A Texas-Sized Catholic Renaissance?
How Houston Is Becoming a New Center of Catholic Culture
In Texas, they do things big. Catholics may be only a minority (albeit now a rather large one) in this famously evangelical state, but Dallas has the University of Dallas, which sponsored the Catholic Imagination Conference last year. Nearby Tyler has the St. Phillip Institute, which includes painter Robert Puschautz as a Stabat Mater Art Fellow. Bernard Aparicio, co-founder of Dappled Things (a Catholic quarterly of ideas, art and faith) is a Texan, as is the current editor (and fiction writer), Katy Carl. And in just the last five years, new institutions have formed in Houston that have catapulted the city to a new and growing prominence as a center of Catholic culture.
Witness Samantha Court, a 14-year-old girl who started at St. John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy (on the west side of Houston) this fall, who was recently named the winner of the first-ever Benedict XVI Institute Teen Writing Fellowship. She earned this honor in a contest put together by Sarah Cortez, founder of the Houston-based Catholic Literary Arts, which was judged by Benedict XVI Institute’s poet-in-residence James Matthew Wilson, himself a principal co-conspirator of the Houston Renaissance as the cofounder of a new and profoundly Catholic Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Wilson and his cofounder, Wiseblood Book founder Joshua Hren, have just graduated the programs’s first class of writers, poets, playwrights and novelists — who are blessed to have been steeped in the Catholic literary and philosophical tradition and trained to the highest level of craftsmanship in an academic program like no other in the country.
In a symbiotic endeavor, meanwhile, Wiseblood Books is bringing back into print or translating into English for the first time classic Catholic masterpieces, many of which are used in the Creative Writing MFA program, including Sono Ayoko’s Miracles, a novel about a young Japanese woman in search of the real St. Maximilian Kolbe. Ayoko is widely considered one of Japan’s finest living novelists, one of a wave of post-war converts in Japan little known in the West.
The University of Thomas (Houston) MFA pairs it with the better-known Silence by Shūsaku Endō. Wiseblood Books’ latest coup is The Liquid Pour in which my Heart has Run, a new English translation of poems of the 17th-century Mexican scholar, poet and cloistered nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
The initial visionary patrons of the University of Thomas’s Creative Writing MFA were Roberta and Howard Ahmanson, who were also the patrons of the recently premiered oratorio “Fiat Lux,” which brought together two great Catholic artists: composer Sir James MacMillan and poet Dana Gioia. These two achievements alone cast the Ahmansons as the Medicis of the new Catholic Renaissance. The Ahmansons are moving to Texas shortly, which can only increase the importance of Texas as a center of Catholic culture.
The godfather of the Houston Renaissance has to be Larry Massey of the Scanlan Foundation. (It was Larry who helped bring composer Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas to a standing-room-only crowd of the faithful at Houston’s Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in 2018.)
“The culture is hungry for truth, beauty and goodness,” Massey said. “The sacred arts are resonating everywhere they are displayed to sell-out crowds, whether at sacred music concerts, art shows or poetry readings. Now is the time for Catholics to showcase the beauty of their faith for all to experience. The Scanlan Foundation has been working for the past 76 years to further the Roman Catholic Church of Texas. For the past seven years, along with Sarah Cortez and other Catholic artists, the foundation has bolstered its commitment to revive the beauty of our faith so all of us can grow closer to Jesus Christ.”
On July 10, on the last night of the open-to-the-public Summer Writers Institute hosted by the MFA in Creative Writing, James Matthew Wilson explained his vision, before the night’s keynote address by Dana Gioia.
“When the Master of Fine Arts program was founded two years ago,” said Wilson, “it was done under the inspiration of a number of things and people, but probably nothing more obviously than a certain essay by the poet Dana Gioia called ‘The Catholic Writer Today.’ Gioia observed that Catholics constitute a very large minority in the United States and yet, as Wilson said, “we occupy on the whole a marginal place within its public culture.”
Wilson and co-founder Joshua Hren responded to Gioia’s call in that essay for Catholics to “reassume their responsibility as stewards of the culture.” Among their goals for the Creative Writing MFA in Houston, is to “bring back love of beauty, love of craft, and serious thought into contemporary culture.”
Wilson also paid tribute to the groundwork the notable police officer and poet Sarah Cortez had already laid: “Every summer here on this campus, she gathers approximately 200 young people to study the art of writing in the Catholic tradition.”
Think of it. Every year more than 200 young writers receive inspiration and instruction from published writers who are both committed to artistic excellence and to their faith. This is how the unique mission of the Catholic Literary Arts organization Sarah Cortez founded is shared with the MFA in Creative Writing — building a Catholic community of writers who aim to be both masters of their craft and fearlessly Catholic, who are reaching down to mentor the next generation.
“Two crucial conversations accelerated the founding of Catholic Literary Arts,” Sarah Cortez told me. “The first with poet Paul Mariani happened when I had just returned to the Catholic faith, and I was scared to choose a book cover that had a traditional Catholic image for a secular press publication. I’d worked for four different publishing houses as a development editor, and I noticed the prejudice against writers of faith in the secular publishing and writing industry. So, I was afraid.
“Paul Mariani did a reading outside of Houston, and, for the first time in my literary career, I saw the word ‘Catholic’ in a press release. I had never met him and I didn’t know his reputation. I just went. He told me, ‘Sarah, you need to educate yourself, because the Catholic intellectual tradition is unsurpassed on the globe.’ That was a crucial conversation.”
The second major impetus was a conversation with Dana Gioia that took place at the Westchester Poetry Conference he had helped found. “Dana gave me his monograph, The Catholic Writer Today and it set me on fire. Literally like a pitch pine torch. When I read that, everything came together. It was like a miracle. Both those conversations were a miracle.”
James Matthew Wilson had much the same experience.
“From the moment I read that essay, I realized that we were joined in a common project,” he said, “I had no idea that this would include my co-founding and directing the world’s only MFA program formed according to the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition. No one aware of the decay and decline of the present academy would sit at home dreaming up such a project in earnest. No one, perhaps, except Joshua Hren, who does not think practicalities something much to be pondered.”
Last Spring, the newly named Teen Fellow Samantha Court had already been named poet laureate of the Archdiocese Galveston-Houston after winning First Place in the 8th Grade Level Poetry Contest for students in archdiocesan schools. Then on July 10, after Wilson’s enthusiastic introduction, Court had the honor of reading her poem, “Amor in Amnis,” as “the opening act” to the previously mentioned keynote reading by Dana Gioia.
At the Catholic Literary Arts High School Writer’s Institute Samantha had attended the previous week, James Matthew Wilson had lectured on topics such as the Writer's Calling, Verse Craft, and the Catholic Literary Tradition. He met with individual students to give them feedback on their writing. And he lunched with the students and their teachers so that the students could ask him a variety of questions about the importance of the life of faith for a writer, and the life of an author.
James Matthew Wilson said in his introduction, “This year it was my particular honor to lecture the students in the High School Writer’s Institute. And it was a great joy. For just one example, I’m reading through their manuscripts and all of a sudden there was this perfect devotional sonnet written by a 15-year-old.”
He was referring to “Christ Crucified,” a sonnet by Maria Jesko, who was later given an honorable mention award in the Teen Writer Fellowship contest for this poem.
Wilson went on: “Let me introduce you to Samantha Court. The list of her achievements for an eighth grader is longer than mine. I can’t summarize them all. So let me just tell you I have great hope for her and our culture from what she has already done and I look forward to what’s she going to do in the future.”
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone recently added his praise. “Congratulations to Samantha Court,” he said, “our very first Benedict XVI Institute Teen Writing Fellow. I applaud your hard work at your craft to give greater glory to God. And congratulations to all those who participate in the Catholic Literary Arts Young Writers Institute, and other associated programs. This is life-changing and culture-changing work. God bless you.”
Events and programs like these are giant steps toward reclaiming Catholicism’s rightful place in American culture. Gioia and discerning patrons like the Ahmansons and the Scanlan Foundation are working to reinvigorate Catholic letters both by enlarging and improving the public conversation about it, and by bringing Catholic artists together. As Gioia once advised then-much-younger poet James Matthew Wilson at one of their initial meetings, "You should not have to work alone."
Five years ago, Houston had no particular relationship with Catholic arts. Thanks to discerning patrons of the arts and creative culture builders, the city is now a national incubator for writers and a model of what is possible elsewhere.
(To hear Samantha Court and Maria Jesko read from their work and hear Sarah Cortez and James Matthew Wilson talk about the Houston Miracle, join Archbishop Cordileone via Zoom Sept. 14 at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern. Register to receive the Zoom link here.)
Roseanne T. Sullivan is a journalist, poet, and essayist who writes about sacred music, liturgy, art, literature, and whatever else strikes her Catholic fancy. You can follow her at Substack and find links to her publications at Catholic Pundit Wannabe.