A Centennial History of Guadalupe Church: Part II

Last year, while still in San Antonio, I began work on a two-part history of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Shrine. I naively thought that even in the midst of wrapping up my year as a Jesuit Volunteer, I would complete the project in just a week or two, and that I might even get around to producing a documentary film treating the same subject matter. I was mistaken! After almost a year, here at last is the second part of the historical survey, for any interested. It is still a work in progress; some details are missing or still to be verified. I hope to have this done — realistically speaking — sometime between next week and twenty-seven years from now.

Growth and Transition: 1953-1988

Father William Dillon, SJ, became just the second Jesuit pastor of Guadalupe Church after Tranchese’s monumental twenty-one-year tenure. Housing, health, and labor rights had improved for the church’s parishioners, and Father Dillon now set his sights on one of the barrio’s other great needs: access to education. A new parish school was promptly constructed on the property, replacing that which the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word had built in 1916; Dillon also built a new convent for the sisters who taught there. The national climate after the Second World War encouraged broader access to higher education to populations previously denied it, and the Jesuits too supported the college ambitions of young men graduating from the parish school, paying entire tuition bills to St. Mary’s University in the latter half of the decade.

Dillon’s tenure as pastor was short – only five years. That of his successor, Father J.J. Cazenavette, SJ, was even shorter, covering 1958-1960. Father Cazenavette continued Dillon’s emphasis on the young people of the neighborhood, building up the parish youth group. Within the next two decades, the parish school would continue to develop. In 1971, the Moody Foundation bestowed a $25,000 grant to expand Guadalupe’s elementary school programs, which at the time included individualized curricula designed to meet different levels of students’ intellectual needs.

In 1969, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church received arguably its most influential pastor since Father Tranchese, and its first Mexican-American priest. Father Edmundo Rodriguez, SJ, made it a top priority to revive the church’s flagging tradition of community organizing and social justice initiatives. In 1971, the Guadalupe parish hall hosted a news conference by state senator Joe Bernall, Archbishop Patrick Flores, and civic leader and grocery chain owner Eloy Centeno on the array of problems facing the Mexican-American community in San Antonio. Riding a new wave of enthusiasm for civic improvement, Father Rodriguez worked with Ernesto Cortes, a protégé of Cesar Chavez and Saul Alinsky, to create COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service), a groundbreaking church-based network of grassroots advocacy groups, in 1974. Under Rodriguez’s leadership, COPS found itself incarnated on the West Side of San Antonio in the form of the Westside Parish Coalition, which comprised the parishes of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Immaculate Conception, St. Alfonso, San Juan, St. Stephen, and St. Timothy. (The COPS network has since spread across the country.)

COPS immediately set to work raising funds for infrastructural improvement on the West Side. Since the turn of the century, the flooding of Alazan Creek had posed a threat; in fact, at a time when the barrio’s streets were unpaved, flooded streets which obstructed the way to the cathedral downtown had been one of the main impetuses for the construction of new, more local churches. Even into the 70’s, flooding remained problematic. COPS responded by improving drainage in the roads, fixing streets, and widening sidewalks. Further, it repurposed numerous condemned buildings and secured the commission of new public projects, such as an Olympic-sized natatorium on Durango Boulevard in 1981. The Westside Parish Coalition also helped its constituent churches to establish senior nutrition programs supported by the San Antonio Food Bank.

The 1970’s were an exciting time in the history of the West Side, and Guadalupe Church remained at the cultural heart of this swirl of energy. In 1972, San Antonio’s “Mexican-American Christmas” was broadcast from the church. Four years later, the city’s official annual festivities of the December 12 Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, previously held at the Convention Center downtown, were moved to the Westside parish. Father Rodriguez was instrumental in the foundation of the Avenida Guadalupe Association, whose twin goals have been to promote the neighborhood’s cultural vibrancy and to stimulate business and commerce there. Father Rodriguez’s successor as pastor, Father Ed Salazar, SJ (1980-1987), became the AGA’s first president, and when the Association announced its plans to construct a $15 million plaza-amphitheater (designed by architects Elias Reyna and Alex Caragonne, who had previoulsy renovated the Guadalupe Theater) in 1984-5, the formerly dilapidated arena directly across from Guadalupe Church was chosen as its site.

Father Rodriguez served as pastor of Guadalupe Church until 1980. Two years later, he was selected by a community of his Jesuit peers and confirmed by the Order’s General Superior to become the Provincial of the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus – the first Mexican-American Jesuit Provincial in the United States. Upon hearing the news, Father Rodriguez spoke with gratitude about his friends at Guadalupe Church: “Tengo yo, y tenemos los jesuitas, mucho que agradacer a la gente de Guadalupe por la formacion que nos ha dado, las oraciones que ofrece por nosotros, y el apoyo que todos sentimos de ustedes.” (“I am — and all of us Jesuits are — deeply indebted to the people of Guadalupe for the formation they have given us, the prayers that they offer for us, and the support that we all feel from you.”) He was not the only one who thought highly of the spiritual influence of Guadalupe Church. That same year, Archbishop Flores designated the church a Regional Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, just in time to honor the 450th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady to San Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill. The December 12 festivities that year, coordinated by a special delegate of the Archbishop, Sister of Divine Providence Angelina Breaux, are said to have drawn a full 15,000 people.

The scale of events like these can perhaps only be eclipsed by one of Guadalupe Church’s crowning memories: the visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States in 1987. The trip took the pontiff through ten American cities in as many days – Miami, Columbia (South Carolina), New Orleans, San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco, and Detroit – and was structured around a series of encounters with different sub-cultures: indigenous, African-American, youth, Protestant, Polish-American, farm workers, etc. In San Antonio, after a visit to San Fernando Cathedral and Assumption Seminary, an address to representatives of Catholic Charities, and a Mass at Westover Hills near present-day Sea World, the Holy Father came to Plaza Guadalupe to address the Hispanic-American community in the only entirely Spanish-language speech of his ten-day trip. His motorcade arrived on September 13 at around 7:15pm, while the throngs of assembled people sang Demos Gracias al Senor. After a speech that touched on the importance of the family, of catechesis, of the parish community and sacramental life of the church, and of Hispanic identity, he cried out, “Viva la virgen de Guadalupe!”, drawing an enthusiastic response from the crowd.

Towards a New Millennium, and Beyond: 1988-2011

Guiding Guadalupe Church into the next two decades were two beloved pastors: Father Marty Elsner, SJ (1988-1996, and again from 2000-2008), and Father Jim Lambert, SJ (1996-2000). Fathers Elsner and Lambert continued to throw their support behind COPS, recruiting parishioners to work both for infrastructural improvements in the neighborhood and to tackle other local issues such as the neighborhood’s drug problems, voter registration, and local energy company policies. Though the parish school moved to the campus of Immaculate Conception Church on Merida Street in 1985 (under the new name of Westside Catholic High School, which it bore until closing its doors in the 2000’s), Father Elsner rallied support around a network of civic leaders aiming to decrease truancy and improve scholarship and graduation rates at Lanier Public High School, across the street from the church.

As part and parcel of their community outreach, Fathers Elsner and Lambert also encouraged lay leadership in Guadalupe Church. Sunday Masses are amply assisted by lay coordinators and deacons, and the Guadalupana Society of Catholic laywomen – in existence since 1912, a year after the foundation of the parish – is stronger and more vibrant than ever. In the 1980’s, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps – a national network of young adult lay volunteers – was invited to Guadalupe Church to staff the parish’s social service office, which remains one of the best known sources of charitable aid in the city. Since 2001, with the departure of the last religious sisters from the church campus, where they had run a small orphanage subsequent to the end of their teaching ministry at the former parish school, the entire JVC community of San Antonio has lived in the one-time convent beside the church. When Father Ron Gonzales, SJ, became pastor in 2008, one of his first major initiatives was the creation of a permanent parish council, whose members – a third of whom are elected annually – serve terms of three years each.

Guadalupe Church, as a Jesuit parish, has also cultivated and enjoyed good relations with the local archdiocese. The church collaborates on several annual events – from Guadalupe Day festivities to Christmas gift drives – with a sister parish in Helotes, formerly run by the Marianists, though a diocesan parish since 2006. For eight years during his time in San Antonio, Father Elsner was chosen by the archbishop to head the planning committee for the diocesan presbyterate’s annual conference, a great sign of esteem for a religious order priest. Father Lambert was elected chair of this presbyteral council in 2000, but three months later his Jesuit superior reassigned him to Louisiana, and he was unable to accept the archbishop’s request.

One other great issue has taken up all of the Jesuit pastors’ attention: that of parish upkeep. The first major renovations to the church property occurred in the 1950’s under the pastoral care of Father William Dillon, who remodeled the interior of the church and paved the church and school grounds. By then the church was already pushing half a century, and this would be just the first of many major projects to stave off the inevitable wear and tear of time.

For a few decades, repairs came in fits and starts. In 1976, the church received a new set of pews. In 1986, local artist Al Medina designed and began creating a set of new stained class windows, finally completed and dedicated on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the year 2000. No sooner had this project been finished, though, than a major new restoration initiative commenced. In 2001, the exterior of the school building and parish hall were restored. In 2002, famed mural artist John Martinez painted a Guadalupe-themed mural on the side of the hall, featuring a number of kids from the parish youth group who served as models. In 2005, from January through May, liturgies were held in the parish hall, as Donald Wendt executed an extensive renovation and repainting of the church interior.

When Father Ron Gonzales became the pastor of Guadalupe Church in 2008, he continued the foregoing renovations. The interior of the parish hall was cleaned up, and the entire building was given a new foundation. The facade of the school building was repainted, and a collection of condemned buildings on the east side of the church property – which had included a guest house and the social service office, prior to its move to the bottom story of the school building – was demolished. A small chapel dedicated to Cristo de la Agonia was remodeled by Michael Wendt and local parishioners, led by brothers Carlos and Juan Chavez. Most recently, an adoration chapel has been set up in Room 1 of the school building by Associate Pastor James Marshall, SJ, and parishioner Shannon Haase.

After one hundred years, the creativity, faith, and spirit of Guadalupe Church have not been exhausted. This parish, originally founded to serve the needs of a small, poor, and exploited community, has grown into one of the landmarks of San Antonio’s cultural, historical, and religious heritage, and it only continues to grow. It has been a place of pilgrimage for many: for Eleanor Roosevelt in 1937, and for Pope John Paul II half a century later. For Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who visited Guadalupe Plaza in 1991, and for then-Senator Barack Obama, who visited the same plaza in 2008. For a group of students of the University of Texas in San Antonio, who manifested in front of the church during their twenty-two day hunger strike in support of the pro-immigrant DREAM Act legislation. For Miss San Antonio 2011 Domonique Ramirez, who bequeathed her crown to the church in honor of la Virgen, “the queen of queens, the keeper of all crowns.”

But most of all, this is a place of pilgrimage for the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who have lived their lives here under the protection of Our Lady of Guadalupe and contributed to the parish community – or who have visited this beautiful sanctuary from near and far to plead for help and healing, to offer thanks and praise, and to pray for the Church and for the world.

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