At Mission Concepción, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller announced Thursday that the Archdiocese of San Antonio had chosen a new leader to continue conservation efforts at the Old Spanish Missions.

“The city of San Antonio was founded in faith more than 300 years ago,” García-Siller said. “These missions are still vibrant, diverse, compassionate, and welcoming communities.”

Now, jurist Rebecca Simmons takes over the responsibility of making sure current and future visitors can continue to enjoy the historic missions. As the archdiocese’s new director of the Spanish colonial missions, the San Antonio attorney and judge will oversee the preservation of the four missions, which together with the Alamo were designated as World Heritage sites in 2015.

Simmons will replace Father David Garcia, who retired from his post as the missions’ director and from active ministry earlier this year. Unlike her predecessor, she is not a member of the clergy, but directs an archdiocese program dedicated to assisting religious pilgrims on their spiritual journey through the missions.

“Rebecca brings leadership, business acumen, and technology skills to this new role in the archdiocese,” García-Siller said. “But it is her deep faith … that is her best asset. She has been involved in the missions for many years.”

Simmons will continue her work at El Camino de San Antonio Missions, the archdiocese program for visiting pilgrims. She also occasionally fills in as a visiting judge at the appellate level when other judges are unavailable and teaches as an adjunct professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. She serves as a technology advisor to the Texas Supreme Court as chair of the information technology committee. 

Simmons has lived in San Antonio for more than 35 years and has taught at St. Mary’s law school for 24 years. A native of Mexia, she can rattle off with ease the timeline for the founding of each missions. She attends the Our Lady of Grace Church in the Monte Vista neighborhood, and has been to services at the missions and witnessed the small sanctuaries overflow with worshippers. The missions aren’t historic relics – they’re active and engaged parishes, she said. She also considers San Antonio to be home.

She sees her role at the Old Spanish Missions as one where she cares for the physical missions, and her role at El Camino as one where she tends to people’s spiritual needs. Both are important, she said. Keeping 300-year-old missions stable requires constant maintenance and fundraising, while she continues to encourage visitors to think about the purpose of the missions.

“This is for people of all faiths,” she said. “This is a sacred journey. You can be a non-Catholic or non-believer and still have the idea of being somewhere sacred and somewhere spiritual.” 

A group of children admire Mission Concepción before the sun sets.
Children admire Mission Concepción before the sun sets and the Restored by Light World Heritage event begins.

García-Siller said the missions are something to be shared with the city and with society at large.

“So many people visit San Antonio, and one point [of their journey] is to stop at the missions,” he said. “We are proud and happy to share what has been handed on to us. Instead of saying it’s ours, the church’s, we say this place is for you. People with many different ways of life, diverse communities, diverse understandings of life and world, here we are.”

Simmons hopes to continue to draw people to the missions, although she said she was already stunned to learn that more than 1.3 million visit every year. As someone with a technology background, Simmons said she has been working with the idea of bringing augmented reality to the missions to allow visitors to listen to historical figures and learn about the missions via smartphones. She estimated that the technology could be implemented within the next five years.

She praised her predecessor for his fundraising talent and legacy. 

“We had a great capital campaign under Father David,” she said. “We’ve been able to maintain a pretty good source of income for restorations.”

Auxiliary Bishop Michael Boulette said that it was a “great gift” to have Garcia as part of the ministry for as long as he was there. The archdiocese sought a few qualities in his successor, Boulette said: a “deep love” for the Catholic faith, for sharing that faith, for San Antonio, and for the missions themselves and their history and purpose.

“We found all those things in Rebecca, and it is a great joy to welcome her to the archbishop’s team,” he said.

Boulette also read from a written statement from Garcia, who could not attend Thursday’s news conference.

“Rebecca will now be an important part of the continuing efforts to realize the good results of world heritage,” Garcia wrote. “My prayers and support go with Rebecca today.”

Simmons shared a story on Thursday about a pilgrimage she led that stopped at Mission Espada. There, she saw a small handwritten note on the altar accompanied by photos of a young man in uniform and that same young man sick in a hospital bed. The note contained a plea for “Tony,” she said.

“I said my prayer for Tony, and I guarantee that everyone who went into that mission that day said a prayer for Tony,” Simmons said. “It brought to mind that [the writer] was experiencing her faith and depending on all of us to send our prayers forward for Tony.

“So you see, we have to preserve these missions – not just for their brick and mortar, for their fascinating history, but for our current and future generations. So that visitors can be greeted. So that baptisms and weddings can be celebrated. So that loved ones can be remembered and we can offer up our prayers for each other and for our community.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.