Becoming the Beloved Community
Faith-based service and social justice
Many women activists draw strength from their faith communities in San Antonio’s Westside. Faith-based organizations have provided vital resources to marginalized and oppressed communities. Women have also continually challenged faith-based organizations to become more inclusive and to advocate for social change. This essay highlights some of the most well-known historical examples of how faith-based social movements have shaped San Antonio’s westside.
Women and Protestant Christian Centers
In the early twentieth century, San Antonio was the only large city in Texas that did not dispense direct relief for the poor, and so community and religious organizations provided the only available relief services, These organizations created a community chest that centralized fundraising activities and distributed funds to various charitable organizations. There were about 110 Protestant Christian centers throughout Texas in 1928. Protestant churches, including Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist denominations, generally had greater financial resources, and many served the Mexican community in the Westside. These centers offered both services and community gathering spaces. Christian centers also allowed Protestants to evangelize in the Westside in the 1920s. Most of these centers were organized and run by women of their respective parishes. They also generally excluded African Americans, or offered separate segregated services for members of the black community.
Several Methodist organizations provided vital services to the Westside. Organized in 1876, La Trinidad United Methodist Church, located at 300 San Fernando Street, continues today as a bilingual missionary church that offers diverse ministries to families. La Trinidad is the sixth oldest Latino United Methodist congregation in the United states. A school was established in 1910, and the congregation grew rapidly in the early twentieth century during and after the Mexican Revolution. One of the most well known leaders of La Trinidad was journalist and community activist Jovita Idár, who became part of the church when she moved to San Antonio in 1917. She co-edited and wrote for El Heraldo Cristiano, a publication of the Rio Grande Conference of the Methodist church. She served as conference president of the United Methodist Women. In the 1920s, the Wesley House, (later the Wesley Community Center) was located at 150 Colima Street, and it provided a kindergarten, free clinic, day nursery, English classes and an employment agency. The Mexican community suffered from high rates of hunger and tuberculosis at the time, and so the Wesley House, along with the Robert B. Green Hospital, played an important role in providing healthcare for this community. The Methodist San Antonio Mission Home offered housing for approximately 2000 unwed mothers. The home had its origin in the religious conversion of a Madame, who converted her brothel into a “rescue home” and school. This eventually became the San Antonio Mission Home and Training School on San Saba and Monterrey Street. Women took classes in music, typewriting and other practical instruction.
The Instituto Cristiano Mexicano also served the Mexican community. Founded in 1913 at 1000 San Jacinto, the Instituto offered Kindergarten classes, a women’s club, a gymnasium, a boys athletic club, religion and English classes, a clinic, a day care center and an employment service for immigrant women.
The House of Neighborly Services (HSN) was established in 1917 by Presbyterian missionaries, and established the first kindergarten in the Westside in 1920. They are supported by Divine Redeemer Presbytarian Church, and their mission has been “to carry on education and Christian work among the Mexican population of the city.” The community center, located at 407 N. Calaveras, was designed in 1929 and continues to provide family support and child development programs, senior care, and food distribution.
The YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) was established in San Antonio in 1913, and had one branch, the International Institute, that served the Mexican community. Protestant organizations also worked together to plan an orphanage for children of Mexican descent, named the Orphan Home for Mexican children. The home was planned to provide both housing for orphans and child care for working parents.
Sociedades Guadalupanas and the Catholic Church
Women also organized within the Catholic Church. Sociedades Guadalupanas are religious associations that address social issues and perform works of charity in various Catholic parishes. Named for Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, they are organized by Mexican American Catholic women and foster women’s leadership in the church. Members often come from working class backgrounds. Some men have also been members as well, including José Navarro, who became the first president of the first known sociedad in San Antonio, started in 1912 by Father Juan Maiztegui, the first chaplain of Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine on El Paso street. San Antonio’s sociedades formed in response to the need to build a school for Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. Over time the groups also devoted attention to English classes, reading and writing and religious education. Guadalupanas also established a distinct and long-lasting base for Mexican Americans in the Church. Women in the organization develop leadership and organizational skills and are a vital network of support for each other. Many women believe that participation in a sociedad has wrought miracles in their lives and helped them grow in their faith. One ritual that deepens Guadalupanas’ connection to community is called the Virgen Peregrina, where an image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is initially set up in one member’s home for a gathering, and then taken to similar gatherings in other members’ homes. Thus, the image makes a pilgrimage through the neighborhood and lends protection to its residents.
Guadalupanas have also performed vital community service, including setting up diabetes-detection campaigns, volunteering at battered-women’s shelters and nursing homes, ministering to prisoners, organizing youth activities and serving on parish councils. They sponsor an annual Serenata a la Virgen Morena, a celebration of the memorial of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. The Federation of Guadalupanas was organized in the archdiocese of San Antonio in 1981, which meets at conferences to address both spiritual and social concerns.
The Catholic Church also has a long history of establishing community centers that offer health and educational services. In the early 1920s, the Catholic Community Center, at 520 Matamoros street, offered a settlement house, kindergarten, gymnasium, religion classes and an employment center. The center was established in response to community needs, but also as a way to draw residents away from the influence of the Protestant settlement homes and missionary churches. The center closed, but then another Catholic Community center opened in 1927 and became even more involved in the community, offering a social service department, an employment bureau, a night school for adults, citizenship classes, a girl’s club, and sewing classes. While these Christian community centers offered vital services, they were consistently struggling with lack of financial support. This intensified in the 1930s as the Mexican community, in particular, struggled during the Depression. The Catholic Church responded with Casa Regina, a home that provided jobs for young women and single mothers. The Local Council of Catholic women also maintained three health centers at the Perpetual Help Church, at 2101 Nebraska Street; the St. Alphonsus Church, at 1202 S. Zarzamora Street; and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, at S. San Saba Street. However, charitable organizations could not adequately provide for the needs of Westside residents during the Depression. Thus, in the early 1930s there was a rise in direct petitions to the federal government to provide much needed resources to struggling communities on the Westside, and throughout the country.
The story of the role of faith in social justice movements must include the life and work of Father Carmelo Tranchese, who arrived to serve as the first Jesuit pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in 1932. For the next 22 years he was known as “El Padrecito,” ministering to West side residents who lived in corrales-- small, dilapidated and overcrowded homes. There were no indoor toilets or running water, no paved streets. Alarming numbers of infants died of tuberculosis, smallpox, diphtheria and typhoid fever, but city leaders were indifferent to their suffering. Tranchese set up a daily bread line in the church yard. In 1935 he founded La Voz de la Parroquia, a weekly bilingual newspaper to educate parishioners about health issues. He also began a letter-writing campaign seeking federal money to secure public housing, with the support of Texas State Representative Maury Maverick and civil rights advocate Alonso Perales. In 1937 Tranchese was named to the newly-created San Antonio Housing Authority. The project was delayed and challenged by Supreme Court decisions and hostile landlords, but Tranchese persisted, and the Alazán-Apache Courts were built largely due to his efforts. Residents of this new public housing, called “Los Courts,” had private bathrooms, gas, electricity and water heaters. Tuberculosis rates rapidly decreased. Tranchese’s work continued in the 1940s, helping to establish the Guadalupe Community Center at 1801 W. Durango Street, which offered a health clinic, prenatal classes, food and clothing. The Guadalupe Community Center continues to provide emergency financial assistance, adult education and after school programs, and many other programs as part of Catholic Charities. Tranchese also continued to lobby for more housing, recognizing that Los Courts served only a fraction of the many families who needed better housing. He also wrote a book about “Los Pastores,” the shepherd’s nativity drama long performed in San Antonio. Tranchese suffered for his work though. In 1953, Tranchese had a nervous breakdown, and died of two heart attacks on July 13, 1956. He is still remembered and recognized for all that he did for the Westside, and for San Antonio.
In the 1940s, the Sisters of Divine Providence set up a small clinic called Stella Maris on Castroville Road. Sister Mary Nelda González, CDP, was assigned to oversee the clinic. Sister González also visited homes, providing supplemental food, teaching methods of sanitation like sterilizing bottles, and how to handle minor injuries. She recruited volunteer doctors to treat residents for diseases that continued to afflict the Westside, including smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza and hepatitis. She also protested, and persuaded the school district to build schools in the area served by the clinic. By 1975, the Clinic served 800 patients per week, with as many as twelve doctor volunteers. In 1992 the Stella Maris board leased the building to the Bexar County Health District, which then brought health services to residents of this Westside community.
The cultural and political social movements of the 1960s and 1970s would also have a profound impact on the Catholic Church. The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, often called Vatican II, was called between October 1962 through December 1965. Vatican II transformed many aspects of the Church. There was increasing emphasis on dialogue with other religions, use of vernacular languages in Mass, and other changes that led the church to engage more fully with the modern world. Two catholic organizations would also challenge the Church from within. In 1969, the Padres Asociados para los Derechos Religiosos, Educativos, y Sociales (PADRES) was formed by a group of Mexican American priests in the Westside, and advocated for the inclusion of more Latinos in leadership positions within the Church. Among the founding members were diocesan priests Ralph Ruiz and Henry Casso, Franciscan Manuel Martínez, and Jesuit Edmundo Rodríguez. PADRES was strongly influenced by the liberation theology that emerged in Latin America. They helped establish the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), now the Mexican American Catholic College, founded in San Antonio by Father Virgilio Elizondo.
Las Hermanas also helped found MACC. This organization was created in 1971 for Latinas who were involved in the Catholic Church. When it was incorporated in 1972 it became the first church group in the United States to represent Spanish-Speaking women. Most members were of Mexican descent, but there were also Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other Latin Americans. The organization emphasized claiming their identity, wearing ethnic clothing, re-learning Spanish and challenging the Church to be able to serve congregations of their people. Laywomen also gradually became involved.
One long-standing member of the organization was Sister Yolanda Tarango, a Tejana of Isleta Pueblo who was called to San Antonio to serve with the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in 1966. In their seminal work in 1996, Tarango and Ada María Isasi-Díaz defined the term “mujerista theology” to describe faith and practice that is rooted in Latina culture, the inherent dignity and equality of women, and a liberation theology that focuses on changing oppressive structures. As Elise García writes, “Central to mujerista theology is la lucha, the struggle that is at the heart of a Latina woman’s life not only for survival but also for liberation--for both herself and her community.” Las Hermanas has always been an activist organization. Their first focus was ministering to people who lived at the margins, engaging in pastoral training that honored and respected Latina/o culture. The organization then shifted toward direct advocacy-- marching with farmworkers and calling on the church to be who it says it is. They then focused on feminism, addressing issues like childcare, education, domestic violence, AIDS, human trafficking and ecological racism. Their focus was always to address the needs of the most disadvantaged. They were often at odds with more conservative forces in the Church, and so they were funded and operated independently. They worked within the Church but also outside of the Church, and expanded the church’s concept of ministry
One of most effective faith-based political organizations developed directly out of San Antonio’s West and South side parishes. The Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) is an organization founded in 1974. It is the oldest Interfaith Area Foundation (IAF) organization in Texas. COPS and the Metro Alliance work to create and maintain after school programs, fund scholarships, job training programs and advocate for a living wage.
COPS was founded by Father Edmundo Rodríguez and Ernesto Cortés. Father Rodríguez was a Jesuit priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. He had already been active in civil rights and interfaith organizing. Cortés grew up on the Westside. He had served on the Bexar County Hospital Board as an appointee of County Commissioner Albert Peña, and as an economic development specialist for the Mexican American Unity Council. He attended Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Area Foundation in Chicago and returned to San Antonio in 1973. Together, Rodríguez and Cortés raised money from Church of Christ, Methodist and Episcopal sources and formed a new movement initially called the Committee for Mexican American Action. Cortés then met with pastors to find names of parishioners who were natural leaders-- people who organized church socials, ran PTAs, or served as union stewards. He found Andy Sarabia, the chairman of the community life committee of Holy Family Church, and would eventually become the first president of the organization.
He also found Beatrice Gallego, who was active in the PTA, Head Start and St. James parish. Cortés asked these leaders what concerned them-- flooding streets, potholes, the lack of sidewalks and high utility bills, and he organized around these issues. Cortés and Rodríguez helped these community leaders organize across parishes, working for a drainage project in one parish and then helping another parish get a park. They learned where to research issues and ask specific questions when they went to city hall. The first issue they organized around was drainage-- a widespread problem in the West and South side, and an issue that was localized and in the hands of the city manager and city council. They changed their name to the Communities Organized for Public Service and had their first confrontation with city hall in a meeting with City Manager Sam Granata in 1974. They filled the city council chambers to pressure him to meet, and before the meeting they trained and did their research. Heavy rains came down just a few days before the meeting. Forty families were displaced in the flooding, the Mayberry ditch caved in, and Westside streets were impassable. Over five hundred people showed up to the meeting; they showed Granata photos of flooded houses and streets, their research uncovered histories of drainage projects that had been authorized by the council but never funded, including the Mayberry project, which had been part of the city’s master plan since 1945. The confrontation was a great victory for the new organization, as that Fall the council drew up a $46 million bond issue that passed in November. COPS then held its first convention, formalized its structure and elected Sarabia as president.
COPS has continued to effectively advocate for the Westside. The organization has played a crucial role in directing long-promised resources to Westside communities, challenging developers, protecting the Edwards aquifer, and transforming San Antonio’s city council with the creation of single member districts. The church has been the crucial factor that has kept the organization going, providing financial support and a reservoir of community leaders. Catholic clergy have continued to play vital leadership roles, including Father Albert Benavides
COPS also cultivated a high number of women leaders in the process. Beatrice Gallego, Carmen Badillo, Beatrice Cortes, Sonia Hernández, Helen Ayala, and Rachel Salazar have all served as presidents of the organization. Many other women have served as co-chairs and in other leadership positions.
The success of COPS inspired two additional IAF organizations in the 1980s: the East Side Alliance, composed of African American and Latino churches, and the Metropolitan Congregational Alliance, which included South, Central, and Northwest area Anglo and Latino Protestant churches. The Metro Alliance formed in 1989 through a merger of the East Side Alliance and the Metropolitan Congressional Alliance. Today COPS and the Metro Alliance share resources and work collaboratively to continue to advocate for working class communities in San Antonio.
One of the greatest struggles of the LGBTQI community within the Catholic Church is for the recognition of their rights to be full participants in the sacramental life of the Church. DignityUSA has been one of the national leaders of this effort, founded in 1969 by Father Patrick X. Nidorf. In 1976 Nickie Valdez, Bruce Jarstfer and others co-founded a San Antonio chapter. As their website notes, Dignity/San Antonio was established to provide “a safe space for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender Catholics to reconcile, heal, and integrate their sexuality with their spirituality.” They describe themselves as “a community of faith in exile from our church.” The organization began after Nickie helped organize a small group of gay men and lesbian women who gathered in each others’ homes to stay connected to their faith. They read and discussed scripture, and how it applied to their lives. Eventually they decided to have a more public presence, so they began meeting at the International Students Center at St. Philips College, on the invitation of Sr. Maria Teresa Flores, CCVI, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word. Unfortunately they were soon asked to leave by Archbishop Furey, and so had to return to meeting in homes. At this time, they found out about Dignity, Inc. and inquired about how to form a local chapter. When Archbishop Furey left San Antonio, the chaplain of San Antonio College, Father Balty Janacek, asked the incoming Archbishop Flores if he could invite the group to meet at his campus. The chapter celebrated their first Mass on August 1, 1976 at Our Lady of the Pillar Retreat House.
During Archbishop Flores’ time in San Antonio, the group healed and grew. By 1980 they had filled their offices and created bylaws and a constitution. They were centered on liturgy, but began to articulate more connections between their sexuality and spirituality. They held discussion groups on topics such as “Gay Morality,” “The Gay and Lesbian Family,” and“What does it mean to be gay?” They became financially independent and hosted their first Region VII Convention at the University of the Incarnate Word. In September 1981 Archbishop Flores formally appointed Father Alex Nagy and Nancy Shafer to minister the Chapter. They decided to pursue meeting in a Catholic Church, and were thrilled when the Vicar General of the Diocese, Monsignor Charles Pugh, let them meet at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, so they found a home there on Easter Sunday 1982. Unfortunately, they faced some harassment-- they would find that the air had been let out of their tires after liturgy on Sundays; mud balls and slurs were thrown at them and written on their cars. When Monsignor Pugh left St. Patrick’s in 1985, the new pastor asked them to leave. On Palm Sunday, over 200 members shared in their farewell celebration to St. Patrick’s.
Nickie and her spouse and partner in life, Deborah Myers, led many of Dignity/San Antonio's programs and other justice-oriented activities in the city. They were leaders of DignityUSA’s Committee for Women’s Concerns, which eventually became Women of Dignity. They also headed DignityUSA’s Couples Ministry, which maintained a registry of couples who had celebrated their commitments before they could be legally recognized. Through mentoring and nurturing so many people, they saved many lives.
Dignity/San Antonio continued to face many challenges over the years, in their struggle to find a welcoming space in the Catholic Church. In October 1986, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued what is called the “Halloween letter” stating that homosexuality is an intrinsic disorder and those who act on their sexuality intrinsically evil. Dignity chapters around the country were asked to leave Catholic Church property, but Archbishop Flores continued to defend Dignity/ San Antonio, and they were allowed to meet at St. Mary’s Catholic Church downtown (though they no longer had a formally assigned chaplain). In spite of Archbishop Flores’ protection, Dignity/San Antonio suffered. Fewer priests were willing to preside; the harsh language of the Halloween letter was devastating to many LGBTQ Catholics, many of whom left the church altogether.
For Dignity/San Antonio, this shift “matured them in their faith and spirituality.” They now created their own liturgical services, added more inclusive language and felt empowered in their ability to express who they were. They hosted a regional conference at Casa San Jose (Oblate) with keynote speaker Sister Jeanine Grammick, SL, a Sister of Loretto, and workshops with topics such as “The human side of AIDS”, and “Homophobia.” They hosted their first Ball, which has become an annual event that celebrates their work in the community. In the early 1990s they had to leave St. Mary’s, and began to meet at St. Ann’s Catholic Church. While at St. Ann’s, they established a meals program for people with AIDS, and created an event called “Solidarity Sunday,” a non-violence project asking people to pledge to end violence against all people, includinge LGBTQ communities. In 1996 they hosted the Mountain Plains Regional Conference with Tom Keene as the keynote speaker, and for their 20th anniversary they invited Dignity USA President Marianne Duddy as their homilist. They continued to host several other conferences and major events.
In 2005 they faced another setback, as Archbishop Patrick Flores retired, ending a shepherding era for Dignity San Antonio. Under Archbishop José Gómez the relationship between Dignity/San Antonio and the Catholic Church became more tenuous. In 2010 the administrator to Archbishop Gómez, Oscar Cantú, sent a letter to Dignity/San Antonio asking them not only to leave St. Ann’s, but to stop holding Mass in San Antonio as well. They were not to gather on any Catholic Church property.
Nickie called Reverend Tom Heger at Beacon Hill Presbyterian Church to share the news, and he immediately offered a place for Dignity to gather. Dignity continued to meet there until Beacon Hill closed their doors in 2014. Several other communities welcomed them: University Presbyterian Church, Laurel Heights Methodist Church, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Ultimately they decided to meet at St. Paul’s, and have been holding weekly services to this day. Dignity/San Antonio continues to welcome all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex Catholics and their allies.