Tranchese, Carmelo Antonio (1880–1956)

By: Donald L. Zelman

Type: Biography

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: September 29, 2020

Carmelo Antonio Tranchese (El Padrecito), priest, social worker, and public-housing advocate, was born in Pomigliano d'arco, outside Naples, Italy, on August 29, 1880. He entered the Jesuit order as a novice in 1896 and studied in Naples and Malta, taught for a while in Naples, and then completed his theological studies at St. Bueno's College in North Wales. He was ordained a priest on September 25, 1910, in North Wales. In 1911 Tranchese received his first assignment and began his missionary life in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he spent one year. He was then sent to El Paso, Texas, where, with the assistance of Father Carlos M. Pinto at St. Ignatius Church, he built a new church, a priests' house, and a large school. He left St. Ignatius in 1915 in order to complete his tertianship at St. Andrew's in Poughkeepsie, New York. After a year he was reassigned to El Paso, but to the Church of the Guardian Angel, where he remained until he returned to St. Ignatius in 1928. Between 1928 and 1932 he moved back and forth between El Paso; San Jose, California; and Albuquerque. During this period he helped develop an Italian Catholic federation linking the three cities. On July 7, 1932, Tranchese began his duties as the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the West Side of San Antonio, which was home for the majority of the city's 82,000 Mexican Americans. Most worked as unskilled laborers for area companies, particularly the local pecan-shelling industry. Working conditions and wages were poor, and the living environment consisted of dilapidated housing and disease-infested neighborhoods. Tranchese immediately championed programs that brought improvements. He helped establish the Guadalupe Community Center, which, in cooperation with the Bexar County Tuberculosis Association, sponsored a health clinic that offered workshops in disease prevention and provided free vaccinations and other medical care. In 1935 Tranchese was appointed to the board of the tuberculosis association. He also encouraged efforts to improve working conditions and wages. Though he was skeptical of organized labor (he opposed the CIO, believing it was Communist inspired), he supported local strikes and was particularly active in soliciting provisions and establishing breadlines for pecan workers who struck in 1935 and 1938 (see PECAN-SHELLERS' STRIKE). In October 1938, when the city's pecan companies mechanized in response to the Fair Labor Standards Act (Wage-Hour Act), throwing approximately 8,000 shellers out of work, Tranchese helped organize the Catholic Relief Association, which solicited and distributed food, clothing, and shelter. He also established a relief depot in the church which daily supplied several thousand people with rations.

Tranchese's most noted accomplishment was his role in bringing a federal housing project to San Antonio. He established himself as the city's major advocate for public housing, drumming up support through speeches, articles, and letters, including appeals to President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1937 he was appointed one of five charter members of the San Antonio Housing Authority and shared responsibility for persuading the United States Housing Authority and President Roosevelt to approve a project for the city. Opponents of public housing threatened Tranchese's life and slandered his character. Hostile landlords caused USHA administrator Nathan Straus to announce the cancellation of the San Antonio project when they demanded exorbitant prices for their lands. Tranchese was undeterred, and Eleanor Roosevelt helped him persuade Straus to reverse this decision. Tranchese's determination contributed to the removal of some of the worst slums on the West Side and their replacement by the Alazan-Apache Courts for Mexican Americans. He also played a role in securing USHA loans and annual subsidies for courts built in other areas of the city, including Victoria Courts for Anglo families and Lincoln and Wheatley courts for Blacks. The projects were completed in 1942. Though Tranchese fought to have his parishioners build Alazan-Apache Courts, the USHA employed only organized labor. He was also unsuccessful in getting the USHA to build additional projects. Still, Tranchese was widely recognized for what he did accomplish. He became vice chairman of the SAHA in 1944 and four years later was reappointed to the position. He received tributes from political dignitaries and was featured on radio programs and in various newspaper and magazine articles. One movie agent even considered making a movie based on his life. Tranchese initiated the first Spanish archdiocesan Sunday newsletter in Texas, La Voz de la Parroquia, which circulated throughout the Southwest. He also translated a shepherds' play, Los Pastores (see FOLK DRAMA), from Spanish to English and later edited and published the play (1949). In 1953, after he suffered a breakdown, church officials sent Tranchese to St. Charles College, Grand Coteau, Louisiana, to recuperate. He spent his remaining years there and, on July 13, 1956, died of a heart attack.

George Sessions Perry, "Rumpled Angel of the Slums," Saturday Evening Post, August 21, 1948. J. Gilberto Quesada, "Towards a Working Definition of Social Justice: Father Carmelo A. Tranchese, S.J. and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, 1932–1953," Journal of Texas Catholic History and Culture 4 (1993). Carmelo A. Tranchese Papers, Microfilm Collection, St. Mary's University Library. Donald L. Zelman, "Alazan-Apache Courts," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 87 (October 1983).

  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Translators
  • Peoples
  • Italians
  • Religion
  • Mexican Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Catholic

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Donald L. Zelman, “Tranchese, Carmelo Antonio,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996
September 29, 2020

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