"The Dawn of a New Day"

Listen to the sermon preached by The Reverend Dr. Gregory Cuéllar, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, on October 8, 2013

Reverend Elias Rodriguez, third from right, at a meeting of the Texas Mexican Presbytery.


In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15-October 15, we take a moment to reflect on the history of Hispanic ministry in the area.

According to Dr. Jorge Lara Braud (MDiv’59), San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio was established in 1731 making it the first parish church in Texas as well as the oldest standing structure in Texas. As early as 1830, a few missionaries made inroads, primarily in the border area, to promote the cause of Protestant Christianity, among them four Presbyterians: Sumner Bacon, William C. Blair, John McCullough, and Melinda Rankin. The first Mexican Presbyterian congregation in Texas was organized in Brownsville in 1877, undoubtedly the work of Rankin. With education foremost on her mind she also opened a school for Mexican girls, organizing the Rio Grande Female Institute in May, 1854. She also opened the first Protestant Mission in Mexico.

Elias S. Rodriguez migrated from northern Mexico at the age of two and his family joined the Presbyterian Church at Reedville. In 1905, just three years after the Seminary’s founding, Rodriguez enrolled at Austin Seminary and, alongside his fellow Anglo-American students, he took courses in Hebrew and Greek languages, Systematic Theology, and Church History. Rodriguez became the first Hispanic to graduate with a Bachelor of Divinity from Austin Seminary. Dr. R.E. Vinson, the Seminary’s President at the time, wrote these words about Rodriguez to the Executive Committee of Home Missions:

We have had two Mexican students … and they have been among our most satisfactory students. One of them [Rodriguez] took the full course in all departments doing the work in the English language, and made such a fine record for the three years, that even though he did not have a college degree, the Seminary Board of Trustees, upon the unanimous recommendation of the Faculty, granted to him the degree of Bachelor of Divinity upon his graduation. This is an honor that has not been granted to any American student for the same period… (Mission Survey, 1912, 339)

Rodriguez was ordained and went on to pastor two Hispanic Presbyterian congregations, first in Victoria, Texas, and later in Dallas.

In 1908, the Synod of Texas established the Texas Mexican Presbytery and supported a Spanish department for Mexican-American students at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1921 until 1954, when the theological program became fully integrated.

Elisa Gonzales was a student in Austin Seminary's School for Lay Workers in Christian Education program (started in 1955). She went on to become the first Hispanic female missionary in the Presbyterian Church, U.S., working in Brazil. Rebecca Reyes, the first female Hispanic graduate from Austin Seminary became the first Hispanic woman ordained in the PCUS in 1979. She was called to be pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in San Marcos, the oldest Hispanic Presbyterian Church in Texas not affiliated with Mexico (founded in 1887). At the time one of only three Hispanic students at Austin Seminary, Reyes said it was "awesome to have professors like Rachel Henderlite, with her work with Latinas, who took time to encourage us, and David Ng [Christian education] who was very sensitive to culture and diversity. Other students or professors were very deliberate to let us know that what we were doing was groundbreaking—and also very lonely."

Thanks to the following for their assistance in compiling this brief history: The Reverend Lydia Hernandez (MDiv’93), pastor and former mission co-worker in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico; Kristy Sorensen, Seminary archivist, and Dr. Gregory Cuéllar, assistant professor of Old Testament. The photograph on page 1 is of Reverend Rodriguez in front of the Mexican Presbyterian Church in Dallas, for which he was the organizing pastor.