Rev. Rudy Vela, a Marianist priest who grew up in San Antonio and was a longtime member of the St. Mary’s University theology department, died Sept. 29 after a brief illness unrelated to COVID-19. He was 68 years old.
Known as Father Rudy to the many students, staff, and faculty at the university and in the San Antonio Catholic community, Vela grew up on the West Side and graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1971. He entered religious life with the Society of Mary in 1972, graduated from St. Mary’s University in 1976, and taught there starting in 2003.
“His death was sudden and a shock to us all,” said Tom Mengler, St. Mary’s University president.
Ordained to the priesthood in 1984, Vela attended the Marianist North American Seminary in Toronto and taught in a Fort Worth high school before returning to San Antonio to serve as pastor of Holy Rosary Catholic Church, 159 Camino Santa Maria, from 1988 to 1995. Following a yearlong sabbatical in Rome, Vela became program director of the former Mexican American Cultural Center.
During his career at St. Mary’s, Vela worked as a Marianist professor of pastoral ministry for both graduate and undergraduate students, teaching courses on spiritual direction, Hispanic/Latino theology, pastoral ministry, the sacraments, personal religious transformation, Marian affect, and reflection on God. He was teaching a fall semester course before he died unexpectedly.
From 2009 to 2015, Vela served as the vice president for mission and rector at St. Mary’s, the first person to hold the title of rector. Mengler said he got to know Vela in this role after being appointed to office in 2012.
“The loss of Father Rudy is a big loss. So many of us knew him very, very well,” Mengler said. “He had a strong sense of mission – he was always on a mission. His role was to help us advance our Catholic identity and the Marianist charism, and he … undertook a lot of steps to promote that.”
Vela established the university’s annual celebration of the Blessed William Joseph Chaminade, a French Catholic priest who in 1817 founded the Society of Mary, a religious order that established St. Mary’s University and Central Catholic High School.
As St. Mary’s faculty, Vela often led pilgrimages abroad to retrace Chaminade’s footsteps. “I was on one of those trips to France and Spain with Rudy so we became quite good friends,” Mengler said. “He was a gregarious man and a joyful man. He was funny, certainly a man of faith.”
In 2011, Vela led the renovation of the university’s Assumption Chapel, which was built in 1908. He served on numerous boards, including the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops Commission on Certification and Accreditation, U.S. Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians, and the St. Mary’s board of trustees.
Vela was one of only nine Marianists actively teaching or working on the St. Mary’s campus.
Marianist Provincial Rev. Oscar Vasquez, S.M., recalled Vela as “the life of the party,” and said everyone seemed to know him. As Central Catholic alumni, both men had an understanding that when they joined the Marianists, “we were adding to our families rather than leaving our family,” Vasquez said. “I think we also all wanted to do something with education, and I think Father Rudy would tell you that he was a teacher first and foremost.”
In a videotaped interview the St. Mary’s theology department shared on Tuesday, Vela spoke about the calling to religious life.
“In today’s world … religious life doesn’t seem to be something that most people are readily attracted to,” Vela said. “But for people contemplating vocations I just think there’s a certain boldness, there’s a certain step that they have to not be afraid to take, to just step in and know that what they’re doing, they’re doing in faith, and then let God and Mary do their work.”
Vela served seven years as pastor at Holy Rosary, the same church that was led for 11 years by Rev. John Manahan, S.M., who died Sept. 16. Manahan was 87.
“That also means that they touched many of the same people which means [Vela’s death] is going to affect the San Antonio Marianist community in a very deep way,” Vasquez said.
After news of Vela’s death was shared Tuesday on Facebook, Rafa Diaz Martinez, a former student of Vela’s from 2004, said the priest was a “tremendous force” in his life.
“He introduced me to a different perspective and approach to our Faith. He cared for me in our Study Abroad in Spain and mentored me beyond undergrad. I can still hear him say, ‘Que chulo.’ We zoomed and caught up about 2 months ago … He saw my kids. We made plans to have him baptize them. I don’t remember if I told him I loved him. I think I did. I hope I did.”
Ramiro Cavazos, former president and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce who now heads up the U.S. Hispanic Chamber, also remembered Vela in a social media post: “Shocked and sad that we have lost our dear friend. … We will remember his passion, humor, Rattler pride, faith, brilliance, gypsy spirit and warm friendship. You will be missed.”
In a 2018 San Antonio Report article, Vela wrote of his love for his hometown, the saint for which the city is named, and of loss:
“It was my grandfather who first spoke to me about the sacred character of our city and that our city was intentionally named after a saint. Not just any saint, but one who lovingly holds el niño Jesus. The name, San Antonio de Padua, establishes a sacredness about our colonial and southwest cultural heritage.
“My abuelito would take the little statue of San Antonio de Padua that he kept next to his altarcito, his home shrine, and let me hold it as he talked about how special this Portuguese Franciscan was to our family and city. He would point to a lighted candle near the statue and tell me how that little flame meant that God was hearing what we would ask of our San Antonio.
“I learned that if I lost something I should pray to San Antonio and ask him to help me find what I had lost. My abuelito also taught me that San Antonio helped the lost people, lost souls, people who had lost any of their limbs in war, and that San Antonio loved the poor.”