Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 9, 2003
In search of St. Anthony of Padua
This miracle worker is also the patron saint of the poor and the oppressed
St. Anthony of Padua - Feast Day - June 13
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
San Antonio, Texas
Where better to seek a saint than in a place where more than a million residents identify themselves with the city's founder as San Antonians? Who was this person, how did his name become attached to the modern metropolis and why is he honoured with plaques and statues throughout the compact, historical downtown area?
It all began when an expedition crossing Spanish Texas to counter French expansion westwards from Canada via Louisiana stopped at a river crossing called Yanaguana. It was June 13, the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua, 1691 and Father Damian Massenet, chaplain to the entrada, declared that this place and its river should henceforth bear the name of the saint.
Two monuments on the city's famed Riverwalk commemorate the occasion - a large pink granite slab displaying an etched scene depicting Father Massenet celebrating the first Eucharist in the area, and a stylized steel sculpture, Padre Damian Massenet's Table showing the Mass celebrant's hands beneath the host and a chalice.
St. Anthony, born in Lisbon in 1195, joined a religious order and was ordained at age 25. Ill health prevented him from realizing a calling as a Franciscan missionary but he became recognized as a superb, eloquent speaker. Preaching all over southern Europe, his attractive, persuasive personality made many converts and brought many lapsed Christians back to the faith.
Knowledgeable and fervent, and noted for performing miracles, he settled in Padua, Italy, in 1226, reformed the city, and died there five years later. He was almost immediately canonized and in 1946 was declared a doctor of the Church. He's the patron of the poor and oppressed because of his work in Padua.
It's difficult to avoid the saint in this city not embarrassed to have a holy personage as its patron. His life-size effigy faces the main city Plaza de las Islas where he greets arrivals at the impressive red sandstone Bexar County Courthouse. He's in most downtown churches, often depicted holding a book and the Christ Child.
Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares established Mission San Antonio de Valera in 1718, its name honouring a noble Spanish benefactor, and it was a successful agricultural/religious operation for 75 years. The last of several chapels there, begun in 1756, was never completed, the congregation obliged to hear Mass in the roofless nave. When the mission was secularized in 1793 its extensive lands were distributed, some to remaining parishioners.
Later, the complex was the scene of the famous siege at the Alamo. In 1837 the new City of San Antonio was incorporated and is now the country's ninth metropolis, and Olivares' old mission is said to be the most visited historic site in the U.S.
Today, little remains of the original mission quadrangle. Most noteworthy is the ornate, once brilliantly painted, carved church fa‡ade, with niches that had held cherished holy statues, the unfinished tower bases, and a dated keystone dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The parapet, meant to give the structure a more church-like aspect, was added above the old flat-topped fa‡ade in 1850.
And in the oldest building on the site, the stone convento, now a museum, an 18th century Mexican statue of St. Anthony is a featured attraction. Plaques on the grounds portray Father Olivares and explain the history of the mission.
Anthony of Padua would never have imagined that, centuries after his passing, in a major city in an as-yet-undiscovered New World, so many people would share his name and annually welcome hundreds of thousands of conventioneers and visitors to "his" city.
(Ted Fitzgerald is a Calgary-based freelance writer.)