“Little Flower” Catholic Church at 10th and S. Walker Avenue in Oklahoma City still carries on a vibrant ministry to Hispanics. And, it’s because a ruthless Mexican revolutionary let about 850 friars of the Roman Catholic Order of Discalced Carmelites leave Mexico.
Tradition has it that Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa was planning to execute the friars. He believed them to be hopelessly loyal to Spain and against the revolution that raged from 1910 to 1920. But Villa’s wife intervened and persuaded him to let them go to the U.S.
The friars’ Spanish ancestry had nearly cost them their lives in Mexico. But in Oklahoma it was an asset.
At first three, and then more well-educated, humble and homeless priests of the order became highly valued because of their fluency in Spanish, deep knowledge of Catholic faith, and experience teaching it within Hispanic culture.
The bishop understood they could minister to the growing Hispanic population in Oklahoma City far better than any others could at that time, and so he gave them permission to establish a permanent house in the growing Hispanic neighborhood along S. Walker just north of the river.
As it turns out, the order has somewhat of a sense of humor about their connection to the revolutionary.
“We jokingly say that Pancho Villa is our founder. And we are working on his beatification process, which is not true, of course,” said Father Jorge Cabrera with a laugh. He was given a few minutes to visit with Free Press recently between his many duties as one of five Carmelite priests who serve the busy parish.
The house was the first of several developed over the years by that part of the order that settled in Oklahoma City. Little Rock, Dallas and San Antonio now have houses with their own outreach ministries.
Today, over 100 years later, the five priests – spiritual descendants of those displaced friars – are still ministering to Hispanics in Oklahoma City and the wider metro area.
Rather than being a dying church in a changing neighborhood, Little Flower continues to grow.
It is a unique parish in that it has always been staffed by a province of the Order of Discalced Carmelites.
It is also unique in that it has always been a mission to Hispanics in Oklahoma City.
“This is a young parish,” Father Jorge said referring to the average age of its members.
“We have close to 500 children in all who go through religious training each year in preparation for their confirmation and first communion.”
They have such large crowds the parish had to build a bigger building behind the original church to accommodate the 700+ crowds at their largest masses on Sundays.
“We had people swinging from the rafters,” said Father Jorge. “To accommodate more people and for their safety we built the new building.”
The church is known as “Little Flower” Catholic Church to most of Oklahoma City. But the official name of the parish is Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Therese, named for two of the saints of the order.
St. Therese of Lisieux, one of those saints, called herself “Little Flower” and thus, the popular name of the parish.
The area around 10th and S. Walker was once in a less-desirable crook in the Canadian (now Oklahoma) River which had been prone to flooding early in the city’s history.
But the river channel was improved and made safer over time.
And the neighborhood was within walking distance of downtown, Capitol Hill and most industries in the city at that time.
Today, the geography of the neighborhood is changing rapidly.
The Wheeler District is being developed just a half mile to the west.
The south end of what will be the new Central Park (straddling I-40) is only two blocks to the east.
But the church is still carrying out its original mission of ministering to the needs of Catholic Hispanics in Oklahoma City as the reach of the parish extends well beyond the original confines of the neighborhood.
“We have people come in to attend Mass from places like Yukon, and Norman as well as this neighborhood,” Father Jorge said. But he added that their order is still very much committed to the spiritual needs of the neighborhood that has been home for over 100 years.
Listen to the podcast from this interview HERE.