The 387-mile holiday pilgrimage that captured Galveston’s heart

Manuela Carreon stops on the causeway to have her picture taken before continuing her long journey from Galveston to San Juan, Texas. (The Galveston Daily News)

Manuela Carreon stops on the causeway to have her picture taken before continuing her long journey from Galveston to San Juan, Texas. (The Galveston Daily News)

Alfonso Carreon Jr.’s 1957 murder trial didn’t make front-page headlines. But in the week after his acquittal, his mother became a media sensation, with Galveston Daily News readers following her every step, stop, ache, and pain.

Alfonso, 26, was charged with murder following a knife fight at Chico’s Bar (also known as Third Street Bar) in Texas City on Dec. 1, 1956. He claimed he only pulled a knife in self-defense and never meant to hurt Adolph Saldus, who died at Danforth Memorial Hospital several hours after Alfonso stabbed him in the stomach. The newspaper buried its report of the trial on page 16 (of 18). The verdict story made page one, but not because of reader interest in the trial itself.

Manuela Carreon, Alfonso’s 46-year-old mother, became the star of the story when she began an epic journey 30 minutes after the jury freed her son. Before the trial began, Carreon promised God that if her son was acquitted she would make a pilgrimage of gratitude to the Mission de San Juan in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Appropriately, the trial ended the day before Thanksgiving in 1957, making Carreon’s story the perfect holiday feature for The Daily News front page. Instead of focusing on the verdict, the headline said, “Texas City woman begins long walk.” The account included a photo of Carreon on the causeway. She started her 387-mile journey from the steps of the Galveston County Courthouse.

Carreon carried with her nothing but a light jacket and a paper sack containing her heart medication and 25 cents. When a reporter asked her what she would do if her shoes wore out on the journey, which she expected to take about three weeks, she said she would walk barefoot.

Reporters followed Carreon every step of the way, bringing readers detailed accounts of how far she walked, where she spent the night, and what she had to eat and drink.

The Galveston Daily News ran this map with one of its many stories about Manuela Carreon. It shows the route she would take from Galveston to San Juan, Texas.

The Galveston Daily News ran this map with one of its many stories about Manuela Carreon. It shows the route she would take from Galveston to San Juan, Texas.

On the first day, Carreon covered 20 miles, making it as far as Hitchcock. She spent the night on the front porch of a home just east of town. The family offered her a room, but she said she preferred to sleep with her “zebra-colored” jacket as a cover and the stars as a roof. A Daily News reporter caught up with Carreon on Thanksgiving Day, “trudging” down Highway 6 toward Alvin. For lunch, she bought a sandwich and soda water at Uncer’s Humble Service Station in Arcadia. Although she only took 25 cents with her when she left Galveston, several people offered her money along the way. She only took a nickel from each, she told the reporter. But it was enough to buy her Thanksgiving lunch.

While his mother walked toward San Juan, Alfonso traveled to the mission by car to give thanks for his acquittal.

“Every person must make sacrifices for her children,” Carreon told the reporter who asked why she was making her trek by foot.

As darkness fell the day after Thanksgiving, a reporter found Carreon “walking briskly” down Highway 35, about four miles east of Angleton. She had spent the previous night in the women’s bathroom at a deserted service station on the outskirts of Alvin. But she was “all smiles” because her son had visited her that morning. Just back from praying at the mission, he told her he’d asked God to take care of her. After much persuading, Carreon accepted the sandwich offered by a Daily News reporter who worried she wouldn’t find anyplace to get dinner on the rural stretch of road.

When reporters contacted the priests at the mission to get a comment about Carreon’s journey, they didn’t seem particularly impressed.

“I wouldn’t do it myself,” said Father Joseph Azpiaza, who added he thought a little prayer in church would do as much good. (So much for encouragement!)

Friday night, Carreon slept in the back of her husband’s pickup truck after he drove out to check on her. Her sister and younger two sons came to walk with her on Saturday, buoying her spirits. But the cold and the miles—60 by this point—were taking their toll. Her sister told the newspaper Carreon’s sore feet, swollen hands, and wind-chapped face had brought her to tears on Saturday afternoon. But she refused to put on heavier clothing, saying she would begin the journey in the lightweight black crepe dress in which she started. A Galveston merchant offered her a new coat, and a Daily News correspondent offered her new shoes. But she declined all offers of help.

Saturday night, Carreon took shelter in the back room of a service station but didn’t get much sleep as the temperature dipped into the 40s. She told reporters she had to keep walking to stay warm. By Sunday evening, she was just a few miles outside Bay City. A Galveston couple who spotted her on the road stopped and offered her a Coke and $1. She took the drink but refused the money. While they were talking to her, about a dozen other people stopped to offer help as well. But she would only accept a nickel from each one.

On Monday morning, Father Azpiaza asked someone in Bay City to track Carreon down and tell her if she could get to the mission on Wednesday “by any means necessary” he would give her a special three-day penance as part of the celebrations for Our Lady of San Juan. Carreon agreed to finish her journey by car but not until the very last moment. She walked Monday and Tuesday, making it as far as the north edge of Palacios—more than 100 Miles from her starting point—before her husband picked her up and drove her to the Rio Grande Valley.

When she arrived at the church, she walked to the alter on swollen feet and lit a candle in appreciation. Despite braving rain and cold, and suffering from a heart condition, she never got sick, she told reporters on hand to mark the end of her pilgrimage.

“God helped me,” she told them.

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