Representatives of two early San Antonio descendant groups said they prefer the human remains recently found on the grounds of The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio be left undisturbed.

Hospital officials and descendants of those long-ago city residents met Wednesday to begin discussing the future of the remains after hospital officials confirmed last week that as many as 70 people – some of San Antonio’s early settlers including Native Americans, Canary Islanders, soldiers, and other Tejanos – may still be buried at the site, what was once San Fernando Cathedral’s cemetery, a campo santo or holy field.

Descendants of the buried have felt left out of the process that would decide what will happen to the remains, which are still being uncovered by archaeologists from the University of Texas at San Antonio. The meeting Wednesday was the first they had with hospital officials since construction workers discovered remains in September, which halted work on a prayer garden at the hospital.

“I think it was a positive first step,” said Mari Tamez, president of the Canary Islands Descendants Association, after the meeting. “I thought it was a good opportunity for them to hear our stories collectively.”

After the meeting, a hospital spokeswoman said the court-ordered removal of remains has been suspended “to give the hospital time to explore other options as it seeks diligently to faithfully create a prayer garden while honoring those who are buried there.”

About 25-28 people attended the private, 90-minute meeting at the hospital, Tamez said. Members of various descendant organizations shared their personal stories about the nearly 3,000 early San Antonians who once were buried beneath the hospital and quickly exhumed and relocated in the 1920s. Along with Tamez, the meeting included Ramon Vasquez, executive director of American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions.

Representatives, including an attorney from the hospital, nuns of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, and Regional Vice President of Mission Integration at Christus Santa Rosa Health System Dennis Gonzales listened to the stories and contributed to an open dialogue, Tamez said.

“They wanted to hear our concerns, so several folks spoke about their concerns and several of the Native American individuals gave passionate stories about the … reinterment of remains [at the Missions] that had transpired,” Tamez said. “I think these were stories that many of [the hospital officials] were not familiar with.”

Tamez said hospital representatives will organize another meeting to discuss next steps in determining the fate of the remains, adding that officials did not say when that meeting would take place.

“They indicated to us they had no set intentions right now” in terms of whether to relocate the remains, Tamez said, although there had been talk about moving them to an area of Sunset Memorial Park that would be consecrated by a Catholic priest.

Melissa Krause, CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System director of marketing and strategic communications, said in a statement Wednesday that “we are all in agreement that the remains should be treated with the upmost dignity and respect; after all, it is a shared heritage that we are addressing.”

Tamez, whose ancestor Margarita Chavez Menchaca was buried at the site, said she and others at Wednesday’s meeting proposed leaving the remains where they are and allowing the hospital to continue building its prayer garden above the campo santo. Vasquez agreed, but said he would also be open to moving them to the adjacent Milam Park and constructing “an above-ground crypt where they can be placed and memorialized.

“And each descendant organization can pay tribute any way they feel they need to,” Vasquez added.

“The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio is taking great care to honor those whose remains were uncovered during the creation of our prayer garden,” Krause said in a statement issued earlier this week. “Although as a Catholic ministry we would prefer to rebury the remains in a Catholic cemetery, Texas law dictates that the remains must be buried in a ‘perpetual care’ cemetery, and there are only a few in the city, including Sunset Memorial. Because of that stipulation, we have asked that a Catholic priest consecrate the site prior to the burials.

“Our actions are a result of careful consideration as we faithfully execute the court-ordered actions, and we mean no disrespect to any family’s legacy.”

Human remains were found at the construction site of Children's Hospital of San Antonio.
Exterior of the Children’s Hospital in downtown San Antonio. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

When the human remains at The Children’s Hospital were first discovered last September during construction work at the facility, hospital officials thought the site contained only three bodies. A state district judge granted hospital officials’ request to reinter the remains at another location, and they placed a classified legal notice to that effect in the San Antonio Express-News. The hospital’s plans to relocate the remains were approved by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the Bexar County Historical Commission, and Texas Historical Commission. Officials from the historical commissions did not return requests for comment before publication.

Krause said that the hospital system did not hear from any descendants after the legal notice ran in February and March.

Vasquez, who says he has relatives from his mother’s side of the family buried at the hospital site, and other descendants believe the hospital should have personally contacted them about finding the remains and that they did not see the legal ad in the paper.

“Right now there’s a lot of upset people, because they were left out of the conversation and they were not included,” he said Tuesday. “And their families are buried there.”

UTSA archaeologists have not yet begun excavating the site along Houston Street, but are performing tests to determine where the 70 sets of remains may be, a process that will take at least a few months, said UTSA archaeologist Shawn Marceaux. Along with the human remains, Marceaux’s team has discovered “buttons from clothing, some wood associated with coffins, and some coffin hardware like nails and tacks,” he said.

They’ll eventually transfer the excavated materials to a lab to determine factors such as sex, age, and cause of death for each uncovered individual, Marceaux said.

The nearly 3,000 early San Antonians buried at the site and at nearby Milam Park were said to have been exhumed and relocated in just 24 hours in the 1920s to San Fernando Cemetery No. 1 in order to accommodate downtown growth. In the 1990s, some remains at what was then Santa Rosa Hospital were uncovered, confirming the worries of some community members that not all those buried were successfully relocated.

The Archdiocese of San Antonio archivist has been unable to locate any documentation about the 1920s exhumation and moving of the remains, and archdiocese officials have said that a past fire and flood at San Fernando Cathedral – in 1869 and 1921, respectively – could have consumed the records.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Tamez said she thinks the descendant groups and hospital officials will find a way to remember her ancestors and other early San Antonians with dignity.

“Many of [the hospital officials] said they did not know the stories, and that’s the problem,” Tamez said. “Here we are going on our Tricentennial and people are not aware of these important stories because they’re focusing on the Alamo or they’re focusing on other aspects of the celebration of the 300 years, but I’m worried that the beginnings of the Spanish-colonial era is once again going to be forgotten.

“This campo santo situation is an opportunity to set the record straight.”

Remains were found by construction workers at the Children's Hospital.
Trenches dug by archaeologists on the grounds of The Children’s Hospital. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

A timeline of events, provided in an email by The Children’s Hospital officials, is below:

September 2016: Human remains found during trench work for a water feature at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio’s prayer garden. San Antonio police are called, preliminary calls are made to archaeologists at UTSA, Texas Historical Commission, and City of San Antonio’s archaeologist.

October 2016: UTSA Center for Archaeological Research (UTSA-CAR) identifies three areas of suspected remains revealed by the trench. Texas Historical Commission and the City of San Antonio’s archaeologist are notified. By law, at this time all excavations must be halted until a court order is received.

January 2017: Filing of “Notice of Existence of Cemetery” with Bexar County Clerk, notice given to Texas Historical Commission, Bexar County Historical Commission of Petition for Removal of Cemetery Designation, which includes a statutory requirement of reburial in a perpetual-care cemetery.

February 2017: Disinterment Permit Application submitted to Vital Statistics Unit of Texas Department of State Health Services. Archdiocese of San Antonio consulted regarding reburial arrangements. Temporary Order entered requiring notice by publication to potential descendants via notice in San Antonio Express-News once per week for three consecutive weeks.

March 2017: Order signed by Court, removing cemetery designation and ordering reburial at Sunset Memorial.

April 2017: UTSA archaeologists begin excavation of previously identified remains.

May 2017: UTSA archaeologists begin exploration of remaining garden.

Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com