St. Francis Home for the Aged
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Paula Allen, Columnist
June 25, 2022
SA Express News
I attended Briscoe Elementary School during the late 1950s to the early ’60s. I remember next to Briscoe was Stribling Street, and the next lot was a huge mansion that was later torn down, I think by the early ’70s. I believe it was a convent run by the Catholic Church. I remember as an elementary school kid, the sight of that mansion was a big mystery to me as to what it was and who lived there. Do you have any history of this convent?
— Hector Martinez
The building you remember was the second to be built on that site. Two orders of nuns successively ran helping facilities there, focusing first on the elderly and later on young women.
The address was 2017 S. Flores St., later renumbered as 2033 S. Flores. Combined, North and South Flores made up “the longest street in San Antonio” when it was featured in the San Antonio Light, Nov. 19, 1939. Toward the end of the story’s north-to-south tour, Briscoe Elementary, St. Henry’s Catholic Church and school, and St. Francis Home for the Aged were noted as “points of interest along this section of South Flores.” St. Francis was singled out for “present(ing) the unusual sight of a small farm set down in the city — with tilled fields surrounding it and a few head of cattle grazing nearby,”
More than 4 acres of land had been conveyed in 1874 by Bishop C.M. Dubuis to the high-achieving Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, best-known as founders of Santa Rosa Infirmary and Incarnate Word Academy, now Christus Santa Rosa Health System and the University of the Incarnate Word. Not until 1894 would the order establish St. Francis Home for the Aged, moving their ministry to the aged and infirm from Santa Rosa to the new quarters with room to grow. The original wood-frame building usually accommodated 20-30 residents who were tended by nursing sisters free of charge.
Judging from death reports, the St. Francis Home served people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. Many were paralyzed by stroke or disabled by rheumatism. Regular Masses were celebrated in the chapel, while residents were admitted regardless of denomination.
The home was supported by proceeds from volunteer-run bazaars and by donations from women's clubs and businesses. But after a few years, the home started accepting paying patients as a way of subsidizing the destitute.
Residents ranged from elderly itinerant workers who had collapsed on the job to Concepcion Callaghan Navarro, mother of Mayor Bryan Callaghan.
A new four-story brick building with “modern conveniences,” according to the San Antonio Light, June 11, 1905, was built on the site, and the old building was torn down. Its replacement, completed the next year, had 52 rooms, in hopes that the larger, improved space would attract more residents. But that didn’t happen, and the St. Francis Home moved to a new business model.
A 1925 Community Chest appeal for donations to a common fund that aided local charities includes a description of the “sunset home for the friendless aged,” where “50 inmates are cared for, one paying $50 a month and 18 paying part of their keep,” while “the others must be supported by charity.” With more donations, says the appeal, the home could “accommodate 100 patients.”
Through the 1920s and ’30s, the St. Francis Home became one of the city’s top aid agencies, ranking with about a dozen local aid agencies helped by Associated Charities, another community grant-making fund, and regularly benefiting from Catholic Charity Board. St. Francis was on the citywide captive-audience circuit for youth-group entertainment (Scout troops, church and school choirs) and once was one of several institutions visited by the Lilliputians, a troupe of little people appearing at the Majestic Theatre who came out to meet “100 old people, many of whom (are) completely penniless, await(ing) the last summons,” according to the San Antonio Evening News, Jan. 5, 1923.
As integrated as it was into the life of this city, St. Francis changed its mission, probably in the late 1930s. Instead of giving refuge to pretty much any old person — including survivors of suicide attempts who couldn’t or wouldn’t give their names — the home narrowed its focus to a special population. In a letter to Bexar County Commissioners Court, the Incarnate Word sisters “suggested the $25 monthly contribution from the county be discontinued” since the home was by then “occupied almost entirely by aged and infirm nuns,” rather than members of the general public, as reported in the Light, Sept. 13, 1943.
The St. Francis Home closed July 1, 1955, when its 49 retired nuns were “transferred by bus, car and ambulance” to St. Joseph’s Convent, a modern facility newly built for $700,000 at 847 E. Hildebrand Ave., says the Southern Messenger, a Catholic newspaper, July 7, 1955. Their former home would stand vacant for two years until it was sold to another religious order, the Daughters (later Religious) of Mary Immaculate for their Villa Maria home for young women from out of town — typically the Rio Grande Valley or Mexico — who were studying or working in San Antonio.
The Daughters had operated a similar home at 103 City St. in what’s now the King William Historic District starting in 1954. Built in the early 1890s for Adele and Rudolph Staacke, the large, two-story brick home previously had housed single families. Villa Maria was essentially a boarding house, one of many run by the order around the world that provided a safe place and two or three meals a day for young women of modest means, whose wages or allowance could cover their rent.
Before long, “the structure became inadequate to accommodate the girls,” says the Southern Messenger, May 2, 1957, so “to alleviate the crowded conditions” and to give the residents space for recreation, they moved to the former St. Francis campus. After extensive repairs and the installation of an elevator, the Daughters swapped out the statue of St. Francis in the top-floor niche for a new one of the Virgin Mary created by local stonemasons, Rodriguez Bros. The 24 residents from City Street only occupied the first two floors, with plans to remodel the third.
Besides the residents’ modest rent, Villa Maria held chicken suppers, festivals, benefit dances and cookie sales, with proceeds first going toward renovations, then with the idea of building a new dormitory at 2033 N. Flores to accommodate their growing flock. After taking in 38 girls who were refugees from the Cuban revolution in the early ’60s, the former old-age home was more than full of young life with a total of 83 residents in their teens to mid-20s, doubled up in every room.
So the Daughters switched course and decided to build on property they already owned at 719 Augusta St. Plans for the new Villa Maria, announced in April 1963, detailed the features of the $578,000 home-away-from-home on the northern edge of downtown, with brick and glass walls and — finally — air-conditioning throughout. Space for more than 100 young women and 11 nuns included private rooms with en-suite bathrooms, a more dormitory-style floor, chapel, cafeteria and dining room, conference and TV rooms and a library. As Villa Maria Residence, it’s still in use today “for young ladies between 18 and 29 years of age,” says the website at www.villamariaresidence.org.
After the home moved to its new location in 1965, the “mansion” was torn down, and a salvage sale beginning in April 1966 disposed of the old brick, lumber, fire-escape steps, pipe and steel in situ. Another building on the site housed the Esskay Manufacturing Co., makers of boys clothing, at 122 Stribling St.
Thanks to the Conservation Society of San Antonio library for help with city directory and Sanborn Insurance Co. research and to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio Archives for providing documents about the transfer of the St. Francis building.