The Legacy of
Sarita Kenedy East
Who was Sarita Kenedy East?
What is the Kenedy Ranch?
Why did the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate inherit the ranch headquarters?
How did Lebh Shomea come out of that turn of events?
The story begins in the 1850’s shortly after a handful of French Oblate missionaries arrived in Brownsville. On the Texas side of the Rio Grande River, which separates the United States from Mexico, the Oblate horseback apostolate fanned out in three geographical directions: (1) along the river itself from Brownsville to Laredo; (2) along the Gulf coast as far as Corpus Christi; and (3) out into the vast sand-dune covered interior between Laredo and Corpus Christi. The natives called that immense stretch of some 4,000 square miles “Wild Horse Desert,” and they dubbed the missionary team The Cavalry of Christ.
About the same time, Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King arrived in South Texas with a small fleet of ships. They made a great deal of money ferrying passengers and running guns up and down the Rio Grande and to ports around the Gulf of Mexico. When the Civil War broke out, they transported cotton and other commodities out of northern Mexico for the Confederacy. After the war, however, Kenedy and King decided to get out of the shipping business and into the grand-scale acquisition of old Spanish land grants. Kenedy bought up approximately one million acres along the Gulf coast between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, while King acquired close to three million acres of interior tracts. Between the two of them, they owned most of Wild Horse Desert.
Mifflin himself was a Quaker, and he remained so all his life. He married, however, a devout Catholic widow, Petra Vela de Vidal -- affectionately called “Petrita” -- from the Mexican side of the river. She had a son and four daughters by her first marriage. Mifflin and Petrita had six children of their own, four of whom predeceased their parents. The two who survived them were John Gregory, Sr. and Sara Josephine. John Gregory, Sr. married Marie Stella Turcotte from Louisiana. They had two children: John Gregory, Jr. and Sarita (“Little Sara”), named after her aunt.
In the 1880’s Mifflin chose the highest sand dune in the vicinity of Baffin Bay (approximately half way between Brownsville and Corpus Christi) to serve as the site of his ranch headquarters. Actually, the elevation is only 38 feet above sea level. Yet, it is the highest point for miles in any direction – a very important asset during hurricane season. The first house built on the site was a relatively modest wooden structure shaped like a riverboat. The ranch operation grew by leaps and bounds, eventually employing some 200 cowboys plus their families. The sand dune and surrounding area was called “La Parra.”
The Kenedy Ranch became an integral part of the Oblate horseback apostolate. Jean Breteau, OMI – or Padre Juanito as he was affectionately known by the rancheros – had the coastal route at the time. (He is the center person in the photo of the seven mounted Cavalry of Christ members above.) Padre Juanito made a special point to visit the Kenedys and to evangelize their employees on each trip up and down the Gulf coast. Breteau personally signed the official document dedicating the Kenedy family chapel in October 1897. This chapel is still used on Sundays and certain feast days not only by the Lebh Shomea community, but also by persons from neighboring ranches.
The present Casa Grande or “Big House” -- a massive multi-story stucco building with a look-out tower and a Gatling gun on top during the 1920’s and 30’s – was built around the time of World War I by Mifflin’s son, John Gregory, Sr., on the same sand dune in the place of the original wooden structure. His wife, Marie Stella Turcotte, who was of French descent developed a special affection for Jean Breteau. She admired greatly his gentle kindness toward all the people on the ranch, regardless of position or social status. She was deeply impressed by his unwavering commitment to putting their spiritual needs ahead of his own comfort and ease, by his straightforward integrity toward everyone, by his willingness to risk his health and even his life for the sake of the gospel.
Marie Stella realized that neither of her children – Johnny, Jr. and Sarita (who married Arthur Lee East) – could have children of their own. Hence, there would be no natural heir to the Kenedy estate after the death of the last one. Consequently, Marie Stella spoke to her daughter about bequeathing their homestead and surrounding acreage to the missionary society to which Padre Juanito belonged. When Sarita Kenedy East died on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1961, she did in fact will to the Oblates her ranch headquarters with the specification that it be used for some “religious purpose.”
Not quite knowing what else to do with the house and property, the administration of the Oblates’ Southern U.S. Province moved their St. Peter’s Novitiate from the Rio Grande Valley to La Parra in December 1961. In the early 1970’s, however, when religious vocations began to dry up all over the western world, the Oblate provincial administration decided to join the other four U.S. Provinces in a central novitiate in Godfrey, Illinois. This decision forced the original question to be posed again: What to do with the inheritance at La Parra? As the Provincial Council deliberated the issue, one of its members suggested: “Why not make it into a House of Prayer?”
Thus, the transition from Novitiate to House of Prayer occurred after the last class of novices made their first vows in the summer of 1973.