She remembers walking barefoot on pilgrimage up the road to San Salvador Mission as a child, praying the rosary together with her family and friends, each August, lead by her grandmother, Ouida, to commemorate a healing, a vision, and a community coming together in response to a message from Heaven to build a church.
She remembers her grandmother’s reluctance to talk much about the three apparitions she received at twelve years old from “a lady in black.” She only ever heard the story from her Italian American grandmother in broken English.
It’s a Scarmardo family story, a story of a community; and though it happened over 100 years ago, it is cherished and guarded by the family as a very special and somewhat private gift. To the local Catholic community it is the quiet, lovely legend behind a beloved little mission church out past the river, whose parent parish is St. Anthony’s in Bryan.
In 1894 getting to mass was very difficult for a small rural Texas community of Italian immigrants, as there was not a reliable bridge to cross the Brazos river and go to Bryan, where the nearest Catholic Church was. They mostly depended on a priest to come to them when he could, celebrating mass on someone’s porch.
One of these times, in the middle of mass, there was a sudden strong gust of wind and the crucifix fell onto the altar. The crash on the altar was so sudden and forceful, the people were uncomfortable and wondered what it meant.
The next day, in her family’s cotton field, in the wake of a gentle breeze, a young girl named Ouida (pronounced “Weeda”) suddenly saw a lady in black who asked why there was no church in this place. “There needs to be a church here.”
The girl told her parents about it, but they didn’t take it seriously at the time.
Then there was another appearance of the lady, possibly in a dream this time, during which she gave the girl more details about the church she wanted to be built there, even including a list of the men who were to build it.
The girl’s parents wondered but were still not taking this too seriously until there was a yet another apparition, and this time the lady asked why the church had not been built yet.
Ouida’s concerned parents decided to take her to talk to the priest in Bryan, Fr. Antonio Simone. It seems the priest soothed their worries about their child because what happened next was that the community discerned that they should and they could do as the Lady from Heaven, understood to have been Mother Mary, had asked.
Each family gave their first crops, another family donated land, and the church was built in six weeks.
It was named for the patronal feast of Cefalu, Sicily, the native village of these Italian immigrants, a feast they call San Salvador, “Holy Savior,” which is August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
First mass was said at its altar in October 1908.
Ouida had breast cancer at the age of 40 and vowed that she would make a barefoot pilgrimage to the church every year on the feast of San Salvador, the Transfiguration, if she was cured. She was cured. And the pilgrimage was made for many years, even revived by a third generation and walked for several more.
San Salvador Mission celebrated its centenary in 2008 with Bishop Gregory Aymond.
Today there are good bridges into Bryan, and not so many people still live near San Salvador Mission, which still stands in the midst of an expanse of farm land near a country road. But it is cherished nonetheless and mass is attended there still by those who love it.
The first time I went out to take pictures of it, I was surprised to find it locked. A red truck pulled up, and a kindly woman, who told me she grew up right next to the church and still lived nearby, let me in. In the course of our conversation, she let me know that she had come to check on the sanctuary light. When she is at home she gets a feeling when it is out and she goes and changes it to honor the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. When I remarked on how touching I thought that was, she said,
“When you get the grace to pay attention, it’s just an amazing life we live. “
San Salvador stands as a testament to a community that paid attention, and still does.
*Many thanks to Ouida’s granddaughter, Mary Jo (Scarmardo) Lindsay, and to her cousin, Judy (Scarmardo) Comeaux, two lovely women, for sharing their memories with me.
**Mass at San Salvador is celebrated the First Saturday of the month, at 7PM. You’ll find it at County Road 222 – 1/4 Mile off Farm Road 50 (County Road 286), Bryan, TX 77836
*** No approval for this Marian apparition was ever sought. It is a private revelation given to Ouida that was responded to by her community of faith.