The Priest in Miracle City
George Strake was sitting in Mass at a small mission church in Conroe, Tx, when he got word that he had struck oil. As the story goes, he told the messenger to let his team know he would be there as soon as Mass was over and continued praying.
That moment was the catalyst of a massive boom that transformed the sleepy little town of Conroe, a town that was suffering from a decline in the lumber industry and underfunded schools in the midst of the Great Depression, into a boomtown almost overnight.
With his profits Strake would go on to fund the rebuilding project that transformed the little mission church into what is today Sacred Heart Catholic Church, an ever growing church that continues to lead the Conroe area in its spiritual formation.
At the helm is Fr. Philip Wilhite, a Houston native with a Franciscan spirituality who in his 10 year tenure at Sacred Heart has shepherded the community in another boom and has witnessed the parish grow from 5,000 families to more than 8,000.
A Time of Formation and Growth
Growing up, Fr. Wilhite’s parents served as a witness for a life of ministry. Both were involved at the church in several capacities and actively modeled a way of living out one’s faith. Still, Fr. Wilhite planned on pursuing a more traditional form of work - he wanted to be an accountant or an airline pilot.
During a retreat, Fr. Wilhite recalls a priest urging the young people to give God the first chance in your life.
“I was very childish in my response to God. I told him I would follow if He would lead, but that I would not help,” Fr. Wilhite said. “So I would not tell anybody I was doing this and would wait to see what would unfold.”
It wasn’t until his senior year after his high school academic counselor asked why he hadn’t actively applied to any universities that he finally shared his interest in seminary and began that journey publicly.
His discernment led him to the Franciscan Order or becoming a Diocesan priest. He ultimately chose the Diocesan path, in part to be closer to his family but also wanting to serve the Houston community.
Fr. Wilhite attended St. Mary’s Seminary where he earned a bachelor's degree in liberal arts with a concentration in psychology through the University of St. Thomas and a Master of Arts in Divinity from St. Mary’s before his ordination in May 1990.
Preach At All Times, Use Words When Necessary
Although he was ordained a diocesan priest, Fr. Wilhite is still deeply influenced by the Franciscan spirituality and it continues to inform his work today.
When he first arrived at Sacred Heart, Fr. Wilhite led a series of building projects around the parish, affording them the opportunity to update the St. Vincent de Paul ministry building and the Church sanctuary.
“We started with the poor as an example of following Christ, putting the poor first,” Fr. Wilhite said.
For Fr. Wilhite, a Franciscan approach to his faith means acknowledging his need for God and choosing to live more simply. Put another way, to live simply so that others might simply live.
“I prefer to lead by example,” Fr. Wilhite said. “It is something my parents taught us as children - If I am going to ask a parishioner to do something, I am going to ask myself to do it first.”
Community is an important aspect of Fr. Wilhite’s ministry, and while he is tasked with leading, he recognizes how much support he receives from the community.
“Together we call each other to stretch in our relationship with Christ and each other. Some of that stretching is necessary in our daily lives, sometimes it is in more sensitive areas, challenging immigration and treatment of immigrants, more recently in racism,” Fr. Wilhite said. “Trying to help us as a community to be honest, about not just our own personal experiences of life may be, but what the personal experience of others may be and what that means for us consequently as Christians.”
Growth and Service in the Time of Coronavirus
Like churches across the country, Sacred Heart has been shaken up by the Coronavirus Pandemic. Initially the community was largely spared from infection, but more families have been affected as the pandemic has lingered. Fr. Wilhite has seen this as an opportunity to focus on what is essential. It is a time to focus on relationships, with God, with your family and with those around you.
“The pandemic has returned us to some of the essentials of relationships and how to be more present to one another,” Fr. Wilhite said. “The pandemic, though nobody chose it and we wish that it wasn’t here, has afforded us certain privileges and opportunities, if we would take them, to build up relationships with God and with others.”
Sacred Heart is slowly and carefully reopening, taking extra precautions at Mass and with the children attending the school. St. Vincent de Paul has stayed open almost the complete time, knowing that the needy were there and that there is a new group of those recently unemployed needing assistance too.
The Future of Miracle City
Like Strake, Fr. Wilhite is a man who, seeing the potential in Conroe, is working to harness the energy of this boom in growth and parlay it into something that will continue to strengthen the spiritual lives of the community.
He is actively working to continue to bring the English and Spanish speaking communities closer together.
“We have made great inroads in creating a community in our parish,” Fr. Wilhite said. “Not a parish with several communities under one roof.”
Moving forward Fr. Wilhite intends to influence the culture, to grow the number of vocations for the religious life coming out of Sacred Heart, emphasize the importance of the vocation of marriage, and create a renaissance in the desire to know and share the Catholic faith.