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Ask a group of average Catholics about their favorite pilgrimage sites and the answers are grand, yet predictable: Rome, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Fatima. Indeed, mere mention of the word “pilgrimage” calls to mind majestic vistas from the old world.

Nobody, I reckon, will answer Taylor, Texas. Yet last year, Bishop Joe Vásquez named the church in this town one of five pilgrimage sites in the Diocese of Austin. A plenary indulgence can be received by those who visit the site and fulfill the normal requirements. Few even know that Taylor exists—a small country town about half an hour’s drive northeast of Austin. To get there, exit State Highway 290 at Manor and wind along a small farm road through the cornfields. Curious structures dot the route—a white water tower painted with a smiley face, a collapsed barn, and the solitary steeple of New Sweden Lutheran Church all serve as waypoints. Soon enough, the road crests, and the low-lying buildings of Taylor materialize on the horizon.

Taylor, like many Texan towns, is locked in a struggle between local identity and modernity. Old Texas still exists there: weather-worn buildings on Main Street, abundant antique stores, and a local barbecue joint smoking what is perhaps the best beef rib in America. Locals greet you with a smile, and the bygone “Texas wave” from a passerby is still common practice. 

Yet Taylor is also slipping into the gravitational pull of an ever-growing Austin. Each year, the borders of Austin’s cookie-cutter suburbs inch closer. Recently, Samsung decided to build its new semiconductor manufacturing plant outside of Taylor. The newest roadside feature on the drive into town? A fleet of cranes and tractors building the new facility.

Thus Taylor sits in flux, straddling the line between past and future. Below this tension, however, another more consequential change is taking place.

Two blocks from Taylor’s Main Street is what looks like a perfectly average Catholic parish: St. Mary of the Assumption. Originally built in 1894 and re-built in 1955, its exterior appearance is, in a sense, quite mediocre: beige brick, a rectangular bell tower, and an asphalt shingle roof. Across the street is St. Mary’s Catholic School, an aging facility consisting of a classic schoolhouse and a few sheet metal buildings. It would be easy for passersby to assume St. Mary’s is a dying rural parish, another tragedy of secularization. But appearances, as they often do, deceive. 

Come to Mass on Sunday morning and you will meet one of America’s flourishing Catholic communities. Upon entering the sanctuary, one first notices the floor: inlaid terrazzo and glistening marble. A blue facade in honor of the Blessed Mother leads up to a rose window. To the left are original hardwood confessionals, and in the choir loft, a grand pipe organ. 

But this is no relic of a lost heyday. St. Mary’s is very much alive. On weekends the church is packednot only with the elderly but also with vibrant, large families. The congregation sings loudly alongside the choir, and little ones participate. After Mass, they gather to chat and share laughs before dispersing for brunches hosted at parishioners’ homes.

Weekdays are no different. Visit on a Tuesday and you’ll see a lively school community: students walking back and forth from the church in their uniforms (daily Mass is compulsory), and high schoolers suiting up for six-man football practice. The Mass itself is reverent and solemn, what conservative Catholics might call the “Novus Ordo, rightly understood.” St. Mary’s is not a “trad” utopia. There is no Latin Mass on the schedule. Rather, the liturgy is practical—appreciative of the Church’s history and tradition, but also cognizant of the era in which it exists and the parishioners it serves.

Most remarkable, however, is that none of this existed five years ago. When I first walked through the doors of St. Mary’s as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, the interior was subdued. The marble floors were covered by musty carpeting. Choir equipment (including a drum set) was stacked at the front of the church. The hardwood confessionals were slated to be torn out. The organ was collecting cobwebs. St. Mary’s was, in fact, a dying rural Catholic parish, smothered by sixties interior design and slowly fading into history. Still, behind the scenes, change was afoot.

Led by Heidi Altman, a convicted mom and seasoned educator, the financially-strapped parochial school was converted to the classical model. At a time when many Catholic schools were secularizing, St. Mary’s went the opposite direction, attracting droves of families seeking an authentic religious education. Enrollment has only increased since.

After this influx of new students, St. Mary’s next turned to building a community that both welcomed and incentivized large families. The church launched new initiatives: multiple sacrament times for busy parents, a new cry room, and adult faith formation courses among them. St. Mary’s became a place families wanted to go, a source of community for parents and children alike.

Finally came a renovation—or rather rediscovery—of the church’s old interior and an overhaul of the music ministry. This is where I came in: I was recruited to accompany the liturgy and lead the choir on a keyboard until the organ was repaired. It was an uphill climb at first. Serious choirs do not grow up overnight. But as we improved, the congregation came to love the organ and reverent hymns. 

Bolstered by an ambitious capital campaign led by Fr. Keith Koehl, this musical shift became a catalyst for the church’s broader restoration project. In relatively short order, the organ was fixed, the ugly carpet removed, and the beautiful interior of St. Mary’s was once again revealed.

There is little about St. Mary's story that could not be replicated elsewhere. In post-conciliar style, this is a parishioner-driven transformation—no superstar clerics, Vatican decrees, or ideological rigidity. It is also quintessentially American—entrepreneurial action to build up faith and family. Yet the real genius of the transformation is in its simplicity. St. Mary's has simply sought to provide what the everyday Catholic needs: an orthodox religious education, a community welcoming to families, and a reverent liturgy. It turns out those things go a long way.

The broader questions surrounding Taylor’s future will continue to escalate. Amid the uncertainty, however, you can bet St. Mary’s will remain a welcome constant. So the next time you find yourself in Austin, take a short pilgrimage up to Taylor. The folks at St. Mary’s would be more than happy to meet you.

Samuel D. Samson is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at American Moment and an M.A. student at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel School of Government in Washington, D.C.

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Photo courtesy of Samuel D. Samson.

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