Photo: Veronica Markland , Today’s Catholic Newspaper
Rebecca Simmons was announced as the third director of the Old Spanish Missions by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, at a November 7 gathering at Mission Concepción in front of a group of special guests including representatives of the archdiocese, the National Parks Service, the La Misiones Advisory Group, the UNESCO World Heritage Office, the San Antonio River Authority, the San Antonio Conservation Society, priests of the missions, “On the Way – Andale!” capital campaign donors, and others.
Simmons currently serves as director of the El Camino de San Antonio Missions, and will continue to serve simultaneous in that position.
For more than a decade, Father David Garcia, retired director of the Old Spanish Missions, worked to restore and maintain the historic church buildings, collaborating with the National Park Service while also helping to attend to the spiritual life of these active Catholic parishes. Since his retirement in July, there has been much speculation as to who Archbishop Gustavo would appoint to this important position. That guessing game concluded at the press conference.
“With this appointment, the archdiocese renews its commitment to these churches and their pastoral call to a new evangelization, spreading the Good News of Christ,” said Deborah Knapp from KENS 5 TV, emcee for the event and also the chair of the Los Misiones Advisory Board.
In his remarks, Archbishop Gustavo reminded attendees that just a scant seven months ago, at the end of February, many of those present November 7 were standing just a few yards from the mission sanctuary, outside the former chapel of St. John’s Seminary, as the hiring of Simmons as the first director of the El Camino de San Antonio Missions was announced, and those present at that time took a first look at the building which will eventually serve as the Pilgrimage Center headquarters.
In the days and weeks which have followed, Simmons has busied herself with a full schedule, offering pilgrimages and days of reflection to highlight the missions.
“Her commitment to evangelization is evident – as first and foremost in her life is her faith — and she has also brought to us strong skills in fundraising and technology,” said the archbishop. “Her knowledge of the faith and well-rounded parish experience have prepared her well for the work that is now ahead of her in the archdiocese.”
Simmons is an experienced attorney, a law school adjunct professor, and a former judge. She is well known in the legal community, having served as president of the San Antonio Bar Association, a director of the State Bar Association, and chair of the Texas Bar Foundation. She currently advises the Texas Supreme Court on technology, as chair of the Judicial Committee on Information Technology.
“Rebecca brings leadership, business acumen, and technology skills to this new role with the archdiocese, but it is her deep faith expressed in her commitment to the community that is her biggest asset,” emphasized Archbishop Gustavo.
She has been involved with the missions for many years, leading parish and youth pilgrimages for more than a decade. Rebecca also serves on the Board of Hope for the Future and on the Advisory Board of Catholic Charities’ Caritas Legal Services.
She was a recent recipient of the archdiocesan Lumen Gentium Award, and is a longtime volunteer at Our Lady of Grace Church, where she has been a religious education teacher for over 20 years.
Before asking her to come forward, the Missionary of the Holy Spirit expressed his gratitude to Simmons for saying “yes” to this task.
“The missions have been so well served by the tremendous efforts of Father David and his predecessor, the beloved Msgr. Balty Janacek. I know Rebecca will also work tirelessly for the missions, and that they will receive the utmost care,” he said. “The city of San Antonio was founded in faith more than 300 years ago, and these parishes, as they were from their humble beginnings, are still vibrant, diverse, compassionate and welcoming communities. The missions deserve our very best efforts.”
The South Texas prelate then blessed Simmons before she stood at the podium, preparing to embark on a new ministry.
“If the cathedral is the heart of San Antonio, the mission churches represent its soul, and Las Misiones is dedicated to preserving the missions for the parishes, the community and now — the world,” Simmons began.
She told the story of falling in love with the missions from her bicycle. “Over 20 years ago my husband and I rode from our home near Trinity University to the missions — and the ride was literally downhill all the way to Mission Concepción. Back then you rode the streets and on trails to get to each mission and they would just appear out of the 20th Century landscape like islands of repose, and quiet. By the time you got to Mission San Francisco de Espada — you felt you must be near Floresville. I was enchanted. Ever since then I have been biking, running and driving to the missions, with my family, my friends, my parish, and now with pilgrims through the El Camino de San Antonio Missions.”
She explained that while her charge as director of El Camino is to facilitate a transformative experience for those who journey to the missions, her role as director of Las Misiones is not to transform but to conserve the church buildings. “But the people and the missions are intertwined,” she added. “For one would not exist without the other.”
Simmons described how she was reminded of the role the missions play on when she recently accompanied a group through the missions. The weekend prior the Catholic Church observed the Feast of All Saints and All Souls. As the group entered each mission, an altar with pictures of deceased loved ones of the parish was on display.
“It was a communal display of love, faith and hope that invites us to respond perhaps with prayer, or memories of our own, and when we arrived at the our last mission, Mission San Francisco de Espada — they too had a lovely altar but something else caught my eye — I went over to the votive candles under the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. And there was a note among the candles. The note was handwritten and had several pictures of a young man, one in a sailor’s uniform and one in a hospital bed seriously ill. Expressing her faith, the writer sought help for Tony, and I too said a prayer for Tony as I am sure every visitor who saw that plea did.”
Simmons continued, “We must preserve these missions not just for their brick and mortar and their fascinating history but for our current and future generations, so that visitors can be greeted, weddings and births can be celebrated, loved ones can be remembered and we can offer prayers for each other and our community.”
The new director mentioned that the bike ride from her home was downhill to the missions, which meant the ride back was all uphill. “My neighborhood is not named Monte Vista for nothing,” she laughed. “So my work is like my bike ride, the delight in assisting and accompanying people as they explore and enjoy our missions through El Camino, and the necessary ride up the hill as Las Misiones reminds the world that our missions need our care and preservation. And satisfaction of knowing that San Antonio and the world will respond.”
Auxiliary Bishop Michael Boulette read prepared remarks from Father Garcia, who was unable to attend the event due to travel to Italy. The priest stated that he was happy to support the appointment of Simmons as the new director of the Old Spanish Missions.
“It was my great privilege for 12 years, along with Diana Martinez and the Las Misiones Committee, to lead the efforts to restore our beautiful and beloved missions. During that time many people from this community and beyond collaborated to help us raise the funds and complete the work of restoration,” he said. “This work is ongoing as the mission structures are always in need of constant vigilant care. I am confident Rebeca will complete this necessary task working with the great teams that care for the missions so much.”
Bishop Boulette, speaking on behalf of Father Garcia, concluded that, “Our World Heritage efforts showed that this community can do when we focus on an important goal and harness the good will and effort that reach that goal. Rebecca will now be an important part of continuing efforts to realize the good results of World Heritage.”
The St. Anthony High School mariachi group performed festive music for the celebration.