MISSION — Monsignor Juan Nicolau stood in the narthex of San Cristóbal Magallanes Catholic Church with his eyes closed Thursday.
His words were filled with electricity, as though delivering a prayer, as he reminisced on his over half-century in the priesthood.
Thursday was the first day of Late Advent, which marks the last days before Christmas. It also marked Nicolau’s diamond jubilee of his priesthood, which is what brought over a dozen priests and over 70 parishioners to San Cristóbal Magallanes in celebration.
“To me, it’s like, impossible,” Nicolau said in his trademark Catalán accent,” I don’t understand why I have been a priest for 60 years. I cannot understand. It is not in my mind. I think that that means that Jesus called me.”
The story of Nicolau is one that is threaded in the fabric of Rio Grande Valley Catholic history.
“Today is a special Mass because Monsignor Nicolau is celebrating 60 years since his ordination into the priesthood,” Bishop Daniel E. Flores said before the Mass. “It’s a significant day for the many people who’ve watched him be at this diocese for many, many years. 60 years is a significant milestone.”
Nicolau was born in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, located in the Balearic Sea roughly 130 miles south of Barcelona. His priestly journey began when he was 23 years old, an age even he finds aberrant when most priests were closer to 30 at the time of their ordination.
At the time, he was fluent in Spanish, Latin, French, Portuguese and Italian. He did not learn English until he learned that he would be going to the United States after completing his Licentiate in Sacred Theology.
“I was very tired, intellectually,” Nicolau recalled. “There was a priest in Puerto Rico who told me, ‘Why don’t you come (for) one month to substitute for me and I’ll go on vacation.’ I said ‘Thank God.’ So I went to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I never came back.”
He was convinced to stay in Puerto Rico for over a year before then Brownsville Bishop Humberto Sousa Medeiros and Rev. Ron Anderson convinced him to come to the Valley due to its need for priests.
“‘God Bless America,’ I said. And then I go to Brownsville for one year,” Nicolau recalled. “And then two years. And then after three years, Bishop (John Joseph) Fitzpatrick said, ‘From now on, you belong to the Diocese of Brownsville.’”
He was then incarnated into the diocese, and he would help found the Diocese of Brownsville.
Since then, Nicolau has gone on to become the first rector of the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle from 1997 to 2005. He was instrumental in it being designated a national Shrine by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on March 24, 1998, and in 2001 Pope John Paul II bestowed him with the honorary title of Monsignor and the distinction of “Prelate of Honor.”
He made a name for himself for his regular appearances on the Sunday morning television program “Aqui Rogelio,” starring Rogelio Botello-Rios, as well as his innumerable healing Masses throughout his ministry.
Nicolau is also the last living priest to have witnessed the plane crash into St. John the Baptist Catholic Church on Oct. 23, 1970.
Rev. Luis Tinajero of St. Benedict Catholic Church in San Benito said that Nicolau has inspired him to further his priestly studies since he first arrived at the diocese.
“In reality, 60 years is a lot,” Tinajero said of Nicolau’s service. “Being a priest is not the easiest thing in the world. Father Nicolau has been able to accomplish so much. I don’t know if he sees himself as a missionary, but he sure is. He left his home. He left his family. He left everything to follow Jesus and share in the ministry of Jesus Christ here in the Rio Grande Valley.”
For Rev. Jorge Gomez, who serves as the current rector of the Basilica, Nicolau has served as an inspiration for him.
“He’s the one I call or I go and talk to when I have some questions on how to do certain things,” Gomez said. “He always gives me good advice. He set the foundation for future rectors to come.”
Just before his Mass started, Nicolau shared a simple message about his 60 years of priesthood.
“I’m very happy; very, very happy to be a priest,” he said. “I cannot imagine myself to be something else. Priesthood fills up my heart to the brim. I’m very happy because I can give myself to everybody. I don’t have one person. I love everybody. I love all the people of the Valley. Texas is my country. The Valley is my people.”