The state of Texas inspires its residents to think big.
Oblate Father William Davis of Laredo is no exception. Take any measurement to quantify his bigness: years he’s been a priest, jobs he’s had, places he’s lived, people he’s served, ministries he’s covered, projects he’s launched, impact he’s made, dreams he has. It’s all big. Actually, enormous.
To honor him as a Lumen Christi finalist — as an active pastor at age 85 — seems more like a lifetime achievement award. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
A son of Irish immigrants who was raised in San Antonio, Father Davis has had many roles, including high school teacher, football coach, college professor, missionary, social activist, chaplain and pastor. He’s worked in many countries and U.S. cities. But one of his greatest accomplishments to date is happening now — the transformation of a small inner-city mission church in Laredo into a thriving parish community.
In 2008, at age 77, Father Davis became the pastor of San Francisco Javier Mission Church. While most priests would happily retire at that age, he was eager to keep going. In fact, just before this assignment, he had been in a retirement home, healing from a car accident. He told his superior, “I need a job.” He was told there was a poor parish that nobody had been interested in taking on. “It’s perfect,” he replied.
Arriving at the church, which is “at the end of Laredo where the railroad ends,” he said, he saw the financial struggles of the area. The parishioners, primarily elderly and immigrants, face high unemployment, rising costs of living and deteriorating homes. But he also saw their spiritual longing. He felt a big sense of hope.
As a Spanish speaker, he immediately sought ways to welcome the immigrants and to develop ministries for them, including those who are transitory. He started offering three Masses on the weekends, two in Spanish and one dedicated as the children’s Mass.
He established programs for young people, including religious education, confirmation classes and retreats.
For Catholic adults who needed a little refresher course on their faith, he started a course that he calls “Bring ’em home.” Offered three times a year, it is a 12-week course that covers a variety of Catholic topics. About 40 adults, some from different parishes, attend each session. At the end of the course, they receive a certificate that enables them to be baptized, confirmed or married in the Church.
Father Davis also sought ways to get everyone involved in the parish. “The Holy Spirit gives each one of us special talents and gifts,” he said. “In Spanish, we say, we all have capacidad, which is the capacity to do something. I want to find each person’s capacidad.”
For example, one elderly parishioner was asked by Father Davis to be the official bell ringer of the large bell in the church’s steeple, a job he does proudly.
Another, Armando Fuentes, a retired state trooper, was asked to set up coffee and sweet bread after Mass, which parishioners greatly appreciate. Fuentes was also asked to build a grotto for the parish. “Father Davis has truly changed the experience of our church,” he said.
Another program Father Davis helped to launch is the Samaritans, a group of 13 women who come weekly to the parish to pray and clean the church. Then they head out in small groups to visit the elderly, sick and homebound in the community. They bring groceries, clean their houses, read them books and pray the rosary together. For the Samaritans and those visited, it is a powerful experience of the Church reaching the marginalized.
The parish remains one of the poorest in the state. Since 2006 Catholic Extension has provided priestly salary stipends to the parish, totaling more than $100,000.
But under Father Davis’ leadership the parish has unified. Each week about 200 people attend each Mass, filling up the church. And that’s exactly what his vision is. “The Catholic Church is a simple thing. It’s a community of people who know each other,” he said. “The main words are ‘I belong.’”
Through Father Davis’ devotion and perseverance, San Francisco Javier has become a lively and engaged community with a heart the size of Texas.