The Bishops' Committee for Hispanic Affairs was originally founded as the Bishops' Committee for the Spanish Speaking in January 1945 in San Antonio under the leadership of Archbishop Robert E. Lucey, to involve the Catholic Church directly in improving the social and spiritual welfare of Mexican Americans in the state. Lucey set out to establish BCSS in 1941. He first organized a "summer school of social justice" to teach priests in the Southwest about the church's role in helping workers organize for better working conditions. Then in 1943–44, he called a series of meetings for church leaders who worked with Spanish-speaking Catholics in Texas. These gatherings became the basis for BCSS, which Lucey envisioned as a means to fight for social justice for Hispanics. While these events set up a structure for BCSS, two other elements were just as significant in establishing BCSS: Lucey's reputation as a fighter for working people and the high level of unemployment, poverty, and racism that affected the Mexican Americans of San Antonio, many of whom lived on an annual income of $2,000 in houses with dirt floors and no plumbing or water.
At the time the committee was founded, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal brought federal efforts against societal ills and provided BCSS with philosophical backing. Roosevelt had sent his congratulations on the prelate's elevation to archbishop, thus indicating his acceptance of Lucey's vision. From its earliest days, the committee reflected Lucey's ideas for attaining equality, and it remained firmly under his control until his retirement in 1969.
To carry out the church's mission among Mexican Americans, the committee set up permanent headquarters in San Antonio under Lucey's executive directorship. Though its original plan called for a rotating system of regional offices throughout the Southwest, Lucey never permitted the committee hierarchy to move outside the state. Once organized, the BCSS set up religion classes for children, child-care programs, clinics, and community centers on the west side of San Antonio, where Tejanos were segregated. In El Paso the committee emphasized public housing and youth work, and in Corpus Christi it participated in the successful unionization of the city's bus drivers, 70 percent of whom were Mexican American.
All in all, activism grounded in the church's treatises on social morality was the strength of BCSS's work. Although its activities received favorable coverage in the national press, anxious San Antonio businessmen decried what appeared to be a church-sponsored social revolution taking place in their midst. But BCSS paid little attention to criticism.
Besides its work in the state's cities during its formative years, BCSS also took up the cause of migratory farm laborers, prompting some to declare that the committee was really a farmworkers' union. In 1950 BCSS became formally involved with the migrant farm laborers. The catalyst for this was Lucey's service on President Harry S. Truman's panel that investigated farmworkers' and braceros' working and living conditions. The panel held public hearings around the state, and Lucey ensured that the committee's executive secretary, Fr. Theodore Radthe, testified about the substandard salaries and exploitation suffered by farmworkers. The testimony, which was not fully endorsed by the entire BCSS, did not succeed in promoting Lucey's efforts to oppose legislation establishing the Bracero program.
This failure to persuade government authorities to provide protective legislation for farmworkers set the committee on a different course. Lucey decided to organize a voluntary effort among Catholic parishes in the dioceses along the migrant trail. Besides assisting the farmworkers in their area, the volunteers conducted regular inspections of farm labor camps and reported any mistreatment to the authorities. Despite its wholehearted efforts, BCSS was able to provide only temporary relief to the workers along the migrant trail. Indifferent church members and a lack of funds spelled doom for the project. Through the 1950s, the committee continued to fight for farmworkers and oppose the Bracero program, which Lucey condemned as a vehicle that principally served the interests of growers. BCSS charged that the program used "slave laborers" and called for an end to it.
In the 1960s, BCSS initially endorsed the efforts of farmworkers in Texas to strike and gain collective bargaining rights. But that effort mired the committee in controversy that ended only with Lucey's retirement. The conflict erupted in 1967–68 between Lucey, the authoritarian head of BCSS, who did not tolerate dissent, and young BCSS priests. Lucey's transfer of dissident or outspoken priests working with the farmworker cause prompted a call for his resignation as archbishop by some sixty-eight priests under his jurisdiction. In 1969, with Lucey at the end of his career, the committee became part of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Its official title was changed to Bishops' Committee for Hispanic Affairs to reflect a broader national involvement with all Hispanic groups in the country. The Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs was made the administrative arm of the reorganized committee. The committee continued its work in the Southwest, focusing on social-justice issues affecting Hispanics. In January 1991 the committee elected Msgr. Enrique San Pedro, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, as its new president and organized a three-year plan of action to fulfill its mission to serve Hispanic Catholics.