Last week, Sister Therese San Miguel drove her golf cart along the streets that wind through San Fernando Cemetery No. 2, San Antonio’s largest Catholic cemetery. 

She passed a woman with a push mower, neatly trimming a handsome, green patch of St. Augustine grass that stands out from the neighboring gravesites. The grass is one of the countless ways people show their respects to loved ones buried at the cemetery.

“If she wants to mow, she can mow,” San Miguel said. “We don’t care.”

San Miguel serves as the chaplain for the cemetery known for its elaborate decorations for Día de los Muertos. Founded in 1921, the nearly 100-acre site is the final resting place for an estimated 130,000 people. 

The cemetery swelled Saturday with more than 1,200 people for the San Antonio Archdiocese’s All Souls Day Mass. Visitors spent hours at the park, bringing picnics and lawn chairs, yellow and gold carnations, balloons, and photos of lost loved ones.

The rest of the year, the mood is more serene, but the flow of visitors remains constant.

“People come out every day of the week,” San Miguel said. “They’ll sit and have lunch. It’s a home place.”

At 74, San Miguel is thin and stands with perfect posture, looking comfortable in her black habit. She entered her religious order of Bernadine Franciscans at age 13. She remembers a childhood playing with bamboo whistles and slingshots and gigging frogs in San Pedro Creek near downtown.  

Her family is Mexican-American and has been in San Antonio long enough to have ancestors buried in San Fernando Cathedral No. 1, the city’s oldest Catholic cemetery, only a couple miles away. She also grew up visiting the graves of departed relatives.

When the diocese transferred San Miguel to work at San Fernando No. 2 around six or seven years ago, it was her first time working in a cemetery, she said. For 20 years, she had taught students from kindergarten through high school. She had worked in Detroit and in Dallas before her longtime friend, the late Archbishop Patrick Flores, secured a transfer back home to San Antonio. 

Now, San Miguel’s role is to be available to those who are dealing with the loss of someone they loved. She has countless stories of people processing grief. One woman whose husband drowned in the ocean, laid on his grave for multiple days before she was able to get up, San Miguel said. 

A large sculpture of Jesus holding children is placed among the gravesites of premature and early deaths.

Over the years, even as that grief subsides, people come to the cemetery to remember the dead. San Miguel told the story of one family who had lost a mother of six. Every day after school, some of her children would run to her grave to sit and do their homework, “because they always did their homework with their mom,” she said. 

Some tell her they hear the voices or feel the presence of those who have passed on. That happens, she tells them. They’re not going crazy. 

“There’s such a thin curtain between us and them,” San Miguel said. “Just because they died doesn’t mean you’re never going to hear them or feel their love.”

Laurencia Arroyo said she feels her father’s presence when she visits his resting place at San Fernando No. 2. Last week, Arroyo and her sister Silvia Salinas had decorated the grave of their father, Manuel Martinez, who died in 2016 at age 96. He would have turned 100 that week. 

“My daddy was a very supportive person,” Arroyo said. “He was a happy person. I miss him, so I come out here and visit him and we celebrate his birthday.”

They would be back with more decorations and balloons for Día de los Muertos, she said. 

In her arms, Arroyo held her 6-year-old dog, Chico, who had belonged to her father. Visitors’ dogs appear welcome at the cemetery, and San Miguel doesn’t seem to mind the neighborhood dogs that make it through the fence. 

She keeps tabs on the animals that live in and around the cemetery. She’s counted seven foxes and is a keen observer of the red-tailed hawk that nests on its grounds. 

“We’ve had him since he was out of his shell, but his goal in life is to grab any of the white doves that are released during a burial,” she said. “He loves them.”

San Miguel also is an enforcer of rules governing proper decorations and behavior. No sticky tape or adhesives on the mausoleums; it leaves permanent marks on the stones. No decorations that would constitute a tripping hazard. 

She helps people find gravesites they’ve never seen before, relying on the cemetery’s library of mostly paper files stored in fireproof containers in its office. Men recently released from prison often want to find a connection to people whose deaths they missed, she said.

A man walks through the rows of tombstones in search of a specific one at San Fernando Cemetery No. 2.

Once, San Miguel came upon a large man with a deep baritone in the chapel in one of the mausoleums. He sang opera songs to one of the internment spaces. 

“I sneaked in and I sat in the chair,” she said. “He just nonstop went through opera for like 45 minutes. I didn’t want to disturb him. It was really unbelievable.”

When people talk to her about death, she tells them that their loved ones are with God, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of reach. 

“We don’t know how close heaven is,” she said. “Maybe it’s right here.” 

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.