Bishop John W. Yanta, a prelate proud of his Polish heritage who traced his lineage to the first settlers of Panna Maria, died in his residence in San Antonio on August 6 -- the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord -- after years of dealing with numerous serious health ailments with a resolute and prayerful demeanor as he continued to lead and guide work on a number of endeavors close to his heart.
The first bishop of Polish background to be appointed to a Texas diocese, Bishop John Yanta’s life had a typical American flavor. Born on Oct. 2, 1931, the fifth of eight children, he grew up on a family farm-ranch in Runge. He attended Runge public schools and religion classes at St. Anthony Church there from first to seventh grades.
Bishop Yanta’s roots went back to the Opole area of Silesia, Poland, the same area that produced St. John Paul II. There was the typical immigrant connection -- his ancestors sold their possessions and purchased sailing-ship tickets to America -- and Texas.
His mother’s relatives came from the Pluznica area near Opole with the first 100 families who settled in Panna Maria in 1854. Panna Maria is the first permanent Polish colony and Catholic church in the United States.
John Andrew Yanta and Mary Magdalen Pollok were married on June 15, 1920, in the parish church at Panna Maria. The bishop’s father died in 1971. The bishop’s parents enjoyed 51 years of marriage. The couple’s first child was a girl, Valeria. Seven sons followed -- Edwin, Ernest, Wilfred, John, Fabian (deceased), Joseph James, and Vernon.
On the farm, there were always chores. What free time the boys had was spent in kicking a ball or having playful fights. On Sundays there was the creek, fishing, or swimming. They would hunt, too. A steady routine of hard work and simple fun molded the entire family.
The years at Runge public school were followed by two years at Central Catholic High School and 10th grade at Maryhurst Normal Seminary in Kirkwood, Mo., where he studied to be a Marianist priest. He changed to Assumption Seminary in San Antonio in 1946 and completed his theology courses at Assumption in 1956.
Bishop Yanta always wanted to be a priest, and he never shared this with his family in his early years. He said that he was a mischievious little boy and he knew his brothers would have laughed at the idea of becoming a priest. His heroes were priests. One was the pastor of St. Anthony’s in Runge, Father Charles Drees. The other, a seminarian who spent his summers in Runge teaching religion to the children of the parish before he was ordained, was Father Erwin Juraschek. It was he who later invited the seminarian John Yanta to serve in the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
John was in the seminary the year their father was sick. The seminarian took a year off to take over management of the ranch. It was a very critical year for him, one in which he might easily have discontinued his path to the priesthood. The future bishop, however, was very committed to his vocation.
He was ordained to the priesthood on March 17, 1956, in San Fernando Cathedral by Archbishop Robert E. Lucey. He celebrated his first Mass in St. Anthony’s in Runge.
His first assignment was as associate pastor of St. Ann’s Parish in San Antonio from 1956-1962. In 1962 he was named director of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). While serving in that capacity until 1968, he also served as associate pastor of Our Lady of Grace, Holy Name, and St. Pius X parishes in San Antonio.
He was the founder of the San Antonio Neighborhood Youth Organization (SANYO) in 1965 and served as its executive director until 1971, when he was assigned to the archdiocesan Office for the Laity.
His initiation of SANYO (San Antonio Youth Organization) in 1965 was one of his most cherished memories. He organized it for the benefit of the impoverished youth of the city at the time of the War on Poverty during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.
“Part of me died when SANYO closed,” he recalled, stating it was a program of great fame and integrity.
In 1970-1971, Bishop Yanta went to Poland to study the country’s history and culture and to improve his knowledge of the Polish language. “I have great respect for the variety of ethnic cultures within the archdiocese. It was my exposure to the Hispanic and Black cultures that made me realize that I knew almost nothing of my own Polish heritage,” he said.
At the time he was there, Poland was under Communist control and he marveled at the strength of the Catholic Church and the Polish people. “I could understand the euphoria of the Poles when Karol Wojtyla because the first Polish pope,” he said.
Bishop Yanta is a charter member of the Polish American Priests Association (PAPA) and became its first national president in 1991. Highly active in several Polish-American organizations, he was the coordinator of Pope John Paul II’s visit with Panna Maria parishioners and Texas Polonia in 1987 at Assumption Seminary.
In 1973, then Msgr. Yanta was named pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in San Antonio.
In addition, he was named editor-in-chief of Today’s Catholic, a position he held until 1983. In 1981 he became archdiocesan director of Communications.
When the archdiocesan newspaper, Today’s Catholic, was in danger of “fading out,” Bishop Yanta accepted the position of editor-in-chief. “We got the newspaper back on its feet,” he said with pride.
While editor of the newspaper, he helped to get Catholic Television of San Antonio (CTSA) off the ground in 1981.
With an expressed sense of profound humility, Msgr. Yanta accepted a new appointment as auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese at a press conference in the chancery on October 27, 1994.
“I am greatly honored by the confidence His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, has placed in me,” he said.
“Divine Providence has united Archbishop Patrick Flores and myself in a variety of ways for many years,” he said. “To you, archbishop, I pledge my love, loyalty, and obedience to serve you and all the members of our beautiful archdiocesan family.”
When he was appointed auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Yanta described himself as “happily fulfilled in all my priestly assignments over these 38 years.”
He especially paid tribute to his two pastorates, Sacred Heart Parish in the city’s Westside and St. James the Apostle on the Southside, where he was serving when he received his episcopal appointment.
He was consecrated auxiliary bishop in a ceremony held Dec. 30, 1994, in Panna Maria.
The bishop had a reputation as an organizer and a “doer.” An action that brought the bishop into public view was his jail sentence in 1993 for blocking the entrance to the New Women’s Clinic abortion center on San Pedro Avenue. It was the way he chose to observe the 20th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling.
“It was a non-Catholic, Jack DeVault, who got me actively involved in the Right to Life movement,” he said. “He made me realize that I should do more than give lip service to saving the lives of the unborn.” He added, “I guess you could say I give 101 percent to any project I undertake.”
On Jan. 21, 1997, Bishop Yanta was appointed prelate for the Diocese of Amarillo, and became the bishop there on March 17, 1997. He retired on January 3, 2008, and moved back to San Antonio.
Upon his retirement, Bishop Yanta remained active, forming study groups, recording, producing, and distributing CD’s that featured him reciting all the mysteries of the rosary.
Bishop Yanta faced a life-threatening illness in December 2017 which had him out of commission for eight months, but he rebounded.
He was honored on June 13, 2019 during a presidential welcome reception at Our Lady of Częstochowa Church in Houston with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
The honor was presented to Bishop Yanta by President Andrzej Duda and First Lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda. The decoration is awarded to non-citizens and those living abroad for distinguished contributions to international cooperation and was presented in recognition of Bishop Yanta’s numerous initiatives in the Polish community.
Bishop Yanta thanked President Duda and the First Lady, stating, “You honor us with your presence — welcome to America and to Texas and its Polonia. I humbly accept this prestigious award in the name of our Polish people living today in Texas and throughout the USA, and in Poland.”
A number of high-ranking Polish government officials were in attendance, along with over 300 representatives from Texas Polish communities, churches and organizations.
Later that year, Bishop Yanta celebrated his 25th anniversary as a bishop on the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.
The Mass of celebration was held at the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Panna Maria, where he had been ordained as a bishop 25 years earlier on the same feast day.
Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, MSpS, was the homilist and Bishop Emeritus Michael Pfeifer, OMI, of the Diocese of San Angelo was the principal celebrant.
Six other priests served as concelebrants including Bishop Yanta’s seminarian classmate: Msgr. Emil Wesselsky.
Bishop Yanta had specifically picked the day of the Feast of the Holy Family for his ordination and this jubilee celebration as a reflection of his deep commitment to family.
For most of his retirement, the bishop had been focused intensely on the development of the Polish Heritage Center at Panna Maria, whose founding he has spearheaded.
The first step began in 2008 when Bishop Yanta first conceived of how to remember his immigrant ancestors. He began to ask certain professionals how to bring this discernment to fruition. He made contact with Steve Harding, who had impressed him with his work in Sarita, Texas, for the Kenedy Memorial Foundation.
Bishop Yanta provided him with the “Blue Book,” which was a compilation of the bishop’s Polish heritage. The book was an aid to Harding in his task of bringing the bishop’s vision to life. Harding designed the concept that was given to Morkovsky AIA to draw the plans that would become a reality.
In April 2016, the land was cleared and ground as prepared for construction. The task of constructing the building itself went to MJ Boyle Construction. The structure of the Heritage Center would be “dried in” with the roofing laid in place. From the outside the Center looked finished. But the hardest work lay ahead.
In 2018 Keller-Martin was contracted to finish the inside of the Center. Revisions were made for technology on the Center, and the challenge of COVID also impacted completion.
The building houses and makes available a vast inventory about those who left Poland. The goal is to provide professionally prepared genealogies including church and civil primary records. Another ambitious endeavor will be to index all scanned family photographs provided by descendants.
The growing collection of families’ histories are located in the Genealogical and Research Library, where patrons can conduct research. There is a growing collection of books related not only to immigration history but also Polish history, available in both English and Polish.
The rotunda features a dome with a blue sky and painted gold stars, embedded with Swarovski Crystals. In the band that circles the dome written in English, Polish, and Spanish is the great command given by Jesus to his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
In the middle of the lobby floor is a nine-foot diameter, terrazzo tri-seal medallion featuring the seals of the United States of America, the Republic of Poland, and the State of Texas.
The Center celebrated its grand opening October 23-24, 2021.
In a September 2021 interview with The West Texas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Amarillo, Bishop Yanta was asked what advice he would give to young men discerning a vocation to the priesthood and what advice he would also give to parents who might be encouraging their sons to seek a vocation to the priesthood.
He responded, “I think my answer to both the men who are discerning a vocational call and to his parents are the same: do not presume whom God calls, He calls all! Be supportive, be prayerful, look for the gift that God is calling on to benefit His Church.”
On March 18 of this year, Bishop Yanta was honored at the Hope for the Future 13th Annual Khaki and Plaid Gala for championing Catholic education for a lifetime and a recent significant financial gift to Catholic education.
Bishop Yanta graced one of his former schools, St. James the Apostle Catholic School of San Antonio, with a $500,000 challenge grant to assist the people there towards their hope for additional classroom space.
“This is indeed a tremendous gift from which we thank you from the depths of our faith and from our hearts,” said Auxiliary Bishop Michael Boulette at the event held at the Witte Museum. “Be blessed, Bishop Yanta, as you have been a blessing to us in all these years of service.”
The following week, on March 22, Bishop Yanta was again recognized at the 20th Annual Catholic Television of San Antonio Leadership Luncheon for his invaluable role in the founding of the station 40 years ago. The bishop had been honored the previous year, in 2021, in a virtual event, but the station wished for Bishop Yanta to receive recognition in a public setting as the COVID-19 pandemic eased and allowed for an in-person gathering.
“There are still a few of us around who remember the absolute excitement of the presbyterate, mixed a little concern, over 40 years ago when the possibility of having a Catholic television station in San Antonio was being discussed,” said Bishop Boulette at the luncheon. “We had now Bishop John Yanta, Msgr. Larry Stuebben, and our Ordinary, Bishop Patricio F. Flores, clearly celebrating the challenge and embracing the vision.”
Archbishop Gustavo added, “I want to pay tribute to some of the people who were critical to the foundation of CTSA: Archbishop Patrick Flores, Bishop John Yanta, Monsignor Larry Stuebben, Sister Charlene Wedelich, Deacon Pat Rodgers, and others who directed the fledgling station in its early days.”
Funeral arrangements for Bishop Yanta are currently pending.