For 71 years, St. Mary’s University and Holy Rosary Catholic Church have been neighbors on San Antonio’s West Side. Literally steps apart, these two Marianist institutions have largely existed in parallel. Now, there are significant efforts to converge their futures — and strengthen the neighborhoods around them in the process.

In 2014, the Most Rev. Gustavo García-Siller, M.Sp.S., Archbishop of San Antonio, approached St. Mary’s President Thomas Mengler, J.D., with an idea. Holy Rosary Parish had been dealing with an aging population and declining membership. So, García-Siller asked, how about the University and the archdiocese join together to build up Holy Rosary for youths and young adults?

“It was an exciting idea because of our role in the neighborhood of educating young adults, helping them bring their talents and service to their communities,” Mengler said.

And like that, the commitment to strengthen the spiritual landscape at St. Mary’s and the surrounding neighborhood, the Gateway District — especially for a younger demographic — was under way.

St. Mary’s University President Thomas M. Mengler, J.D., speaks during the Marianist Heritage Mass at Holy Rosary Catholic Church. The church is walking distance from St. Mary’s University.

Mounting Challenges

The well-documented decline in the number of people in the U.S. who identify as religious, including as Catholic, has taken its toll on many parishes. A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center found that there were about 51 million Catholic adults in the U.S. at that time, about 3 million fewer than in 2007. The report also stated that 36 percent of millennials between 18 and 24 were religiously unaffiliated, displaying “less connection with Christian churches than older generations.”

Despite the statistics, the Marianist Province of the U.S. dedicated resources to breathe new life into the partnership, which would also help St. Mary’s meet its mission of fostering the formation of people in faith — including its students.

Sending Reinforcements

To rededicate efforts in the diverse and burgeoning Southwest, the Marianists appointed Brother Mark Motz, S.M., who’s in his 30s, as the national vocation director in 2017 and sent him to St. Mary’s University.

In addition to Motz, the Rev. John Thompson, S.M., came to San Antonio that same year as the pastor at Holy Rosary. More reinforcements arrived: Brother Charles Johnson, S.M.; Brother Esteban Reyes, S.M.; and the Rev. Raymundo González, S.M.

With a new team of Marianists at Holy Rosary, their mission — in addition to daily duties — was to create opportunities for young adults, especially Hispanics, to become more involved with the parish.

Or, as Thompson described it, “inspire a new generation.”

The Rev. John Thompson, S.M., looks on as Holy Rosary Catholic Church summer campers play a game of UNO.

Developing Relationships

Laura Dicún, a junior Management major, didn’t expect the highlight of her first year as a summer camp counselor at Holy Rosary — one facet of the partnership — would involve a couple of shy kids.

“I found that the three of us loved to play tag,” she said. “After that, they wanted to play every day!”

For Dicún, that experience was a bridge connecting her to the children and their families near the University.

The free seven-week summer camp at Holy Rosary, run entirely by St. Mary’s students, launched in summer 2016, with Catholic Charities providing educational, training and support resources. The camp for children ages 7 to 17 living on the West Side has grown every year and alleviates summer child care costs for parents.

“For St. Mary’s students to be a presence and involved in our worship community has an incredible influence on the families,” Clare Acosta Matos, Director of Community Engagement at St. Mary’s, said. “These relationships don’t end with the child — they encompass parents, grandparents and extended family.”

Laura Dicún, junior Management major, a St. Mary’s University Summer of Service volunteer, plays with Holy Rosary summer campers.

Fruits of Their Labor

Iliana Mallett (B.B.A. ’19), Coordinator of Community Engagement at St. Mary’s, served as a camp counselor in 2016 and 2017.

The experience was so life-changing that she, with help from fellow students, founded a Girl Scout troop in the neighborhood.

“Come to find out, there were no troops near Holy Rosary,” she said.

Mallett’s troop of about a dozen girls ages 6 to 12 has met regularly.

“A lot of them didn’t know about the community garden at St. Mary’s or about St. Mary’s in general,” she said. “Some of them had never tried blueberries, so we did a whole lesson on healthy living.”

Iliana Mallett, a 2019 graduate, joins in the Marianist Heritage Mass at Holy Rosary after being honored with a 2019 Marianist Heritage Student Leadership Award.

Long-awaited addition

For years, Holy Rosary was without a full-time, salaried youth and young adult minister. That changed in 2017, when Daniel Vasquez (B.A. ’12), who had volunteered and worshiped at the church while a St. Mary’s student, filled the void.

“To do it well, youth ministry is a full-time job,” Vasquez said, whose long hours are filled with interacting with priests, religious brothers, youths and those from St. Mary’s.

Tasked with developing programming for both youths and young adults ages 18 to 35 in the Gateway District, Vasquez admitted that young adults “are an extremely tough demographic to cater to” because they are often still figuring out their lives and careers.

Vasquez has set two primary goals: Establish a strong network with St. Mary’s students and grow the youth faith formation group that meets every Sunday at Holy Rosary. Group attendance averages 35 high schoolers and middle schoolers.

And who runs this group? St. Mary’s students, of course, such as Mathematics major Jeanettee Uribe.

“My Catholic faith is very important to me and, because I want to be a middle school math teacher, I’ve found the perfect spot working with Daniel,” Uribe said.

(From left) Clare Acosta Matos, Director of Community Engagement at St. Mary’s; Daniel Vasquez, Youth and Young  Adult Minister at Holy Rosary; and Ximena Barbagelatta, a Marketing major, chat in Holy Rosary after Marianist Heritage Mass.

Team effort

In addition to student-volunteer manpower, Holy Rosary benefited from proceeds from the 2017 and 2018 StMU 5K for the Neighborhood totaling $45,000. Mengler said the money was earmarked to help upgrade their facilities.

Further partnership examples include Holy Rosary hosting the St. Mary’s Music Department’s Christmas Concert, the Opening School Liturgy Mass in the fall, and the Marianist Heritage Mass in the spring.

Teodoro “Alexis” Soto, senior Management major and a St. Mary’s University Summer of Service volunteer, races Holy Rosary summer camper Abigaile Garcia.

Adaption and change

“Quite simply, there’s not an owner’s manual for how to make this partnership tick,” said the Rev. Tim Eden, S.M., Ed.D., Rector and Vice President for Mission. “We’ve started from ground zero.”

Father Thompson, who’s been a Marianist priest for 20 years, said the formula to keeping young members captivated is simple: “good music and good preaching.”

The priest’s open and joyous style is a key to the partnership’s success, Mengler said.

“A partnership that includes a charismatic leader like Father Thompson, and we doing our parts, will advance the Marianist mission of helping form and develop our students grounded in faith,” he said.

Learn more about St. Mary’s University by taking a virtual tour online at www.stmarytx/edu/visit.