Martin Sablik, a mathematician, theoretical physicist, and co-founder of a faith-based retreat program that started in San Antonio and spread worldwide, died Feb. 6 of complications from COVID-19. He was 81. 

Friends and former coworkers at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) recalled Sablik as a brilliant scientist whose discoveries 30 years ago are still being used in today’s space missions. 

“He could do a mathematical model of any kind of instrument you might dream up and could tell you all the characteristics,” said James Burch, vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at SwRI. “There are computer tools that can do that for you but he was a real mathematician. He could do it from scratch on his own. We relied on him very much.”  

As a physicist, Sablik was regarded for his work in magnetic materials and research, and he played a prominent role in the field of nondestructive testing and evaluation, a technique used to evaluate the properties of a material, component, or system without causing damage.

But Sablik’s work on space instrumentation is still considered state of the art three decades later, said Rudy Frahm, a space science and engineering research scientist who worked with Sablik. 

“He had a very clear mind,” Frahm said. “He seemed to know the right path to take all the time. It was clear how to get to the solution to a problem.”

Sablik began his career at SwRI in 1980. In 1989, Sablik received a patent for an improved method for producing high-temperature superconductors. He also authored more than 200 technical papers and presentations before retiring in 2007 to act as a consultant for SwRI. 

“The computer systems weren’t that great compared to the ones that we have nowadays,” Frahm said. “So a lot of his work was just looking at the information he was getting from the computer and projecting that in his mind to come up with the correct solution.” 

Sablik is also remembered as a shutterbug, a longtime fan of the Spurs and Silver Stars pro basketball teams, and an energetic bowler. “He had the most awesome body English of any bowler that I’ve ever bowled with,” Burch said. “He wasn’t just turning his body to make the ball curve. He was down on the floor … trying to make the ball go.”

But many remember the noted scientist and inventor most for what came from his gentle spirit and faith in God. 

“Most intellectuals don’t buy salvation hook, line, and sinker. Marty does. And that’s rare,” said friend Alan Stephan.

In 1987, that devotion to a higher calling prompted Sablik, along with friends Joe Hayes and Ed Courtney, to develop plans for a discipleship program based upon the Catholic Church’s Cursillo retreats. 

Then-Archbishop Patrick Flores wanted a parish-based retreat that was open to all, not just Catholics, and tasked the men with developing a new retreat program, which would come to be named ACTS (Adoration, Community, Theology, Service).

Sablik’s role was to develop the guidelines and duties for retreat team leaders, which Hayes said was a big job. But he was up to it, Courtney added. “He had a willing spirit and was always an inspiration to me, and it was just a joy to work with him.”

From left, Kathy Courtney (wife of Dcn. Ed Courtney), Msgr. Patrick Cronin, Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, Martin Sablik, and Joe Hayes. Credit: Courtesy / ACTS Missions

The first men’s ACTS retreat was sponsored in July 1987 by Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Selma, under Rev. Patrick Cronin’s guidance and with Hayes as a retreat director and Sablik as co-director. The first women’s retreat was held that fall, about two weeks following Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to San Antonio. Sablik then took the program to his own parish, St. Luke’s Catholic Church on the Northwest Side.

Since then, more than a million people have attended ACTS retreats sponsored by 500 parish churches in six countries around the world, according to Deborah Ann Alaniz, executive director of ACTS Missions. ACTS is also the inspiration behind similar ministries serving the prison population, people on probation, HIV patients, and a retreat for law enforcement and firefighters.  

“Let me tell you something about Marty – Marty had a very deep relationship with God and he demonstrated that by the way he lived,” said friend Hayes. “He didn’t talk down to people and he listened to people.”

The three founders of ACTS had no idea the program would catch on as it did, Hayes said, but was quick to point out that he, Courtney, and Sablik didn’t make the retreat program happen. “It was God. The Holy Spirit did that through the work of many, many people,” Hayes said. 

Sablik remained involved in supporting the program throughout his life. “Over 30 years later, he was still invested in the retreat, and sharing it with others and even being a participant,” Alaniz said. “It’s amazing. Sometimes you get tired of your ministry – it’s kind of like you need a break – but not Marty.”

Sablik was born in 1939 in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Queens. He graduated from Cornell University in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in physics, in 1965 with a master’s degree from the University of Kentucky, and in 1972 with a doctorate in physics from Fordham University.

While at Cornell, Sablik’s 13-year-old brother was hit and killed by a truck while riding his bike. The trauma and counseling with a Catholic priest changed Sablik, said his daughters Karen Gonzales and Marjorie Quarles.

Sablik was teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey before he and his wife, Beverly, moved to San Antonio in 1980. At St. Luke’s, Sablik became a lector and eucharistic minister and volunteered for the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, providing food and support to those in need, as well as Cursillo.

But the Cursillo program was limited to spring and fall because there was no heat or air conditioning in the retreat center. “And my dad said this is just too slow,” Gonzales said. “He wanted to spread the word of the gospel as fast as he could.”

The last time Stephan saw his friend, he noticed Sablik and his wife of 55 years were sitting in the front row of the church for a Sunday Mass, instead of in the back as was their custom. But social distancing protocols kept him from greeting Sablik like he often did before the pandemic. 

Like many public gatherings and church services, ACTS retreats were paused at the start of the pandemic and are only now being rescheduled, tentatively, for fall, Alaniz said. 

Sablik fell ill with coronavirus in January and would not live to see the program restart. Beverly is recovering from serious COVID-19 complications.

“I really don’t know how he felt [about retreats being put on hold],” Hayes said. “But he wouldn’t be down by it because he knew that the pandemic was just an interruption.”

Sablik is survived by his wife Beverly; daughters Gonzales, Quarles, and Jeanne Sablik; son Lawrence Sablik; and five grandchildren. He is predeceased by a son, Victor Phillip, who died in infancy.

Funeral arrangements are pending with Mission Park North.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.