Very few photos of M. Susan Chandoha exist. At events celebrating the improvements at San Antonio’s historic Spanish missions that her work had made possible, she stood back and let others smile for the camera.
There were celebrations aplenty during Chandoha’s 29-year tenure as executive director of Los Compadres, the friends group for San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Her infectious love of the missions helped Los Compadres raise $70 million for programs and $4 million to fund projects during her career. Suggestions for improvements originate with the National Park Service.
Chandoha, 69, died at home Jan. 7 while recovering from surgery to repair a fractured pelvis.
A memorial service will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Mission San José Church. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Chandoha’s name be made to Los Compadres, 6539 San Jose Dr., San Antonio, TX 78214 or at www.loscompadres.org.
“For her, serving Los Compadres was not a job,” said friend and colleague Paul Ringenbach. “It really became her life. All her lunches, everything she did, had a tie-in with the missions. She put her heart into everything she did. Whether it was negotiating with the City or the board, whatever she worked on, she wore her heart on her sleeve.”
Chandoha’s energy and drive have benefitted all San Antonians and visitors who love the missions, a fan club that is growing since their being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. The five missions represent the largest concentration of Spanish Colonial Missions in North America.
Often in partnership with the National Park Service, the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and the San Antonio River Authority, Chandoha oversaw the development of new or improved visitors centers at Missions San José and Concepción, the restoration of the gristmill at Mission San José, and the reopening the San Juan Acequia as part of the Mission Reach parkway stretching south to the missions. The restored acequia irrigates a 45-acre farm at Mission San Juan Capistrano, where the San Antonio Food Bank began to farm produce last year.
Chandoha’s sister, Ann Chandoha who lives in Marble Falls, said when they were growing up in an American colony in Mexico, where her father worked as a mining engineer, Susan became interested in Mexican history.
“She always had a book in her hand,” Ann said.
Her interest in history continued to blossom at Incarnate Word High School, where even the nuns noticed she had a “special sense” for it, and at Texas Christian University where it was her major.
After teaching elementary school in Eagle Pass and working for the South Texas Chamber of Commerce, her name came up at a Los Compadres board meeting as a possible replacement for the organization’s outgoing executive director.
“It was said she was bright and interested in conservation and history,” Ann said. “Though she was happy with her job, she could see that working with the missions might be really interesting.”
While the missions are all about history, Los Compadres is all about raising funds, for which Chandoha was well suited as a creative thinker, said colleague Fr. David Garcia. Garcia has had to learn about fundraising as well. As Director of the Old Spanish Missions for the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio, Garcia oversees Las Misiones, an organization that raises money to maintain and restore the four parish churches operating within four of the five missions, excluding the Alamo.
“Susan was very creative, she knew how to raise money at events about every other month,” Garcia said. “She had the idea for ornaments (colored, hand-punched, and hand-painted tin ornaments made for Los Compadres in Oaxaca, sold year round) and ideas for fundraisers like Los Sentineles, where people hang around a campfire and eat and drink. It’s very successful.”
In 2004, the San Antonio Conservation Society honored Susan as a “Texas Hero of Historic Preservation” and in 2009; the Texas Historical Commission awarded her the “Excellence in Preserving History” award. However, the pinnacle of her career was the Spanish Colonial Missions’ designation as a World Heritage Site in 2015. The following year, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas presented her with its prestigious “Texas Patriot Award” for her key role in securing the listing.
“She was one of the key people who made it happen,” Garcia said. “She was good at marshaling political people, congressional delegations, the San Antonio River Foundation and others involved in the process.”
Completion of the Mission Reach and creation of Concepción Park connecting Mission Concepción to the San Antonio River also bore her imprint.
“She knew you had to have relationships with people in organizations surrounding the missions to get everyone to work together,” Garcia said. “She was very good at it.”
While friends and colleagues describe Chandoha as intelligent and organized, she had a softer side as well.
“She was a walking compendium of knowledge about the missions. But if anyone was hurt she would go to them, or if she was effusively praised she would cry and say she didn’t deserve it,” said Pamela Bain, president of the Los Compadres board in 2012 and 2013. “She was such a joy to be with.”
Chandoha told Bain she was thinking of retiring in a couple of years, but was looking forward to “maximizing the fit into the World Heritage scheme” and, of course, to leading the missions into San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebration in 2018.
“She was like a mother duck and the missions were her ducklings,” Bain said. ”She knew every ranger and the names of their wives and children. She had a way of making everyone feel special and never was too busy to be kind.”
Sister Ann said she was a fabulous cook and would reciprocate dinner invitations with home-cooked meals at her modest home in Terrell Heights.
“When she made chiles rellenos….” The memory left her speechless.
“She had many friends and dear friends, but she was married to her job,” Ann said. “She lived, breathed and loved Los Compadres and the missions and that truly is her legacy.”
In addition to her sister, Chandoha is survived by brother-in-law Ron Benson and cousins Jimmy Flinchum, Harold Flinchum, Norma Jean Webb, and Nancy Wagner.