sullivan was commissioned to design a motherhouse, novitiate and chapel. It is said that “…the chapel was constructed to stand just as it is now for 500 years with little or no maintenance.” So far, so good. Sullivan created the most spectacular place of worship in the city using the Lombard Romanesque style of architecture. For more information about this beautiful sacred space, go here.
Behind the complex is a peaceful, wooded cemetery containing the final remains of over 200 sisters. A plaque here honors the names of the 10 heroic Galveston nuns who gave their lives trying to save the orphans. Six were Irish with one each from France, Mexico, Canada and Alsace.
1855-1900 Vincent Cottier
1857-1900 Catherine Hebert
1864-1900 Elizabeth Ryan
1868-1900 Camillus Tracy, Superior
1865-1900 Evangelist O’Sullivan
1873-1900 Raphael Elliot
1870-1900 Genevieve Davalos
1866-1900 Felicity Rosener
1877-1900 Benignus Doran
1879-1900 Finbar Creadon
There are a few minor differences between information on the monument and the written history. O’Sullivan’s birth year is 1865 on the stone compared to 1867 in the records. And Rosener is carved into the stone and recorded as Rosner.
There are two Sidebars about Villa de Matel: Sacred Relics and the Conventional Chapel that we think you will also enjoy.
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