After the death of Sarita Kenedy East, litigation concerning her estate continued for more than two decades. The following article, although not 100% accurate, provides a glimpse of how the story was reported in the news.
EAST, SARITA KENEDY (1889-1961). Sarita Kenedy East, South Texas rancher and philanthropist, daughter of John G. and Marie Stella (Turcotte) Kenedy, was born on September 19, 1889, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her grandparents, Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy were the founders of the vast La Parra Ranch in what was then Cameron County (now Kenedy County). She spent much of her childhood at La Parra, and her father named the new town of Sarita, located on the Kenedy ranch, for his daughter upon the town’s founding around 1904. Sarita attended Incarnate Word Academy in Corpus Christi and then H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in New Orleans. She also made her debut in New Orleans. She did not complete college, but instead returned to La Parra. On December 8, 1910, she married Arthur Lee East, a South Texas rancher. They did not have any children.
After Arthur East died in 1944, Mrs East and her brother John G. Kenedy, Jr., were in charge of the 400,000-acre Kenedy ranch. Upon her brother’s death in 1948, Sarita and her sister-in-law Elena Suess Kenedy became the sole heirs to the ranch. Sarita East also owned the San Pablo Ranch near Hebbronville and Twin Peaks Ranch in Colorado. She served as a county commissioner of Kenedy County and was on the board of directors of Alice National Bank. In addition to her business dealings, she engaged in philanthropy, especially to Catholic charities. In 1952, she received the Ecclesia et Pontifice medal and membership in the Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem from Pope Pius XII for her service to the church. She was also named an honorary member of the Franciscans and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. In her 1948 will she bequeathed La Parra ranch headquarters and 10,000 acres of land to the Oblate fathers and 13,000 acres to the Diocese of Corpus Christi. The rest of her vast estate was divided among relatives and ranch kin.
In 1948, Mrs. East met Christopher Gregory, a Trappist monk who had taken the name Brother Leo. Two years earlier, Brother Leo had been released from his vow of silence and assigned to raise funds for new Trappist monasteries. He was on a fund-raising trip through South Texas when he met Sarita East, and over the next few years he became her advisor and traveling companion. In the 1950s, Mrs. East allowed oil and gas exploration on her ranch which, up to that time, had largely been an untapped resource. During that time she gave money to the Trappist monks and visited monasteries throughout the world. In 1959, with other family members and Brother Leo, she went on a South American tour, one of several trips she made, and donated $300,000 to build a mission in Chile. That same year Brother Leo introduced her to J. Peter Grace, Chairman of the Board of W. R. Grace and Company, in New York. The three began the work of forming a charitable Foundation. On January 21, 1960, they established The John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation, with Sarita Kenedy East as sole member. Mrs. East also wrote another will leaving the bulk of her estate to the Foundation. Over the next few months she wrote a series of codicils to her will that increasingly gave more control of the Foundation to Brother Leo and Grace. Just before her death she named Brother Leo sole member of the Foundation. Sarita Kenedy East died of cancer on February 11, 1961, in New York City and was buried at La Parra Ranch.
Within months after her death a group of South Texans, including Elena Suess Kenedy, members of the Turcotte family, and the Diocese of Corpus Christi, filed a lawsuit disputing Brother Leo’s control of the Foundation, charging that Leo and Grace exerted undue influence over Mrs. East while she was disoriented by medication. Other relatives also contested her 1960 will and wished to reinstate her 1948 will dividing the estate among various beneficiaries. Over the course of the battle more than 200 people claimed to be legitimate heirs. In 1964, a settlement regarding the Foundation resulted in the splitting of assets. Grace and the New York group relinquished control of the Foundation over Brother Leo’s objections. The bulk of the funds, approximately $100 million, went to the control of the South Texans, but Grace received oil royalties (not to exceed $14.4 million) from the estate and established a smaller Foundation in New York, the Sarita Kenedy East Foundation, worth approximately $13 million. In 1966 Brother Leo filed an appeal against the decision; after a further series of appeals the Texas Supreme Court ruled against him. In June 1981, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, thereby affirming the rights of the Texas relatives to retain control of the Foundation. Through a series of court battles over the years the 1960 will was upheld over the 1948 will, and the assets of the Foundation and most of the Kenedy estate remained intact. As Mrs. East wished, the ranch headquarters went to the Oblate fathers. The estate, which had been held in escrow by the Alice National Bank, was finally turned over to the Foundation in 1982. In 1984, basically the first year that the Foundation officially operated, it had $100 million in assets and was the largest charitable Foundation in South Texas. It was stipulated that at least 10 percent of the income go to the Corpus Christi Diocese, with a total of 90 percent of funds going for religious activities and the other 10 percent going to secular agencies.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, August 26-29, September 23-27, December 16-19, 1984. Stephan G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, If You Love Me You Will Do My Will (New York: Norton, 1990). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.
Copyright © The Texas State Historical Association – Laurie E. Jasinski