Brownsville’s St. Joseph Academy memorializes wall behind original school

dfwnewsa | November 12, 2023 | 1 | East Texas News , South Texas News

Brownsville’s St. Joseph Academy memorializes wall behind original school

The Saint Joseph’s Academy class of 1964 dedicated two historical markers Thursday afternoon where the Old St. Joseph Academy once stood in downtown Brownsville.

All that remains of the original St. Joe’s is an unassuming low brick wall along East Levee Street between Sixth and Seventh, behind where the school stood next to Sacred Heart Catholic Church on East Elizabeth before relocating to its modern campus a mile to the north.

The dedication ceremony at the back of the IBC Bank parking lot at 630 E. Elizabeth St. marked the culmination of a 3 1/2-year project in which many of the living members of the class of ‘64 played a role, class members said.

The class of ‘64 numbers 56 according to St. Joe records and has some notable members, among them former transportation secretary Federico Pena, who flew to Brownsville from his Denver home to attend the ceremony. He urged the others there to live the Marist values on which SJA is founded.

Members of the Saint Joseph Academy Class of 1964 pose for photographs Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, during a historical marker unveiling at a brick wall that once was part of the original Saint Joseph Academy building in downtown Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Pena also served as energy secretary during the Clinton administration and as Denver mayor when Denver International Airport was built. He said the wall represents “strength, character, determination, and perseverance.”

Those are things “that we all learned from the Marist brothers … who taught us character and perseverance and determination and working hard and pushing beyond our dreams so that all of us can be the people that we’ve always wanted to be,” he said during a brief speech while classmates and other SJA alumni sat on folding chairs as dusk fell over the scene.

Enrique Melezquizo, the ceremony’s emcee, and other classmates, 1964 and otherwise, took care to mention everyone’s contribution, as well as to recognize the Marist Brothers of the Schools, who arrived from Mexico in 1906 to take over operation of the school and are widely credited with making Saint Joseph Academy successful in nurturing future leaders of Brownsville, Matamoros, the Rio Grande Valley and beyond.

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The Oblates of Mary Immaculate founded what became Saint Joseph Academy in 1865. The Sisters of the Holy Ghost took over the elementary school in 1940.

The building behind which the surviving wall still stands was built in 1926. The first high school students were graduated in 1930. SJA moved to its current location in 1959 and became co-educational in 1971, according to the school’s website.

Marist Brother Albert Philip speaks Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, during an unveiling ceremony for a historical marker at a wall that once was part of Saint Joseph Academy in downtown Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

The Marist Brothers is an international religious community of some 4,000 Catholic brothers dedicated to dedicated to “making Jesus known and loved through the education of young people, especially those most neglected,” according their website.

“The class of 1964, at least my classmates that started with me at St. Joseph in first grade, we went through from first grade to 12th grade. The year that we had to go from sixth grade to seventh grade is when they opened the new campus where St. Joseph’s is now, and we jumped from this building that used to be here after sixth grade and went to seventh grade, and we were the last class to ever go to St. Joseph Academy that had 12 years in a row attending St. Joseph and it really made it unique,” Robert Estrada of Austin told the group assembled on folding chairs for the dedication as it neared completion.

Estrada then said it is his constant prayer “that the history you’ll see here on these plaques, the story of St. Joseph’s and everything we stand for, every class, not just the class of ‘64 … I hope and pray that with the good Lord’s grace all future generations of this community and others will come and read and learn about the history and follow in those footsteps to become the next leaders, and God bless them all,” he said.

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Melezquizo recognized numerous Marist brothers but left it to Brother Albert Philip, who led the school for many years, to credit the many other members of his religious order who have contributed to SJA’s mission.

Philip recounted how he became a Marist brother in 1961, coming from a farming family in La Feria and learning to speak Spanish fluently in Mexico before becoming part of the St. Joseph family.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville, left, and Marist Brother Albert Philip unveil a historical marker Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, at the original site of Saint Joseph Academy in downtown Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

As the ceremony progressed, class member Gilberto F. Mendoza of Austin recounted how the idea of recognizing the wall and original building with a historical marker emerged as several classmates drank a few beers at Cobbleheads and recalled back-in-the-day memories of their onetime school.

In the end, two plaques had to be commissioned because of Texas Historical Commission requirements, Melezquizo said.

“The wall enveloped the school and offered protection for the students. If you stand silently you might hear the echos of baseball, basketball and football games. Stand next to the wall and hear the rattling of marbles hitting the wall playing canicas,” the larger of the two markers reads.

The letters JMJ are inscribed above the text and stand for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Melezquizo said students had to initial all homework assignments with the letters or face credit being withheld.

The roster of speakers also included Brownsville Mayor John Cowen and Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino, both later day St. Joe graduates.

As the ceremony ended, Melezquizo handed out certificates recognizing people who contributed to the project in various ways.

Eric Gonzalez, a 19-year Saint Joseph faculty member who teaches Texas history and geography, received one of them. Melezquizo said it was because Gonzalez and his students accomplished much of the behind-the-scenes work necessary to ensure the project’s success.

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Bishop Daniel E. Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville sprinkles holy water to bless a historical marker unveiled Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, at the original site of Saint Joseph Academy in downtown Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Trevino, disclosing only that his class just had its 40th reunion, said Saint Joseph’s has had an outsized influence on Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley.

“You realize the friendships, the acquaintances, the relationships that you establish first as a student and then later on as a parent, having your kids go there and being part of the community. St. Joe has had a lasting impression and footprint on this community and one that each and every one of us can be very, very proud,” Trevino said.

“There’s just no other school like it anywhere. And I think Brownsville and the county and the Valley and Matamoros and the state of Tamaulipas and the state of Texas and this whole country are very, very fortunate that this school has imparted its values on all of its students,” Trevino said.

Trevino and Cowen each presented proclamations recognizing the markers, the wall and the school.

The Most Rev. Daniel Flores, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, gave the invocation at the ceremony’s beginning. When it ended he splashed holy water on the markers and blessed them as they were unveiled.

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