In an April of 1932 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard recounts one of his visits down to south Texas, also referred to as “the Valley” by the locals:
I’m glad you found the South Texas views of some interest. I do not believe that cocoanuts thrive anywhere in Texas. As to the abrupt contrasts in the lower country, you can meet with them driving along paved highways. A great deal of the country is furnished with good roads, and even when they are not paved, as in many cases they are, they can be traversed with comfort most times of the year. Tourists swarm into South Texas by the thousands, and many naturally find their way into the less settled areas. But there’s still plenty untouched, and if you ever get out here to Texas, I’ll show you places no tourist has ever seen — less interesting from a scenic standpoint, but rich in tradition. I’m enclosing a post-card view of a grotto, built in imitation of the famous one of Lourdes, the work of a very interesting character in Rio Grande City — the Rev. Gustav Gollbach, of the Oblate Fathers. I found him a remarkably interesting man, of unmistakable culture and erudition. He is a native of Hesse — a province against whose inhabitants I always had an instinctive prejudice, from memories handed down since the Revolution. I can remember when “that old Hessian” was a term of anathema in the Southwest. But my prejudice — which after all was active only in my extreme youth — did not extend to the Reverent Gollbach. He was dolichocepalic, typically Nordic, with light blue eyes and fair skin. He has thirteen thousand Mexicans under his spiritual guidance, and body and soul they are much the better for his aid. Although the Catholic religion is fast losing power in Old Mexico and along the Border. Ten years ago the priest was all-powerful among our southern neighbors. Now he is as likely to get a bullet in the back as a layman. I have an idea that a priest on this side of the Border really wields more power than one in Mexico.
This particular anecdote deals with Howard’s visit to Rio Grande City, located near the Mexican border. The city is rich in Texas history, being one of the oldest settlements along the river, and is the seat of Starr County. It was once a port for steamboats that worked the river from Brownsville. Rio Grande City is also the home of Fort Ringgold (1849-1944). Many of the Fort’s buildings remain standing and open to the public. Howard did a bit of sightseeing in the town, with one of his stops being Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, which was built to resemble the Shrine of Lourdes in southern France.
As Howard recounts in his letter, the grotto is principally the work of one man, Father Gustav Gollbach, a Catholic priest of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate order. The Father was born in Germany on September 24, 1878, but spent most of his life in Texas. Gollbach served in churches around the state for nearly 20 years after his ordination in 1906, including serving not too far from Cross Plains at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Coleman from 1914-1923. He eventually was assigned the position of pastor at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Rio Grande City where he served for 13 years.
The Oblate order has a long history of work in Texas, especially the Rio Grande Valley between Laredo and Brownsville. The order was founded in France in 1816, and its priests arrived at the mouth of the Rio Grande soon after Texas joined the Union. The stoic, black-robed priests built missions, established schools, and fought for social justice in a rugged land where the six-gun was frequently the law. Often called the “Cavalry of Christ,” the priests’ primary mission was riding on horseback to ranch settlements where they ministered to the poor.
Howard also mentions how dangerous it was on the border. This was true, particularly in the case of Father Pierre Yves Keralum, a fellow Oblate priest, who traveled the lawless borderlands for 20 years. The French-born priest built many of the first churches in the valley. Father Keralum was a model of religious poverty, obedience, and unpretentiousness. At least every three or four months, he made missionary circuits over a vast territory of some 70 to 120 ranches where he preached, catechized, baptized, confessed and married the residents.
At the age of 56, nearly blind and in poor health, Father Keralum disappeared near the present-day town of Mercedes while out ministering to his flock. Undeterred by his advancing age and failing health, Father Keralum began what would be his final tour of his circuit on November 9, 1872, ignoring the objections of his fellow Oblates and the people of Brownsville. An exhaustive search was mounted by the local population after his riderless horse, missing its saddle, turned up on a nearby ranch. Mexican vaqueros even volunteered to search south of the border, but the ailing priest was not found.
Ten years later a rancher went into a thicket to rescue two cows that were entangled in the underbrush and found the Oblate priest’s bones and personal property. All his personal possessions were with him, including his saddle; so he did not meet his end at the hands of a bandit. It is believed he stopped to rest and either died from a rattlesnake bite or natural causes. Today Father Keralum is being considered for sainthood and is known among the Mexican people as El Santo Padre Pedrito.
In later years the Oblate fathers helped organize the first farm workers’ union in Crystal City. They lobbied local growers and ranchers to pay their workers living wages and provide schools.
The story of the shrine of Lourdes in Southern France goes that 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous was approached by the Virgin Mary as she and friends were gathering firewood in 1858. When Bernadette scratched in the ground on the hillside, a spring bubbled to the surface that has run continuously since. The waters are said to be a cure for spiritual and physical infirmities.
The French waters attract more pilgrims than any other Christian shrine in the world. It is almost a certainty that Father Gollbach visited the shrine before leaving Europe and immigrating to America. Famous replicas of the grotto have also been built in New York, Indiana, and Pennsylvania and other locations in Texas.
Beginning in 1926, Father Gollbach built much of the mountain himself. The rocks were collected from around Roma, with petrified wood gathered near Escobares. Concrete posts were etched to look like tree branches. In the center of the grotto, a 7-foot-tall statue of the Madonna in a flowing white gown with a blue sash looks down on a life-sized statue of the little French peasant girl kneeling in prayer. The grotto is 33 feet high and 90 feet wide, with cacti growing from the walls to give it a very natural appearance. The Oblate Father envisioned the grotto as a monument to the hope for a lasting peace following the horrors of World War I. The project was completed in 1928 and was an immediate favorite among tourists and locals alike.
Father Gollbach passed away on December 26, 1955 at the age of 77 and is buried in the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate Cemetery in San Antonio. But his tribute to Our Lady of Lourdes lives on and at night the handcrafted hill is bathed in floodlights that give it a soft glow.
Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Rio Grande City is across the street from the Starr County Courthouse and behind the Immaculate Conception Church. The shrine is open free of charge to the public, except during church services.