REFUGIO – The first thing people notice when entering the Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Parish are the intricate, gleaming stained-glass windows.

The windows arrived from Munich in 1930 and feature stories of the Crucifixion, Christ’s Baptism, the Virgin Mary’s crowning and more. John Gregorcyk describes how the artists created light around the faces of the people in the picture to catch the eye of the viewer before anything else.

“Everybody just loves the faces, the lit-up faces,” he said. “The minute someone walks in here, they see how beautiful this is.”

The historic church, a part of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, sits on the banks of the Aransas River along the edge of U.S. 77 in Refugio and has a narrative dating to 1795.

The history begins with the Rev. Manuel Silva and Francisco Garza, members of the Franciscan Order of Friars, who founded Mission Nuestra Senora del Refugio, according to a church historical book. Located where the church sits today, it was the last of the Texas missions.

The mission church building went up in the early 1800s and remained in use until it suffered hurricane damage about 1820. Only ruins remained until 1834 when Irish immigrants made repairs and used the space as a church and hospital.

The mission played home to the Battle of Refugio in 1836, where it found itself bombarded by cannon balls. Although the building remained in use for some time, it was eventually torn down and stone from the old mission went to create what was known as the “Rock Church.”

The current building was built in 1900. At that time, church records say, it was the largest sanctuary in South Texas.

Gregorcyk, 66, holds the humble title of plant manager for the church, though his work extends far beyond maintaining the landscape. A trained carpenter and electrician, Gregorcyk said he does whatever needs to be done – and for his more than 35 years with the church, he’s done so with joy.

Gregorcyk said he was born and raised going to the church. On a recent Friday morning, he was overcome with emotion recalling the exact pews where his mother and grandmother sat during the many years they attended the church together.

“It’s all about family to me,” he said. “A lot of people come through this church, and I know it’s about family for them, too.”

The deep brown pews are made of longleaf yellow pine, Gregorcyk said, and the altar is made of oak. The statues on the altar, which date to the 1800s, are only handled by Gregorcyk.

“I’m the only one who will move them,” he said. “I guess I’ve been around long enough that I’m the only one who wants to.”

In the past century, the beloved church has withstood multiple natural disasters. A hurricane in 1942 moved the church off its foundation, and in the 1980s, a truck carrying the flammable liquid naphtha overturned just outside, causing an explosion, scorching the church doors and melting the metal siding.

More recently, the church sustained damage during Hurricane Harvey, as wind blew through a window and water came in through the vents, leaving water and shattered glass along the parish floor.

The repairs only prevented mass for a few weeks, Gregorcyk said. Still, some parts of the church are still slowly being fixed. A new sign beaming the church’s presence outside was recently put in place, made possible by a donation from an anonymous donation.

“Our Lady of Refuge has had an exciting past,” reads a plaque in the church that outlines its history. “But what makes the church unique is that so much of its past grandeur remains to this day”

Today, the church is mainly home to weekly mass, weddings and funerals. Gregorcyk said it’s clear why the church remains a destination for residents and visitors alike.

“All someone needs to do is walk in and they’ll know why,” he said. “It’s holy, it’s beautiful, it’s peaceful here.”

Morgan Theophil covers local government for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6511, or on Twitter.

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