by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Standing along the San Antonio Riverwalk is this statue of St. Anthony of Padua, with the inscription: "San AntonioFor Whom the City and the River Are NamedGift of Portugal."
do not have to walk very far along the famous Riverwalk that
winds through the heart of San Antonio before you run into a lovely,
life-size statue of Anthony of Padua. Nestled amidst tall green
plants and holding the Child Jesus, the statue is located prominently
along the public walk bordering the San Antonio River.
This is not the only image of the saint you will see
in this city.
How the City Got Its Name
How did it happen that the city of San Antonio
was named after St. Anthony? Over 300 years ago, in 1691, a small
expedition of Spanish explorers traveling north from Mexico advanced
some 150 miles into present-day Texas. On June 13, they stopped
to set up camp near a Coahuiltecan (kwa-weel-teken) Indian village
along the river. The Franciscan chaplain of the small expedition,
Father Damien Massanet, suggested that they call the place San Antonio
because they had arrived on the feast of St. Anthony.
The Spanish general, Domingo de Teran, agreed with the
brown-robed friar and then took the idea one step further: He named
the river San Antonio, too!
Some 27 years passed, however, before another Franciscan
friar, Father Antonio Olivares, founded the first Franciscan mission
near the village in 1718. Its purpose was to evangelize the Coahuiltecans.
The friar named the mission San Antonio de Valero in honor of St.
Anthony and the duke of Valero, a Spanish viceroy.
Mission San Antonio, which gave the city its name, is
the most visited landmark in downtown San Antonio today. However,
the famous adobe structure is better known as the Alamo—though historical
plaques carefully explain that the building was originally named
Mission San Antonio.
In brief, the name change came about this way: From
1718 till 1793, Spanish missionaries labored patiently at Mission
San Antonio to evangelize the Coahuiltecan people and create a Christian
community there. Their efforts met with a measure of success but,
because of various difficulties, missionary activities came to an
end at Mission San Antonio in 1793.
The abandoned mission was then converted into a military
fort that came to be known as the Alamo. The fortress is best remembered
for the historic siege of 1836 (February 23 to March 6). During
this battle, popularized in films, 188 fighters for Texas independence
were killed at the fort by Mexican forces led by General Santa Ana.
Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and other famous Americans died in the
battle that gave birth to the war slogan “Remember the Alamo!”
Other Franciscan Missions Nearby
Along with Mission San Antonio, four additional
Franciscan missions were established. These missions, too, were
located along the banks of the San Antonio River, just south of
what is now downtown San Antonio.
The most notable of these was Mission San José, founded
in 1720 by the Spanish Franciscan missionary, Father Antonio Margil
(1657-1726), whose cause is up for beatification. Considered the
model of the Texan missions, San José was the largest in the area
and became known as the “Queen of the Missions.”
The three other missions, originally founded in East
Texas but transferred to the San Antonio area in 1731, are: Concepción,
San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de la Espada.
These missions, like Mission San Antonio itself, experienced
their own share of successes and setbacks. On the plus side, the
missions brought the gift of Christian faith to the native people
living near San Antonio. At San José, for example, over 2,000 Native
Americans were baptized during that mission’s 104 years of active
The missions also provided the Coahuiltecans—mainly
hunters and food gatherers—opportunities to learn new skills like
farming, ranching and construction. In addition, the thick walls
of these buildings offered protection from their enemies—the raiding
Apaches and Comanches from the north.
But the missions had their downside, too. Many of the
indigenous people died from European diseases introduced by the
Spanish missionaries and soldiers. And the regimentation that the
Native Americans experienced at the missions often clashed with
their freer, more natural lifestyles. Loss of culture is another
negative consequence pointed out by scholars.
By 1824 the San Antonio missions were secularized and
the era of the old missions came to an end. A period of neglect
eventually followed and, little by little, the mission buildings
began falling into ruin.
The Restored Missions Today
Since the 1920s, however, impressive efforts have
been made to restore and preserve the old San Antonio missions.
The City of San Antonio is convinced that the Old Spanish missions
provide a real connection to the past and are a constant reminder
of the important contributions that the Native American and Hispanic
communities have made to that history.
The four restored missions, as well as old Mission San Antonio—the
Alamo—are popular tourist sites today. Beginning at the Alamo, visitors
can drive, bicycle or walk the 10-mile Mission Trail that extends
to Mission San Francisco de la Espada, the southernmost mission.
The mission churches, moreover, except for Mission San
Antonio, are active parishes belonging to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese
of San Antonio. The spacious mission grounds are managed by the
National Park Service.
Even the Franciscans have returned, by way of American
Franciscan friars from the Sacred Heart Province, based in St. Louis,
Missouri. These friars began serving at Mission San José in 1929
and continue to this day. Since 1967, they also serve as pastors
at San Francisco de la Espada.
According to Father Herb Jones, O.F.M., current pastor
of Mission San José, the composition of the crowds attending Sunday
Mass at San José is quite multicultural, including parishioners
of Hispanic, Anglo, African-American and Asian descent, not to mention
tourists from various states. The Mission’s “Mariachi Mass,” celebrated
at noon each Sunday, has been a 35-year tradition. It is particularly
popular with tourists, many of whom consider it the “highlight of
their visit to San Antonio,” observes Father Herb.
The congregation at the small Espada Mission, located
a few miles farther south of Mission San José, is predominantly
Hispanic. The quaint little chapel comfortably seats about 88 people.
Two Masses are celebrated at la Espada each weekend, one Saturday
evening and the other Sunday morning. The pastor of la Espada, Father
Larry Brummer, O.F.M., informed St. Anthony Messenger that,
three or four times a year, a small group of Native Americans comes
to San Francisco de la Espada to perform ceremonial dances on the
plaza in front of the mission.
Diocesan priests from the Archdiocese of San Antonio
serve at Mission Concepción and Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The Legacy of St. Anthony
The story that began 313 years ago this month on
the feast of St. Anthony near the Coahuiltecan village that became
San Antonio, Texas, is a story of sadness in many respects—at least
in the sense that the Coahuiltecan people, who dwelt in this region
before the Christians arrived from Europe, have generally disappeared
as a distinct community.
Yet Father Herb informs St. Anthony Messenger that
12 or so descendants of the Coahuiltecans are active members of
Mission San José Parish. And according to Msgr. Balthasar Janacek,
the archdiocesan director of the Old Spanish Missions, there is
an organization known as “The American Indians of Texas at the Spanish
Colonial Missions,” who identify themselves as “descendants of the
Coahuiltecans.” This group sometimes performs dances at the missions.
“Those of us living in this area,” Msgr. Janacek adds,
“often see descendants of the Coahuiltecans in the Native American
faces we pass each day on the streets of San Antonio.”
The labors and frustrations of the missionaries, the
native peoples and the Hispanic communities of the past have not
been in vain. We know this, moreover, from seeing the harvest of
their good work clearly manifested in the extensive faith community
that is San Antonio today.
We can look, for example, at the good works of the many
charitable institutions of the Archdiocese of San Antonio: hospitals
and medical center, homes for children and for the aging.
We can point to other admired institutions, like San Antonio’s
Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), a well-known Catholic center
for multicultural pastoral training and language studies. It seeks
to meet the religious and social needs of Hispanic communities and
promotes understanding among all cultures. We can also note at least
five prominent Catholic colleges and universities in the archdiocese,
as well as the large number of religious communities of men and
women, including at least eight communities of Franciscan sisters.
Each year on October 3, the eve of the feast of St.
Francis of Assisi, members of these Franciscan communities, as well
as Secular Franciscans living in the area and the Franciscan friars
who serve at the old missions, come together at Mission San José
to commemorate solemnly the death or passing (transitus)
of St. Francis. The spirit of St. Francis lives on today.
And so does the spirit of St. Anthony, the city’s patron
saint, who died in 1231, less than five years after the death of
St. Francis. Anthony is perhaps the most popular follower of the
great peacemaker of Assisi. Anthony was a great preacher of peace
Anthony is a perfect patron for the city of San Antonio
and of the wonderful river that runs graciously through it. May
the spirit of St. Anthony—which is a spirit of peace, reconciliation
and healing—continue to bless and guide the great city that bears