Where can you find teenagers on their knees, at their own initiative? It is a tradition of the graduating class at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Presbyterian Pan American School in Kingsville, Texas.
“The Presbyterian Pan American School is a college preparatory school, grounded in the joy and discipline of Christian love, serving young people from the Americas and beyond. Our purpose is to prepare these young people for lives of Christian leadership,” said a recent mission statement.
PPAS is affiliated by covenant agreement with the Synod of the Sun and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico. Most students come from Mexico. Usually there are several from Korea, Africa, Central America, and occasionally U.S.A. The students from outside enter the U.S. with proper credentials allowing them to come and go from home to school during their tenure.
Each student pays a substantial part of the cost of operating the school. Almost all receive financial assistance. Each student works six hours per week on campus to earn his or her assistance. The “assistance” they receive comes from mission support of friends and supporters of PPAS.
PPAS is a four-year fully accredited high school, providing a program of excellence, leadership/service training, and spiritual development grounded in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. Students are provided with opportunities to participate in volunteer endeavors, extracurricular activities, and competitive sports. One popular activity is the 4-H program and PPAS students regularly win blue ribbons in the local competitions. Several students are National Merit Scholars each year. Almost every graduate attends a college or university, many in the U.S.
Mrs. R. D. Campbell, a missionary among the Mexican people, saw the great need for the development of Christian leadership among the Mexican youth. Her prayers were answered when Mrs. Henrietta M. King, daughter of the first Presbyterian missionary of the Rio Grande, offered a site near Kingsville. The Kingsville Chamber of Commerce supplemented that for a tract of almost 700 acres.
The Texas Mexican Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church wanted an educated ministry and membership. The Texas Mexican Presbytery and the Presbyteries of Fort Worth and Western Texas convinced the Synod of Texas in 1910 to establish the school for boys. In 1912 the Texas-Mexican Industrial Institute was established for boys, grades 6 to 12.
“Tex-Mex,” as it became known, opened in Kingsville in 1912 with fifty boys “to provide opportunity and assistance for Mexican young men to obtain skill and self-mastery in Christian manhood, receiving a practical education in the light of the open Bible,” said the 1912 synod. By 1940 enrollment was 100, with more on a waiting list. Students came from as far away as Mexico City. Actually eight girls were part of the first class but left within the year because conditions were considered too “primitive” for them.
Boys’ daily life included work in the dairy, gardens, citrus grove, with poultry, beef, and pork. They could learn woodworking, welding, sheet metal work, leatherwork, shoe repairing, machine shop, and printing. Proficiency in English, public speaking, and participation in public affairs helped to develop self confidence and leadership. They produced a Spanish language publication in their print shop. Bible study was a very important part of the program. With assistance from the teachers they built most of the permanent buildings on the campus. Five years after opening, a storm destroyed part of the school. Rebuilding allowed enrollment to increase to 75. By 1949 the campus included a library, infirmary, and a “teacherage.”
In 1924, the Presbyterian School for Mexican Girls, known as “Pres Mex,” was established in Taft, San Patricio County, by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Synod of Texas. The Synod of Texas provided $52,928 and citizens of Taft $10,000, at the beginning of the facility, intended as a place for Mexican-American girls to learn to read and write. The first class of two graduated in 1928 and 100 graduated in 1945. The first building was a dormitory followed in 1928 by an administration building and a second dormitory. In 1937 senior courses were offered in a newly build “practice home.” Students started a kindergarten in the Mexican quarter of Taft in 1939 and opened a day nursery in 1941.
The Synod of Texas at its 100th meeting in Waco in 1955 acted to: “establish and operate a Presbyterian Pan American School to meet the highest educational standards and be thoroughly Christian, international, and coeducational.” The Taft campus of Pres Mex closed, and a coeducational program began in Kingsville. The synod owned, controlled, and supplied the operating budget during the early years. Students age 14 and older who applied through their local Presbyterian churches were offered high school and limited college programs. An intensive summer program in English was offered for foreign students, allowing them to take regular courses. “The school sought to prepare students to finish college and enter teaching, ministerial, missionary, medical, and legal professions,” said the 1955 synod.
A 1957 graduate of Pres Mex, Gloria Candelaria, tells of her mother’s (Dolores Lopez) experience as a student in the late 1920s, attending with three cousins. A relative asked that the girls attend Pres Mex during the economic difficulties of those days. From a Roman Catholic family, Dolores later married Selestino Candelaria in the Mexican Presbyterian Church in Victoria, Texas. Gloria says “Because I achieved so much in the spiritual and academic teachings and learnings from Pan Am, it was absolutely necessary that my children … attend.” Her grandchildren attending PPAS makes her family a four generation alumni group.
Gene Tims is an “antique” elder at Church of the Way Presbyterian, Baton Rouge, La.