As a frequent world traveler, Cecil Collins Scanlan marveled at historical sites that lend grandeur to far-flung locations. Scanlan, along with her husband, William “Bill” Scanlan, brought that knowledge to bear on her adopted hometown of San Antonio, helping to assure the restoration and renovation of the San Fernando Cathedral and Main Plaza, historical landmarks now regarded as the heart of the city.

Cecil Scanlan died last month at age 79 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, surrounded by family and friends, including Father David Garcia, onetime rector of the cathedral.

Once structural renovations on the cathedral were complete, Garcia said, the Scanlans stepped in to provide the Virgin de Guadalupe retablo that helped to restore the cathedral’s connection to its history.

“There were no retablos when I got to the cathedral,” Garcia said. “But once the plaster was removed [during renovations], we saw the rough outline of the three original retablos.” The decision was made to restore all three: the Virgin; Our Lady of Candelaria, the other patron saint of the cathedral; and Christ.

Archbishop Gustavo-García-Siller kneels before the cross as mass begins at San Fernando Cathedral.
Archbishop Gustavo-García-Siller kneels before the cross and restored retablo as mass begins at San Fernando Cathedral in 2017. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Scanlans not only found a 1750 painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the retablo, they become its primary donors, helping to spur other fundraising. As travelers, the Scanlans were able to introduce Garcia and others involved in the restoration to artists and artisans in Oaxaca and other regions of Mexico, including Agustin Parra, known for providing finely crafted retablos and furniture to the Vatican.

To help keep the cathedral and Main Plaza a vital center of San Antonio life, Cecil Scanlan helped secure French artist Xavier de Richemont for San Antonio: The Saga, a spectacular “video painting” meant to capture the history of the city projected weekly onto the cathedral’s gothic facade.

Cecil Scanlan was as involved in her neighborhood and community, including the Junior League of San Antonio and Friends of Hospice San Antonio. “Certainly, she made her contribution to the city, in many, many ways, and to her neighborhood as well,” Garcia said.

An avid reader, Scanlan started a book club. Her husband identified one of her favorite authors as fellow San Antonian Jan Jarboe Russell.

“She loved to read, and I love to read,” Russell said. The two were introduced by their husbands, and the two couples began traveling together, lending books back and forth on the plane.

Russell said her friend was calm in any of the minor crises that accompany travel, and admirable for her intelligence, pragmatism, and humor as a mother back home, providing a sturdy example for Russell to raise her own children. Over the course of their three decade-long friendship, the couples dined weekly and talked over issues of the day affecting San Antonio.

William Scanlan said he shared with his wife a love of travel, naming a list of countries, cities, and sites visited including Acaba in Jordan, Argentina, Burma, Chile, Egypt, the Greek islands, the Inca Trail, Ireland, Jerusalem, New Zealand, Petra, and Peru. Asked if the two had completed an alphabet of destinations, Scanlan recalled a visit to Victoria Falls, located on the Zambezi river between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

One trip was of special import to both. William had served in Vietnam, and Cecil traveled to meet him in Hong Kong during a one-week leave. Given her interest in history, having earned a degree in American history from the University of North Carolina, once peace was achieved the couple made a return.

“We did a tour of Southeast Asia,” including Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, he said. “She particularly wanted to go to Vietnam, because I’d spent a year over there. She wanted to go and see it close, to close the circle.”

William and Cecil Scanlan in Cambodia during their trip through Southeast Asia in 1998. Credit: Courtesy / William Scanlan

Their son, William Scanlan III, recognized how well they worked, traveled, and lived together for their 54 years of marriage.

“My parents were very, very much a team. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever met another couple that loved each other as much,” he said.

He said witnessing his parents’ marriage made him and his sister, Marguerite Scanlan Ogata, both adopted, so grateful that they never thought of seeking out their birth parents.

“My parents were always so loving, and thoughtful, and supportive,” he said.

They first met on a blind date, the elder William Scanlan said, and “it took” – evidenced by their long life together.

“She was a very lovely, elegant person, and the elegance, and the kindness, and the thoughtfulness all came naturally,” he said.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...