Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 19, 2003
In search of St. Ferdinand
Guitars, trumpets Mariachi bands make a joyful noise at San Fernando
Saint Ferdinand - Feast Day - May 30
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
San Antonio, Texas
There are always people in the great Cathedral of San Fernando. Parishioners pray or visit little shrines, while visitors wander the recesses of the deep sanctuary in search of historic plaques. And, when feast days are celebrated, only early arrivals can hope for a place in the ancient nave.
Eight weekend Masses are celebrated here, most in Spanish, the local tongue since the founding of the parish in 1731. It's the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the U.S., the spiritual and cultural heart of the city.
Eucharistic celebrations are joyous events at San Fernando, where choir voices are augmented by guitars and trumpets. Mariachi music floods the nave and with the tall Gothic stained glass windows opened wide, permeates the whole neighbourhood. From the Canta de Entrada to the Salida, song sheets prompt an enthusiastic response from the congregation. Even the many tourists at Mass seem to acquire singing voices in Spanish for a joyous celebration of their faith.
The original church was built in 1758 by settlers from Mexico and the Canary Islands in the Spanish Texas frontier town of Villa de Bexar. Its name acknowledged financial assistance from King Philip V, on behalf of his son Don Fernando.
His name-saint was 13th century Spanish King Ferdinand III of Castile, canonized in 1671. Although noted mainly for his military re-conquest of much of Spain from the Moors, the saint gained a reputation for wisdom, tolerance and impartiality in matters of state. Called "el Santo" he was buried in humble Franciscan robes after his death in May 30, 1252 and is a patron of engineers.
The church's present status as the centre of many city festivities belies a turbulent history. Serious fires, a collapsed dome, and damage from artillery shells have all been taken in stride. An older church tower was used by both factions as a lookout before the assault on the Alamo in 1836.
By 1873, parishioners had outgrown the old church and it was replaced by a larger new French Gothic nave. The original apse and dome were retained to form the oldest parts of the present church. San Fernando became a cathedral the following year and in 1926 was elevated to become the seat of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
The cathedral dominates the Plaza de las Islas with its imposing limestone fa‡ade and twin square bell towers. And high above the main entrance, San Fernando, in stone, surveys the wooded park and presides at the spectacular lighting of the fa‡ade at Christmas time.
The south tower was added in 1902 and in 1974 major restoration of the church was undertaken. Most recently, extensive renovations have been completed as the first phase of a $15-million city centre project that will include a new community centre and cathedral centre.
Many treasures greet visitors to the cathedral's interior. Its barrel-vault nave is bounded by colonnaded side aisles with combinations of Gothic and Roman arches that set off large windows featuring the saints. Statues of San Fernando and St. Anthony, the city's patron are joined by an ancient effigy of Our Lady of Candelaria, original patron of the parish and of the Canary Islands where the statue originated. Photos, written petitions and tiny metal milagros adorn Our Lord of Esquipulas (the Black Christ), placed by devotees seeking favours via this most popular of the cathedral's shrines.
Year-round celebrations centre on San Fernando, from passion plays at Easter time to elaborate December festivities with drums and dancers for Our Lady of Guadalupe and new saint Juan Diego. Posadas at Christmas time are impressive events with thousands of participants. A dozen choirs of all ages, some with musicians, provide heavenly liturgical music and hundreds regularly attend Saturday evening Mariachi Masses and a televised Mass on Sunday.