John Henry Phelan


John Henry Phelan

John Henry “Harry” Phelan (December 11, 1877 – May 19, 1957), the secretary-treasurer of the Yount-Lee Oil Company, and later named as vice president and treasurer, had been associated with Miles Franklin Yount from the early days when Yount struggled at Sour Lake, Texas and he a traveling salesman with the Heisig-Norvell Company.

Born in 1877, at Charlotte, North Carolina, Harry was one of Patrick Henry and Adele Myers Phelan’s eleven children. He received an early education in the parochial schools at Charlotte, but soon after completing the ninth grade, he followed his father into the wholesale grocery business. The younger Phelan held jobs as office boy and shipping clerk in several organizations, including the Wittkowsky Wholesale Dry Goods and the Wolfe Company, and at the age of nineteen, he went to work as a traveling salesman for the J. A. Durham Company. He remained there until January 1902, when he moved to Beaumont, Texas.

Heisig-Norvell offered him a similar job at a salary of $150 per month. Phelan accepted the position and remained with this concern until 1913, at which time he formed his own business, the Phelan-Josey Grocery Company. For a while, though, he successfully divided his time between duties at Yount-Lee and his own firm, but in January 1927 the demands generated by the oil company’s success at Spindletop forced him to choose between the two. Yount-Lee won out. Phelan, however, continued as president of Phelan-Josey, but his brother, Frank, already a vice president there, assumed the title of general manager and ran the business while Harry devoted his full attention to Yount-Lee affairs.

On June 15, 1905, he married Johannah Maria Cunningham at Chicago, and three children were born to this union: John Henry, Jr., Anthony, and Margaret. The elder Phelan, an active member of the Catholic Church, became legendary for his philanthropic activities. In October 1931 he donated $35,000 to the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Austin, Texas, and he contributed considerable funds to the Home of the Holy Infancy (now Marywood), located also in Austin, that provides maternity, adoption, and foster care services. He and Johannah gave extensively to St. Anne Church and St. Anne School in Beaumont, along with numerous “organs, statues, and ..., making gifts of some 225 altars to churches throughout the country,” including the one donated in 1915 to St. Anthony Cathedral in Beaumont.

As a recompense for his many contributions, Pope Pius XI made Harry a Knight of St. Gregory in January 1933, an honor received previously by only one other Texan and only about fifty men in the entire country. And later that same year, the Pope also granted the Phelans a private audience, a first for Beaumonters. The Catholic Church bestowed upon him numerous other awards, such as Knight of Malta and Knight in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

In 1928 Phelan began construction of a palatial home named "Caed Mile Failte", a Gaelic term meaning “one hundred thousand welcomes,” on a 15.4 acre estate, located at the corner of Eleventh Street and Calder Avenue in Beaumont. The original estimate of the house, set at $125,000, escalated, and when completed, it ranged near $500,000 after adding in the costs of the land, furnishings, and other amenities, such as guest houses, art studios, a miniature golf course, stables, a swimming pool, and a $25,000 pipe organ. Architect Owen James Trainor Southwell, a long-time friend of the family who grew up with the Phelan children, designed the overall project.

Harry Phelan—the man who smiled sheepishly and for the amusement of an interviewer, once said that he didn’t “know anything about the oil business,”—gave much of his time and some of his wealth to his beloved city of Beaumont. In return, the Beaumont Rotary Club named him as 1940 citizen of the year, and in 1951 he received the prestigious Laetare Medal, conferred by the University of Notre Dame to outstanding Catholic laymen.

He became known far and wide for his philanthropic acts, but the greatest of these occurred in early 1957 when he and Johannah donated their home and estate to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The home, now vacant, and grounds are a part of the St. Elizabeth Hospital complex. Harry Phelan died at age seventy-nine in Beaumont on May 19, 1957, and is buried at the city’s Magnolia Cemetery.

Source: McKinley, Fred B., and Greg Riley. "Black Gold to Bluegrass: From the Oil Fields of Texas to Spindletop Farm of Kentucky". Austin: Eakin Press, 2005.


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