TIVOLI — St. Dennis Catholic Church, with its Spanish mission-style architecture, looks as if it has been resting on the O’Connor River Ranch for centuries.

In fact, though, the limestone church, just 20 miles outside of Victoria in Tivoli, was built in 1951 and dedicated in 1952, said Johnny DeLaGarza, 85, a retired groundskeeper who lives on the ranch with his wife Aurora DeLaGarza. The DeLaGarzas are caretakers for the church and help the Rev. Ponnuswamy R. Victor set up for Saturday Masses.

“Miss Kate’s (Kathryn Stoner O’Connor’s) son was in the Navy, and she pledged to build a church if he came back safely from the war, and he did,” DeLaGarza said.

Parishioners ride over cattle guards and pass cattle, horses and wildlife on the winding road that leads to the church. Architect Raiford Stripling designed the church.

During the day, natural light floods the interior through octagonal windows that span the top of the building. A beautifully carved walnut pulpit stands in the front corner of the church. On Saturday evenings, voices echo in the intimate building as parishioners pray in unison.

St. Dennis Catholic Church and St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Austwell are missions of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Tivoli. All are part of the Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi.

“I like St. Dennis because of the beautiful Spanish architecture. The whole atmosphere is so beautiful inside the ranch with horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, cows and deer,” Victor said. “I can see the beauty of creation there whenever I go on Saturday. It’s so nice to pray there, and it’s very peaceful.”

One hour before Masses on Saturdays, Victor exposes the Blessed Sacrament for holy hour.

“I keep telling people to come and spend a little time with Jesus and the Eucharist,” Victor said.

Three couples on the ranch attend Mass at the church regularly and their adult children come and go. Anywhere from five to 10 people attend from Victoria, and a few come from Tivoli. A typical service sees 15 to 20 people.

“Only on Christmas Eve is the church full,” Victor said. “The O’Connor family comes in from all over.”

DeLaGarza also called the church peaceful and quiet.

The DeLaGarzas’ three children — two daughters and one son — were baptized in the church. They also received their first communion and were confirmed in the church before each of them married there.

“To me, it’s like a second home,” said Aurora DeLaGarza.

Johnny DeLaGarza was born and reared on the ranch and worked as a cowboy with his father when he was young. At one time, there was a school on the ranch. He left to work for his brother’s service station and Dick’s Food Store before he returned for good in 1954 to care for the grounds.

“My mother said Miss Kate needed someone to take care of the property,” he said. “We felt protected, and they gave us a home.”

DeLaGarza partially retired 15 years ago before he fully retired a few years ago. Now, he helps his wife, Aurora DeLaGarza, who still works as a maid.

St. Dennis Catholic Church replaced a wood-frame church, St. Anthony Catholic Church, after it was demolished by a hurricane in 1942.

Kathryn Stoner O’Connor, who was instrumental in the construction of St. Dennis, also facilitated the restoration and reconstruction of Presidio La Bahia in Goliad.

Jorge “Paco” Miranda lives on the ranch as the groundskeeper. He has worked for the O’Connor family for 41 years.

“It’s beautiful, and I like our priest, too,” Miranda said. “I love coming to church. My wife and I come to church on Saturdays.”

Morgan O’Connor started attending Mass at St. Dennis about 12 years ago. She is the lector on Saturdays and a Eucharistic minister on Christmas Eve when the congregation is large enough that one is needed. O’Connor described the church and the surrounding land on which it sits as “beautiful” and “tranquil.”

“I love going to Mass there, and I think in all of my years of being Catholic, there is something about going to a smaller service that makes it more intimate, makes it more spiritual for me,” O’Connor said. “There is something about the small size of St. Dennis that is always appealing to me. Also, I love being there because it’s part of my family history.”

Elena Anita Watts covers arts, culture and entertainment for the Victoria Advocate. 

Features Editor

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