Chapter 4 Pastors: 1953 to 1988
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
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 began leveraging finances 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 were one of the main impetuses for the construction of new, more local churches. Even in the 70's, flooding was problematic. COPS responded by improving drainage in the roads, fixing streets, and widening sidewalks. Further, it re-purposed condemned buildings and secured the commission of new public projects, such as an Olympic-sized natatorium on Durango Boulevard in 1981. The West side 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 West side parish. Father Rodriguez was instrumental in the foundation of the Avenida Guadalupe Association, whose twin goals are 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 previously 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.” 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.