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Father David Garcia, known to his parishioners and many throughout the city as just “Father David,” is the force behind the restoration of San Fernando Cathedral and, in partnership with then-Mayor Phil Hardberger, the redevelopment of Main Plaza across from City Hall downtown. He also plays a key role in the bid for World Heritage status with UNESCO for San Antonio’s four missions. Recently, friends, family, business, and civic leaders came together to fête someone with apparently endless energy and a true capacity for creating change collaboratively.
“Father David is an excellent priest, as the archbishop and others have said, but he’s also the world’s best fundraiser,” he said.
Indeed, Father David’s gifts in this department are fairly legendary: Approximately $40 million raised for projects such as the restoration of the historic San Fernando Cathedral to the Old Spanish Missions. But a conversation with the peppy, articulate, and hyper-focused Garcia feels like a civics lesson in how collaboration and cooperation can happen in an American city, despite the customary divides of church and state.
His local influence stretches back decades and involves many of the key players in contemporary San Antonio politics, business and culture. He says he’s enjoyed some teasing from fellow clerics about how frequently he’s made the news, but it’s an important facet of life that has developed in a distinct direction from his early roots as a young priest. In addition to his work with the missions, Garcia also is parish administrator of Mission Concepción, and the senior adviser for clergy outreach for Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Fr. David is a great leader for San Antonio,” says Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “He is San Antonio’s own ‘Renaissance’ Pastor. He keeps all of us grounded by preserving our heritage, and helps guide our future with time-honored values and the skills of an astute entrepreneur.”
Garcia commented on his well-developed prowess at capital campaigns.
“If you had told me when I was in the seminary that this is what I’d be doing, I would have quit,” he said, laughing. “Because I would have said, ‘Why do I want to be a priest and do that?!’”
But as life would have it, there were many opportunities to develop these and many other talents.
At his first parish church in the 1970s, he learned about community organizing. The church was Immaculate Conception on Merida Street, across the street from a vacant lot. Through his involvement in Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), he was able to create a city park in the vacant lot, although the process took years. Garcia said this was when he learned some of the first lessons in what it takes to be effective.
“(I learned) the power of getting involved with the community, putting pressure on politicians and city officials to pay attention to the poor,” he said.
Later on, there would be alliances with city mayors (former mayors Phil Hardberger, and Nelson Wolff, both as mayor and later as county judge), religious leaders (Louis Zbinden, the now-retired leader of First Presbyterian Church), and the business and philanthropic community (Ed Whitacre at AT&T, Kit Goldsbury, Charles Butt and H-E-B, Bill Greehey and Valero, and various leaders at USAA, to name a few). Not to mention, the National Park Service (Susan Snow) and its community support organization, Los Compadres (Susan Chandoha), with whom the missions enjoy a unique relationship: four active parishes functioning inside a national park. The only similar arrangement, and it’s on a much smaller scale, is the vestigial chapel for a long-abandoned leper colony at Kalaupapa National Park in Hawaii.
But first there were the exigencies of inheriting leadership at aging historical properties to contend with, something he first encountered when he was appointed rector of San Fernando Cathedral in 1995. He took on the new appointment only to find that the cathedral was in desperate need of repair and restoration.
“(The cathedral) was falling apart and ready to collapse; the dome was ready to fall for a second time. So, little by little, I had to get into it. I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “We started getting committees together, even though I had never done anything like this before, until we finally ended up saying, ‘We’ve got to preserve this.’”
More than $21 million was raised for the restoration project as well as construction of two adjacent buildings – essentially transforming that section of downtown in what Garcia refers to as a “renaissance” of sorts. Many of the givers were not even Catholics, but agreed San Fernando Cathedral is the shared cultural patrimony of all who live in San Antonio.
The successful cathedral project made fundraising easier for the missions campaign, another project that enjoyed broad-based support. Garcia cites the example of AT&T’s now retired Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre, who gave to both campaigns, as did many other civic leaders and leading businesses, because of their personal experiences inside and around the cathedral.
“People felt that their money went to what we said it would go to. They saw the results of it, we acknowledged them, the money was transparent, we were accountable for it.” he said. “(Fundraising for the missions) had even more, or at least different appeal, than the cathedral. Because the missions are not seen as Catholic parishes or such, even though they are. The churches are the crown jewels of each mission compound.
“If those churches were just a pile of rocks, it would be a whole different experience walking around them. But the fact that those churches exist, and that they’re so spectacularly built – and because of that, everyone realizes that they are gems – well, we’ve got to preserve them. And from that I think it’s easy for people to say, ‘You know what? These ought to be World Heritage sites. They can’t just be a National Park or just a tourist spot for San Antonio; they’re world-class.’ And because we think they’re world-class, we’re going to propose it as such, and that’s how the idea developed.”
Have his prodigious talents at fundraising and getting projects done diverted his path away from higher positions in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy? Perhaps.
“In our business, we talk about the hand of God,” he said. “And I feel like it was the hand of God intervening and saying, ‘You’ve got some talents I’ve given you, and I want you to use them in a different way. I don’t want you to be bishop, I don’t want you to do all this other stuff. But I would like you to do some pretty important things in San Antonio.’”
He cites the blend of “cultures, religion, and history” that make this locale unique.
“San Antonio is a very religious city, and it’s also a very Hispanic city,” he said. “This city has some of the oldest buildings in the state of Texas, and some of the oldest buildings in the country. You also get this wonderful group of people who are very civic-minded – who, for them, it’s not an issue that (a project) is Catholic, or not Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim, or whatever. It’s that for them, this is San Antonio, and we all step up to the plate and do things for San Antonio.”
Consequently, he says, we’ve been able to do projects cooperatively here.
“If you were in another city, they’d say, ‘You can’t do that! That’s (separation of) church and state!’ But in San Antonio, that’s part of our history, so we just do it.”
But perhaps most importantly, Garcia taps directly into his local roots when he talks about his passion for the varied and important work that has been his legacy.
“San Antonio is my heritage,” he said, “And South Texas is my heritage. I’m from the dirt, this dirt here, this land. So when I did the cathedral and I’m doing the missions, it’s personal and familial to me.”
“I’m a big history buff,” he said, remarking that he got his undergraduate degree in history from St. Mary’s University, locally. So these projects “are me,” he said.
“It’s not just a job. I suppose everyone can take it as a job, if you want to, but if you take it as a job, I don’t think you’ll end up doing it the same way as if you take it because it’s part of who you are, and what you owe your ancestors,” he said.
*Featured/top image: Father David Garcia poses for a photo in his office. Photo by Scott Ball.