San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller took off in a bright yellow, World War II-era airplane Monday to bless the reopening of parishes in the Archdiocese of San Antonio as he flew over the city and surrounding areas.

As long as they’re able to follow guidelines outlined by health experts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, churches can open their doors on Tuesday, May 19, for daily services, allowing for weekend Masses to begin May 23 and 24. Most churches have been closed since March, moving most services online or outdoors just as Holy Week was approaching.

“Faith is essential and faith [can] be lived anywhere,” the archbishop said from Hangar 3 at Stinson Municipal Airport. “That is the gift of faith. But it is wonderful to know that we’ll be able to get together and pray and worship the lord as a community.”

The local COVID-19 Health Transition Team’s guidance report says places of worship should remain closed, save for small gatherings that allow for social distancing, until the “epidemic has been controlled.” But Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency order already allows churches to be open.

The local Archdiocese has been working on plans to safely reopen by limiting points of contact and implementing an occupancy limit – 25 percent – just as restaurants and other places of business have done, said Jordan McMorrough, director of communications for the Archdiocese. 

Parishes will be given a seven-page list of guidelines to follow, McMorrough said. 

“Face masks will be required, congregants will be able to receive Communion, and there will be no holy water in the fonts, for example,” he said. “We are working closely with health authorities and civic officials on this.”

The archdiocese has been “proactive and collaborative” in its response to the virus, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said during a press briefing late Monday afternoon. Even before stay-at-home orders were issued in March, García-Siller was implementing changes to the ways local churches operate.

At Stinson, García-Siller thanked parishioners and priests for “patiently waiting for this moment,” then climbed into the back seat of a 1942 aircraft called “Ole’ Yeller” for an operation called “Mission Hope.”

“Amen, let’s go,” he said.

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller takes off from Stinson Municipal Airport. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Over the next two hours, the plane flew over 30 prominent locations in the area, including Mission Concepción, St. PJ’s Children’s Home, the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, the University of the Incarnate Word, and numerous Catholic churches, venturing as far as New Braunfels.

Ole’ Yeller is an SNJ-4 advanced trainer aircraft that was donated to the Tex Hill Wing of the Commemorative Air Force by Rich Ferguson Jr., who had purchased the retired plane in 1961.

The Tex Hill Wing is a community service organization that works to “educate, inspire, honor, and preserve” through the flight of historic aircraft.

“We’re a veteran service organization, we’re a youth service organization … and we also preserve and fly old airplanes,” said Nathan Gershon, Tex Hill Wing public information officer. “We’re so honored to have partnered with the Archbishop today and the church for something that will bring joy to so many people around our area in these troubling times.”

Several members of the organization’s cadet class, some of whom grew up in the low-income South Side where Stinson is located, attended the press conference, Gershon noted. “Many of them are interested in futures in aviation and the military,” including engineering and piloting.

After landing back at Stinson, García-Siller climbed back out of Ole’ Yeller with a look of astonishment on his face.

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“It was amazing … it was the best,” he said.

Pilot Darren Bond said “people by the hundreds” came out of buildings and churches to view the flyover. One church lined up dozens of cars to form a large cross for the archbishop to see.

Courtesy / Archdiocese San Antonio

García-Siller and Tex Hill Wing exchanged gifts and thank yous at the conclusion of the event.

“Thanks for letting the Tex Hill Wing bring you closer to God,” read a thank-you note from the organization.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org