On a lonely stretch of highway north of San Angelo, Texas, my wife Donna pointed into the distance.
“Look at that steeple,” she said.
It rose above a smattering of low-slung buildings, its elegance out of touch with its nondescript surroundings. We love impromptu detours in our travels, so I said, “Let’s check it out!”
As I turned, a faded marker welcomed us to Rowena, Texas, clearly a place long past its prime. Shuttered businesses lined the main street, signs faded with age and neglect. No tourist attractions here—just a dusty, forgotten pitstop.
Then we came to the sharp contrast of St. Joseph Catholic Church. It was immaculate, every brick and painted surface reflecting a pride of ownership. Catholic parishes, unlike their Protestant counterparts, often leave their doors open during the day, so we parked and walked inside.
The interior gleamed, stained-glass reflections slanting across the floor and pews. In the center aisle, an elderly white man, his head bowed, was conversing with a younger man who looked Filipino, dressed in shorts and sandals. I doffed my cap in respect and detoured around them towards the altar.
I tried not to eavesdrop, but the gentlemen’s voices carried in the acoustically sensitive space. I couldn’t make out the older man’s words, but the younger man’s voice was unmistakable. As he listened to his elderly companion, he replied with gentle phrases. I understand…It’s going to be OK…I’ll help you take care of everything.
I noticed Donna edging closer to the men, which made me a bit uncomfortable. I exited out the back, sat in our truck, and while I awaited her return, I googled Rowena.
Texas land developer, Paul J. Baron, platted the township in 1888, naming it Baronsville. German and Czech settlers convinced the Post Office to rename it Rowena in 1904 after the wife of a local businessman. Rowena reached its population zenith of 800 in 1930. Today it has less than 500 residents.
I also discovered that Rowena was the birthplace of Bonnie Parker, born in 1910, living there until her father died and her mother moved her to an industrial suburb of Dallas.
With both windows open, noisy grackles in the trees, I glanced right and left along nearby streets: abandoned buildings, rusty cars, old farm equipment, pavement ending quickly as if dissolving into the earth. I thought of how historical figures often rise up from the middle of nowhere. This time, a woman whose crime spree of 100 felonies with Clyde Barrow became legendary, and whose death at age 24 in a fusillade of bullets is seared into our national psyche.
Donna snapped me back from my daydreaming as she opened the passenger door.
“That was so touching,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“Those two men,” she said. “It was the priest talking to one of his members. That old man lost his wife of 69 years just a couple days ago. Due to COVID-19, he had not been able to see her at her convalescent home for a couple months. But they finally let him back in and he was with her when she died. He and his wife lived here in Rowena their entire marriage. I just wanted to hug him!”
69 years of dreams, joys and sorrows, a wealth of memories lived out in a place that, to me, seems so remote. A loving, sensitive priest, giving honor to his post in obscurity.
“I told the priest how beautiful the church building is,” said Donna. “He pointed east and said there’s another one about 10 miles down the road.
“In the middle of nowhere,” he said.