Many churches aspire to be the heart of the community. San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio is geographically, culturally and spiritually just that.
In 1731, a band of 15 families arrived from the Canary Islands. These islanders, at the invitation of King Philip V of Spain, established the first municipal settlement in Texas. They called their new home La Villa de San Fernando in honor of Castilian king and saint Ferdinand III. Explorers, soldiers and Franciscan missionaries had preceded the settlers. The friars had already established Catholic missions in the area, including Mission San Antonio de Valero, now secularized and known to us today as the Alamo.
Soon, the small group of Canary Islanders mapped out their village and agreed that a church must be at its center. That center remains to this day the official nucleus of San Antonio.
The settlers placed the church under the protection of Our Lady of the Candles, patroness of the Canary Islands, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, celebrated on Dec. 12. Walls of this 18th-century colonial church still stand, making San Fernando the oldest cathedral sanctuary in continuous use in the United States — and the oldest building in Texas.
During the 19th century, the parish of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe remained a constant against an ever-changing political landscape. The colonial government of Spain gave way to that of Mexico (1821), the Republic of Texas (1836), the United States of America (1845) and the Confederacy (1861). The U.S. Army reclaimed San Antonio four years later at the end of the Civil War (1865).
In 1868, workers started renovating the church. They replaced the front of the original building and enlarged the structure to include a new nave. This makeover, resulting in the French Gothic Revival church visitors see today, was completed in preparation for the naming of San Antonio as a diocese and San Fernando as its cathedral in 1874.
With a pocket guide in hand, I entered through the double doors of the edifice.
What struck me was the airiness of San Fernando. New lighting makes it easy to see the many treasures the cathedral has to offer. First among them is the stone-carved baptismal font, a gift from Charles II, who became king of Spain in 1759.
Located near the font is El Cristo Negro, a replica of the dark-skinned crucified Christ sculpted in the late 16th century that is housed in Guatemala’s Basilica of Esquipulas. El Cristo Negro is a popular devotional shrine within San Fernando Cathedral. Visitors leave notes and pictures — many, I noticed, of young American soldiers — petitioning God to keep loved ones out of harm’s way and thanking him for favors granted.
Was Davy Crockett Here?
Moving up the center aisle, a bronze marker on the floor in front of the altar identifies where the door of the original colonial church once stood.
Behind the altar, in the colonial area, is the reservation chapel. The striking “Jesus Christ, Word and Sacrament” retablo graces the back wall. Measuring 24 feet by 16 feet and gilded in 24-karat gold, it serves as the backdrop for the tabernacle, crucifix and statues of the four evangelists. A 1770 painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a statue of Our Lady of the Candles, a gift of the Canary Islands, are framed by retablos on the left and right hand walls, respectively. Leonardo Soto Recendiz created these 18th century-style retablos in 2002-03 to replace those lost in a fire in 1828. A floor stone in the colonial church area indicates the center of San Antonio, the point from which all distances to and from the city are measured.
Other points of interest not to be missed in the cathedral include the marble marker commemorating the 1987 visit of John Paul II and a sarcophagus that, for many years, was believed to hold the remains of the defenders of the Alamo, including frontiersman David Crockett and renowned knife fighter James Bowie. However, historians are not in agreement over the validity of this claim.
This month gives visitors a special glimpse of the cathedral’s rich heritage. On the evening of Dec. 11, many will gather for a candlelight Seranade to the Virgin of Guadalupe, which will last through the night. Before sunrise, many gather for Las Mañanitas — the singing of the traditional birthday song of Mexico to pay tribute to the Virgin on her day — and Mass.
La Gran Posada, a centuries-old San Fernando tradition held later in Advent, reenacts Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. Carrying candles and singing carols, hundreds follow the couple as they process through town and find welcome, at last, in the cathedral.
That same welcome awaits the roughly 5,000 parishioners and visitors who worship each weekend at San Fernando Cathedral — continuing a tradition begun more than 275 years ago.
Kerry Crawford writes from
San Fernando Cathedral
115 W. Main Plaza
San Antonio, Texas 78205
Parish office: (210) 227-1297
San Fernando Cathedral is located in downtown San Antonio within walking distance of the city’s famous River Walk — a network of walkways, shops, hotels and restaurants along the banks of the San Antonio River. Streetcars (Yellow Route) also stop near the cathedral about every 10 minutes, from early morning to late evening.