Archdiocese influenced by immigrants.
Spanish, French and Mexicans among those playing roles
In many ways, the history of the Archdiocese of San Antonio is a series of immigration stories that reflect the state’s political shifts, its segregation, its social changes and the succeeding waves of religious leaders and workers who came to Texas to convert the population and lead the faithful.
Officially, its start date was 1874, when the Vatican created the Diocese of San Antonio by splitting it from the Texas Diocese, then based in Galveston.
Spanish Catholic roots, however, were deeply established long before that.
During the 18th century, Franciscan friars and indigenous neophytes built the city’s Spanish colonial missions that today enjoy UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Waves of immigration in the 19th century had a significant Catholic component, bringing newer Spanish, French, Irish, German and Mexican priests and parishioners to San Antonio. Dogged and determined religious women arrived, too, and their orders established Catholic institutions that contributed to the growth of the faith.
Like other institutions of the 20th century, Catholicism here was marked by demographic shifts and internal dissension. The archdiocese saw the appointment of the nation’s first MexicanAmerican bishop, the rise of lay movements and, more recently, its first woman chancellor.
When Rome named Father Anthony Dominic Pellicer the diocese’s first bishop in 1874, San Antonio had only a few parishes, according to the Handbook of Texas: “San Fernando (1731) for the Spanish speaking, St. Mary’s (1856) for the Irish, St. Michael’s (1866) for the Polish community and St. Joseph’s (1868) for Germans.”
Bishop John C. Neraz, a Frenchman, was the second bishop, growing the diocese from 1881 to 1894 and ushering in a French period for it.
The Irish were next. Each time an immigrant religious group dried up, the diocese turned to another or back to a previous group, as it did in the early 1890s, when the Spanish Claretians arrived.
In 1926, the diocese was elevated to an archdiocese and continued to grow despite the Great Depression. It was bolstered by Mexican Catholics who sought refuge here before, during and after the Mexican Revolution. Mexican priests came to the archdiocese, too.
In the 1970s, PADRES, a group of Mexican-American priests, and Las Hermanas, a group of Mexican-American nuns, advocated for inclusion and more Latinos in positions of power both in and out of the church.
Given San Antonio’s status as a mecca for all things Hispanic, it would be no accident that Patricio Flores, a migrant farmworker in his youth, would become the nation’s first Mexican-American Catholic bishop. After being named auxiliary bishop in 1970, his episcopal ordination in the old Convention Center was packed with everyday residents and national Hispanic leadership.
He became archbishop of San Antonio in 1979, paving the way for other U.S. Latino church leaders, and he would be at its helm during one of the archdiocese’s most celebrated chapters: Pope
John Paul II’s visit to the Alamo City.
In 2014, he selected Sister Jane Ann Slater as chancellor, making her the first woman to hold a post historically held by a priest, typically a monsignor.
Today, the archdiocese still has thriving parishes in the inner city, though several have been closed or combined. Some priests do double duty and lead two parishes.
And in keeping with its long immigration story, the archdiocese has parishes made up of Italian, Vietnamese, Korean and Burmese Catholics and is now recruiting priests primarily from India, Africa and the Philippines.
Catholic clergy and other faithful exit after Mass at San Fernando Cathedral to participate in a procession to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi in June.