Father David Garcia poses for a photo in his office. Photo by Scott Ball.
Father David Garcia is retiring from active ministry Sunday after celebrating Mass at Mission Concepción, his parish. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Father David Garcia said if he knew in seminary that he would have been raising millions of dollars, he would have quit on the spot.

“I would have said, ‘Why be a priest to raise money?’ My thought and dream as a seminarian was simply that I would be a parish priest and that I would work with the poor, and in the Hispanic area,” Garcia said.

Garcia is retiring from active ministry after celebrating Mass Sunday at Mission Concepción, his parish. He has served as a pastor for 44 years and is known in San Antonio as simply “Father David.”

He is perhaps most well-known for his fundraising efforts – raising more than $21 million to restore San Fernando Cathedral and $15.5 million for the Old Spanish Missions, playing a key role in the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the four missions – but he reflected on his early community organizing with pride.

In the 1970s, when Garcia was a newly installed priest, he served Immaculate Conception on the West Side. The church faced an illegal junkyard, which the property owner used to dump railroad ties, chemical barrels, and other hazardous items without a permit, Garcia said. Kids would climb over the fallen fence and play.

“It was full of rats and snakes, and it was immediately across the street from the church,” Garcia said. “It was a terrible insult to the neighborhood. It had been there for 40 years. People had complained and signed petitions, but they said, ‘Father, we can sign petitions all day long but no one will pay attention to us.’”

That’s when Garcia became involved with Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS). After lobbying the City to take action, COPS and Garcia saw the junkyard eventually become Patrolman Guadalupe Martinez Park, named for a young police officer from the neighborhood killed in the line of duty.

Garcia said his time with COPS and co-founder Ernesto Cortés shaped his perspective for the rest of his career.

“[Cortés] helped me understand how to organize people, how people come around issues they care about, and how people can make change happen in neighborhoods,” he said. “That whole idea of organizing has made a difference in my life since the beginning of my priesthood in 1975. Whether you organize people to get a park, or around preserving a monument, some of the issues are very much the same. Even fundraising is a form of community organizing, especially if it’s around a historical monument that means something to the city.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff noted Garcia’s understanding of COPS, which eventually merged with Metro Alliance to become COPS/Metro. 

“I don’t recall a priest that reached this level [of community involvement],” Wolff said. “Archbishop [Patrick] Flores had been great, but I don’t remember a priest being this dynamic a community leader as Father David has been.”

Wolff also recognized Garcia for his support on the Main Plaza renovation, which was completed in 2008. Because the project closed parts of Main and Soledad streets, the project faced a lot of opposition in the downtown area of San Antonio, Wolff said. Garcia helped bolster then-Mayor Phil Hardberger and Wolff’s efforts to redo the plaza.

“It took some strong support to back up the decisions we were making with the City and County,” Wolff said. “He was instrumental in providing us that support.”

Main Plaza and the San Fernando Cathedral.
Father David Garcia raised more than $21 million for the restoration of San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Garcia said that though his fundraising acumen was, on the surface, to preserve historical landmarks, it still intersected with his desire to work with the poor.

“Interestingly enough, working with the missions and cathedral, predominantly the people who go to those churches are the poor and the working classes,” he said. “There are middle-class people and professionals, but they’re definitely the minority.”

The working poor of San Antonio are the majority of people who attend the feast days and cultural events like Posadas and Passion plays, Garcia said. They are also the ones who take pride in sharing the restored churches with visitors and people from other parts of the city.

“They’re the little old grandmothers that sometimes drag their grandchildren with them, and people who want them to learn the traditions and customs, because that’s what they learned from their parents and grandparents when they were young,” he said. “That always gave me such a wonderful sense of satisfaction: We were helping everyone, but especially those who were sometimes left out and forgotten, to feel welcome and at home and to say, ‘This is mine and I am proud of it.’

Garcia is unfailingly gracious when it comes to sharing responsibility for his accomplishments, repeating over and over that none of the things that he worked on could have happened without the efforts of many. He specifically gave credit to his predecessor Father Virgilio Elizondo, who died in 2016, for laying the groundwork for San Fernando’s many cultural events.

“Because he laid the groundwork, I was able to go and get people excited about fundraising and restoring the cathedral,” Garcia said. “His boundless energy and love for the culture and traditions and the piety of our people … when you talk about all those things that happened, it only happened because the groundwork was laid ahead of time and people were there first.”Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller praised Garcia for his many accomplishments.

“Everyone is praying for Father David in this next phase of his priestly journey; that God will bless him with many more years of service for the Lord’s Church,” he said in a prepared statement.

But first and foremost, as many who know him say, Garcia is a pastor. Garcia shared the stories of various people who have come to him and thanked him for his spiritual guidance, which was the most “gratifying” experience.

A full mass at Mission Concepción on Sunday September 11, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.
Parishioners gather at Mission Concepción in 2016, where Father David Garcia will celebrate Mass Sunday before retiring. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“All you can say is it’s not me, it’s God,” he said. “It’s about God doing these kinds of things – using me and other people to make that kind of change.”

Ruben M. Escobedo, a retired accountant who worked with Garcia to raise money to restore San Fernando Cathedral, said he has seen the compassion that Garcia holds for his parishioners. Escobedo and his wife, Veronica, have known Garcia since the 1970s, though they were never in his parish.

“He’s a great priest, a great pastor, aside from all of his fundraising efforts. … I think that will be his legacy to the city of San Antonio,” he said. “He was very, very good at being a priest.”

Betty Bueché, director of Bexar Heritage and Parks, remembered Garcia’s dedication to his spiritual calling.

“In 2016, when my mother was very ill and in the hospital – she was dying – it was Father David who responded and came to the hospital in the middle of the night to give her an apostolic blessing,” Bueché said. “He was ever the pastor.

“It’s easy to almost forget he’s a spiritual leader because of the high profile nature of all of the projects he’s been involved in, but he’s a pastor to everybody who meets him,” she added.

Garcia’s legacy would also stem from his ability to build bridges and relationships, Bueché said. Garcia brought together elected officials, the business community, and everyday churchgoers to restore the missions.

“There are many friendships and alliances that exist today that would not have existed without his efforts, and he helped us all work toward those goals,” she said.

Bueché called Garcia quite the “jokester,” a description that Wolff agreed with.

“He said he was worried about going to heaven, and I said, ‘Father David, you’re a cinch to get in,’” Wolff said, laughing. “He said, ‘But if I could convert you – I know I could get into heaven.’ He’s been trying to convert me for 30, 40 years. I told him be patient, the day may come.”

Father David Garcia gives a prayer during the San Pedro Creek groundbreaking. Photo by Scott Ball.
Father David Garcia gives a prayer during the San Pedro Creek project’s groundbreaking. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Garcia said though he will still be involved in the community to a certain extent, he plans on making the most of retirement.

“I do want to take some time to … travel and visit friends and family,” he said. “I never really had that opportunity. I don’t want to make long-range commitments in terms of getting involved with a lot of things. I keep hearing from retired people that they were busier than when they were working, and that’s not what I want to do.”

Garcia does want to write about his experiences and share the lessons he’s learned with others, he said. He wants to help people understand what goes into raising money, the Hispanic experience of South Texas, and what it means to pastor a parish.

“God has given me so many experiences and fantastic things that have happened that I’d like to write about what I have learned on the trail that might be helpful to other people,” he said.

Escobedo said he and his wife look forward to spending more time with Garcia in his retirement.

“I can’t honestly believe that Father David is going to retire,” Escobedo said. “That is not a word that exists in his vocabulary. He’s not looking for a rocker, let me put it that way.”

The official résumé that the Archdiocese of San Antonio provided for Garcia spanned three pages and included a long list of accomplishments: the four parishes he pastored and the attendance increases he oversaw, his 10 years working for the Catholic Relief Services sharing the stories of people in the developing world, his study of cathedrals’ ministry in Europe, the many boards on which he served. But Garcia said he couldn’t pinpoint a singular achievement that he would label his finest.

“The entire 44 ½ years has been a blessing, that’s all I can say,” he said.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.