West Side groups, church battle over plans to demolish St. Alphonsus rectory – San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — Plans to raze the rectory and an outbuilding at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church has sparked a battle between West Side residents who don’t want to see more buildings in the area torn down and a church struggling with declining attendance and collections.

The city’s Historic and Design Review Commission sided with preservation advocates Wednesday, deeming the buildings historically significant and eligible for designation as a landmark.

But St. Alphonsus can still demolish the buildings. Under state law, if a property is owned by a religious organization, a municipality can only designate it as a landmark if the organization consents.

In November, St. Alphonsus and the Archdiocese of San Antonio submitted an incomplete application to demolish the rectory and an outbuilding with a mural at 2004 Chihuahua St.

The Westside Preservation Alliance, Esperanza Peace & Justice Center and Historic Westside Residents Association opposed the proposal.

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After the application was finished in April, the alliance filed a request for review of the property’s historic significance. The organization contended the buildings met six of the city’s criteria for eligibility for historic landmark designation.

It said the site was donated to the archdiocese by businessman Charles Graebner in 1925, with the stipulation that a church, school and rectory be built.

A clinic at the church provided services for mothers and infants along with language and sewing classes. And a youth center that opened as part of a federal poverty initiative in 1965 “was a social as well as an economic lifeline” run by Bishop John Yanta, who founded the San Antonio Neighborhood Youth Organization.

Through such efforts, the property contributed to “the spiritual, cultural and social well-being of San Antonio’s Westside working class community,” the alliance said.

‘Still has life’

During Wednesday’s meeting, 30 voicemail messages in support of keeping the rectory were heard and several people spoke in person. Some said they were current or past parishioners and talked about their memories of weddings, baptisms and funeral Masses.

Natalie Guerrero, a member of the alliance and association, said St. Alphonsus has been her church for over 60 years and the rectory “still has life and potential.”

“The character of this building is beautiful and it fits right into our neighborhood,” she said through tears. “If you lived in this neighborhood, this is what your home would look like growing up. I understand that things and/or people get old, but you try to preserve the beauty as long as you can.”

Others said they were concerned about allowing more West Side buildings to be demolished, and that communications with church leaders had been unsatisfactory.

St. Alphonsus and the Archdiocese of San Antonio want to demolish the rectory and an outbuilding at the church. The Westside Preservation Alliance, Esperanza Peace & Justice Center and Historic Westside Residents Association oppose the plans.

St. Alphonsus and the Archdiocese of San Antonio want to demolish the rectory and an outbuilding at the church. The Westside Preservation Alliance, Esperanza Peace & Justice Center and Historic Westside Residents Association oppose the plans.

Courtesy of the Westside Preservation Alliance

For some residents, the impact of previous demolitions provided a lens on the current situation. Graciela Sanchez, Esperanza’s director, said she “saw my neighborhood disappear” when homes were torn down in the 1970s as part of urban renewal policies.

Efforts to save the rectory are not new. Years ago, church leaders asked Esperanza to move it. The organization tried to come up with a plan but St. Alphonsus leadership changed, Sanchez said.

She said the organizations were willing to help find ways to raise funds to maintain it.

But representatives from St. Alphonsus said that when the plan was taken to parishioners, the majority agreed with plans to raze the rectory and build a small fellowship hall in its place.

City staff said the rectory alone did not meet the criteria to be eligible for designation. The entire property is eligible and, if it was deemed historic, the rectory would be part of that.

‘Just a house’

For its part, the church needs a gathering place that is compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards for elderly and disabled attendees, said Larry Salas, building chairman for St. Alphonsus. The rectory is of little use.

“This is just a house. It’s not serving the needs that it needs to serve,” he said.

Church attendance and collections have dwindled and fundraising is difficult. The church has had to use savings to keep the lights on, said Adelaida Garcia.

Rehabilitating the rectory would be more costly than a new building, said Garcia, who also became emotional during the meeting.

“Our parish community is very small. We don’t see these people at Mass every Sunday. We don’t see their tithe,” she said, referring to neighbors fighting the demolition proposal. “Everybody has something to say about it, but when it comes to recruiting funds for helping or assisting, which they’ve had many years to do, there is none. Their pockets become sewn in.”

Commissioners unanimously approved a finding of historic significance and encouraged the speakers to work with the church to save the buildings.

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Commissioner Roland Mazuca, who represents District 5 on the West Side and lives near St. Alphonsus, said the topic “hits close to home.”

He attended Sacred Heart church and school growing up and has watched its buildings be torn down.

“I’ve seen so many buildings just disappear, some of them in the middle of the night,” Mazuca said.

Mazuca said he also understood the church’s arguments and the challenges of raising money but knocking down the rectory would be “shortsighted.” If it were to be renovated, it could be used for church gatherings and possibly rented out to other organizations.

The archdiocese declined to comment.


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