GALVESTON — Historic St. Mary Cathedral Basilica represents the kind of sacred space that inspires generational memories that deserve a large, coffee-table tome. As Cardinal Daniel DiNardo leads Easter worship at noon today and rededicating the historic church after a lengthy restoration, some of the faithful will represent lines going back a century or more as family parishioners. It adds up to many special memories.

One of those congregants will be wearing his full Knights of Columbus regalia. Alfio A. Tropea was baptized, catechized, confirmed and drawn into service there.

“One time, two of us went way up the wooden stairs all the way up to the big bell tower with the statue of St. Mary on top of its roof,” he said. “From there we could see all over the city, way above all the houses. What a view it was.”

He also remembers that as altar boys they were allowed to miss classes at the church school when they were called to serve at funerals or for masses at the cathedral, 2011 Church St.  

Plus they were privileged to ride in the big, black limo with the parish priest, the Rev. Dan O’Connell.

O’Connell was synonymous with St. Mary during his tenure. The priest made a lasting impression on the youth of his day as Rose Fichera Powley wrote from her home in Dripping Springs.

“I remember sitting with Father Dan, watching TV in the 1950s as the results for the election of a new pope were broadcast while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he made for me,” she said. “My mom worked in the (school) cafeteria, and he would baby sit me.”

This church continued to play an important role in her life as she grew up.

“I recall the wonderful Christmas decorations,” she said. “I was married there and am so blessed to have these memories.”

After Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, the repairs and restoration required were extensive. The cost was estimated at more than $3 million.

“The restoration looks great, and I haven’t met one termite yet,” said the Rev. E.J. Stein, pastor of Holy Family Parish. “Help came from the sale of the Bishop’s Palace, foundations and others. I was especially grateful for the support of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.”

Stein said masses would be held at the basilica soon, timed to make it easier for commuters and tourists to worship.

When Hurricane Carla, one of many disasters to strike Galveston, displaced the church school, one of the congregation’s oldest and most faithful families provided substitute space.

“The sixth and seventh grades were placed in rooms over Pistone’s Barber Shop,” Barbara Cappadona Ladd said.

“Father Dan came to our classroom after the storm. He asked everyone to be very quiet and he took a piece of paper and ripped it. It was loud to us. He used that as an example of the intense sound of the tornado that ripped through our beautiful school.”

The elder Pistone, Sam, kept the keys to St. Mary in his barbershop. He took responsibility for admitting pilgrims and tourists to the cathedral during the week. His son, John Pistone, a Catholic deacon, once had an office there.

“I remember getting up early to serve at 6:30 a.m. mass,” he said. “If the chaplain got in late the night before, I’d have to go in and wake him up. I’ve received all my sacraments except my ordination at St. Mary. My heart remains at St. Mary. I feel like I’m one of the stones here. It is my home and always will be.”

In 1915, a former Italian Navy captain named Benedetto Mazzara immigrated to Galveston. He chose St. Mary for his new life. His grandson Ben Mazzara said the captain’s life seemed to be bound with the church.

“The year before my father died, there was Christmas midnight mass in 2004 with Archbishop Joseph Anthony Fiorenza, and I was a lector that evening,” he said. “As we exited the church, it was a white Christmas with snow on the cathedral, the grounds and the cars. My father always sang ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.’ He sang it that night. It was his last Christmas.”

Capt. Mazzara’s funeral was one of many the family has observed here over the generations.

“This church has always been there for my family and it will continue to be,” his grandson said.

For almost 70 years, Emma and Leonard Phillips of Galveston celebrated their wedding anniversaries here. Leonard died last January, just a few months short of that target.

“I was 17 and he was 19 when I was married,” she said. “But Father Dan said OK to it.”

“After my husband got ill, we couldn’t get into the church because of construction, so we would sit in our automobile in front of the church and say a prayer on those anniversaries.”

Rick Cousins can be reached at rick.cousins@galvnews.com.


By the numbers

1847: Pope Pius names it the mother church of Texas

1848: The initial structure, designed by Charles Bryant is completed

1876:Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton adds the transept tower

1878: The statue of Mary, Star of the Sea, goes up

1968: The church is added to the National Register of Historic Places

1979: Pope John Paul II bestows minor cathedral status

2014: The restored church is rededicated by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo

(SOURCE: Adapted from the “Handbook of Texas”)


What’s new

 Replacement of the roof

 Rebuilding and refinishing of the pews and all woodworking

Asbestos removal from the rectory and church

Steel armature reinforcements added to the two front spires

Refinishing of the confessionals and Stations of the Cross

Repairs of the exterior masonry

Silicone paint put over the stucco

Replacement of old floor joists

Construction of a crawl-space drainage system

Interior walls stripped and Venetian plaster installed

Cleaning of statues, tabernacle and crucifix

Installation of a decorative interior painting by artist Conrad Schmidt and a new mural

 Repairs and replacement of exterior landscaping, irrigation system, statuary and benches

 Placement of new candle stands, Cardinal’s chair, deacon and presider chairs, alter server chairs and kneelers and a wedding kneeler

Additions of a new sound, fire and security systems

 Installation of new lighting on statues and in parking lot

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