Feliz Navidad From the City of St. Anthony

San Antonio, Texas, is steeped in Hispanic culture and, with it, the Catholic faith. That's probably why there's no better time to visit the city than Advent and the Christmas season.

To fully appreciate what's going on around you — all the festive sights, smells and sounds — you need to know a little of the city's colorful history.

Franciscan Father Antonio Olivares founded San Antonio on May 1, 1718, when he established Mission San Antonio De Valero on the banks of the San Antonio River. This mission would later gain fame when it was converted to a military fortress: The Alamo.

Four other missions dot the river for eight miles downstream. The intention of the Franciscan priests and brothers was to incorporate American Indians into the Spanish empire, making them Christians through education, protection and evangelization.

Among these evangelizing outposts, Mission San Jose Y San Miguel de Aguayois, built two years after the Alamo, is known as “Queen of the Missions.”

The beauty of Mission San Jose's Spanish colonial architecture and stone artistry ranks it among the most outstanding in the country. Intricate carvings of symbols and statuary cover the façade, and many observers consider its famous rose window to be the most outstanding example of Spanish colonial artistry in North America.

Of these five San Antonio missions, four are active Catholic parishes as well as National Historical Parks. The Alamo serves as an historical monument and no longer has an active parish.

Air of Advent

I grew up exposed to many cultural celebrations connected to the Catholic faith, moved many times by the Mexican culture's live re-creations of Gospel events.

For example, Los Pastores is a Mexican Christmas play about the Incarnation of Our Lord. Members of local parishes, including those from Mission San Jose, play the parts of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the three wise men. There's also a good angel — and a bad one.

La Posada, meanwhile, is a novena celebration. It's acted out and celebrated in Hispanic churches beginning Dec. 16 and ending on Christmas Eve. Here again parishioners dress up as the Holy Family. Only now they travel each evening to the home of a parishioner, knocking on the door asking for shelter. Of course, they are turned away. Prayer, song, refreshments and piñatas follow each evening's mini-drama.

On Christmas Eve, the weary travelers finally find refuge and a robust celebration follows.

The Gran Posada de la Ciudad takes place on Christmas Eve and begins at the Mercado, where actors dressed as Jesus and Mary ask for shelter only to be — you guessed it — turned away. The parade goes to the next stop at City Hall, where again, Jesus and Mary ask for shelter. This time, it's the mayor of San Antonio who turns them away. They continue to the Riverwalk hotels — the “inns” of our day — whose managers now turn them away.

Finally they come to San Fernando Cathedral. Here San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez humbly welcomes the weary travelers.

I was in my teens when I made my first trip to the missions of San Antonio. I remember my parents taking us to Mission San Jose for the Noon Mariachi Mass, celebrated in Spanish with traditionally costumed mariachi musicians playing horns, guitars, acoustic bass and accordion.

Meanwhile my return to Mission San Jose last month brought so many emotions and thoughts about my faith. I found a new appreciation for the Hispanic culture, and was awestruck over the history I once overlooked. Most impressive of all was finding at the center of all the activities Christ's words, ringing out at every Mass through all these centuries: “This is my body; this is my blood.”

Christmas Cheer

Here and elsewhere around the world, the Franciscan missions served a twofold purpose. They honored God and they gave the Franciscans a way to teach natives the faith through simple visual displays.

On my recent visit to Mission San Jose, I was reminded of both purposes as I approached the front of the church. Here I was greeted by six elaborately carved statues: St. Joseph (San Jose), St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, Sts. Anne and Joachim — and, floating above all, the Virgin Mary. She appears in the manifestation of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.

Stepping through the heavy wooden doors into the three-domed sacristy brought me back in time. The stucco walls are painted white, no longer the colorful frescoes used to teach stories through images to the natives. Mass was said by a Franciscan, Father Rojelio Martinez, clad in liturgical vestments; his simple hooded, brown robe and sandals were visible underneath.

I thought of all the people who have come to this church to pray — of long ago, when generations of American Indians, Franciscan friars, soldiers and generations of families came to worship, baptize their children, marry and bury their dead. I thought of the thousands of pilgrims who have sat in the same wooden pew I was in, kneeling and praying to Jesus really present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Following Mass, Franciscan Brother Tom Eisenmenger unlocked the iron door to the bell tower and permitted me to walk up the hand-carved wooden steps to the balcony so I could snap a photo between Masses. Once again, noting the age of the steps, I stepped back into the past — and ahead, into my own future.

With Advent well underway now, not to mention the hustle and bustle of the secular “holiday season,” my family and I are looking forward to our Christmas pilgrimage to San Antonio. I can think of few other places that evoke, with such simplicity, joy and expectation, the sense of wonder we ought to allow ourselves to feel this time of year.

The God of all Creation could have come to us any way he chose. He chose a humble manger on a chilly night.

Zeta Angelich writes from Austin, Texas.

Planning Your Visit

Sunday Mass is celebrated in the San Jose Mission Church Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. (Spanish), 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and noon (mariachi). The missions are closed to tourists Christmas Day and New Year's Day. For more information on the missions, go to nps.gov/saan/home.htm on the Internet.

Getting There

Mission San Jose Church is located at 701 East Pyron Ave. in San Antonio, Texas. For additional information, call (210) 922-0543 or visit SanJoseMissionChurch.org on the Internet.