Father Roy Lee Snipes
Diocese of Brownsville, Texas
Meet the cowboy priest fighting for religious freedom in Texas
Father Roy Lee Snipes didn’t intend to step into the national spotlight.
But now that he’s there, he hopes to use his message of authentic love to spread the gospel and defend religious freedom.
Donning a Stetson and driving a Suburban that permanently smells like his dozen or so rescue dogs, Fr. Snipes is front and center on a legal battle to preserve access to Mass at a tiny white adobe chapel called La Lomita Mission.
Plans for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border leave the one-room chapel in the enforcement zone on the south side of the fence, separated from the community who has worshipped there for over 100 years.
The Diocese of Brownsville opposed the project, and Fr. Snipes quickly became the spokesperson for the diocese. He has been interviewed by dozens of media outlets including PBS, Marketplace and the Atlantic.
As the debate that pits national security against religious freedom attracted countrywide interest, outlets found in Fr. Snipes an ardent and eloquent defender of La Lomita.
“There is something very beautiful, very sacred, and very much worthy of respect and reverence here.”
Catholic Extension, the national fundraising organization, couldn’t agree more. The non-profit’s very first grant in the state of Texas went to La Lomita. Since then, it has granted nearly $175 million in support to Catholic dioceses in the state of Texas, where the Catholic Church is rapidly growing.
La Lomita—Tiny chapel, big connection
The sparse little chapel holds profound meaning for both Fr. Snipes and the Oblates.
The mission is deeply entwined with the history of the Oblates in America.
The Oblates were founded by St. Eugene De Mazenod to preach directly to those in poverty. The order arrived at La Lomita in the late 1800s. They travelled great distances on horseback to minister to the poor and isolated, earning the moniker “The Cavalry of Christ.”
For Fr. Snipes, the connection to La Lomita was immediate.
He loved “the old culture of sweet hospitality,” of La Lomita—quiet, open-air, no electricity. On his first visit, he was drawn to the simplicity and the humility of the place.
In 1980, he took his final vows as a priest at the chapel.
The mission connects him to those early Oblates who served the poor on horseback.
“It represents a long line of love that we come from,” he said. “It also represents keeping in touch with our faith and our hope and our love.”
The Cowboy Priest
The modesty and the authenticity of the Oblates aligned with Fr. Snipes’ own personality, a humble and folksy demeanor that locally earned him the nickname “the cowboy priest.”
The country music-loving, beer-drinking priest didn’t argue with it.
“The cowboy can't get into the country club but he doesn't want in anyway,” Fr. Snipes said with a chuckle.
For him and the Oblates, authenticity is at the heart of evangelization.
Fr. Snipes firmly believes the Gospel is for everyone—for the farmers and the ranchers he serves. And in order to serve them, he must relate to them. “We gotta talk the way they talk or they won’t know what we’re talking about.”
“Don’t dazzle them with your brilliance or baffle them with your cow patties,” he continued. “You have to come down off your high horse.”
A history of neighborliness
When the first Oblates arrived in the Rio Grande Valley in the mid-1800s, the Mexico-U.S. border as it exists today had just recently been established. The Oblates often went back and forth, administering sacraments on both sides of the Rio Grande River. Fr. Snipes himself crossed the river as a young priest to minister funerals when the resident priest was gone.
These days, Fr. Snipes continues to minister to anyone who needs it.
He is beloved by his people, both within the borders of Brownsville and beyond, for his ability to related the truths of the Catholic faith in an authentic and comprehensible way. He serves a region with 75,000 residents and is known to celebrate the mystery of faith with priestly zeal and a shepherd’s heart.
“The folks here, with and without papers, are some of the best neighbors you could ever have,” he said.
As he runs faith formation programs, sacramental preparation classes, liturgical celebrations and fundraising activities, he continues to defend religious freedom and La Lomita.
In February 2019, Fr. Snipes and the Diocese of Brownsville won a victory when Congress included in a bill language explicitly protecting La Lomita chapel and the surrounding park area.
Not long afterward, however, the president declared a national emergency on the border in an attempt to nullify the restrictions.
If the border wall were constructed, Fr. Snipes said “it would desecrate our sacred place, but it would still be sacred.”
“I'm sure we'd find a way to get there, even if we would have to go over the wall.”
When the chapel was threatened, it stirred up the devotion and kindred spirit of the locals. Many have spoken out in support of Fr. Snipes and La Lomita.
Every year, Catholics in Mission lead a procession to La Lomita Mission as an expression of faith on Palm Sunday.
In 2019 thousands of people attended the procession to show their support for the church.
“La Lomita is very important,” said one parishioner. “It's a sign of faith. It's a sign of love. It belongs to Father Roy and all his fellow priests.”
Through his national appearances and very public defense, Fr. Snipes hopes to share La Lomita, and the story of authentic, unconditional love it tells.
“They look at this little old chapel,” he said, “and they say maybe there’s something tender and beautiful and humble and kind, something beautiful, that needs to be appreciated.”
The Lumen Christi Award is proudly presented by Catholic Extension, a non-profit that
provides grants to build the Catholic faith in the poorest areas of the United States.