Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 29, 2004
A great apostle of poverty
St. Francis of Paola first lived as a hermit
St. Francis di Paola -- Feast day -- April 2
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
San Antonio, Texas
In downtown San Antonio, not far from the city centre at San Fernando Cathedral, there's an attractive church that seems to have successfully resisted the urban growth that has doomed other big city parishes.
San Francesco di Paola was lovingly built in 1927 by area residents of Italian descent who, at a mission given by Mexican expatriate Father Saverio Vecchio a year earlier, resolved to quickly acquire a church of their own.
Now, years later, an ongoing effort is underway to attract old and new people to this once-thriving community house of worship.
Red brick Romanesque
The church so quickly put up by its enthusiastic 1,400-member congregation is appropriately, Romanesque in style. It faces south across Piazza Italia, its red brick fa‡ade set off with white masonry and the whole framed by the spreading tree branches of attractive Columbus Park. Midway up the bell tower, the parish patron is sculpted in white stone.
Born in Paola in 1416, Francis was not one of the great Italian religious activists but rather a humble and prayerful man who led a most austere existence. Living as a hermit after age 13, he attracted others interested in adopting his devout exercises of charity, penance and year-round Lenten observances.
In 1436, Francis founded the order of Minims. Other monasteries were established in Italy and in France where he spent 25 years as a confidant of the king. He died in his simple cell at 91, remembered as "the great apostle of poverty" and was canonized a short 12 years later.
St. Francis' image dominates the reredos of his church. He carries a staff with a golden disc bearing the word "charitas," an emblem usually associated with the saint.
From his elevated position above a prized Carrara marble altar and beneath the sanctuary's apsidal dome he looks out at a nave flanked by colonnaded side aisles. Illumination in the church is through round-topped, priceless stained glass windows that portray events in the life of Christ and familiar saints.
Another statue of the saint from the waist up reposes to the right of the sanctuary for use in processions on special feast days. The book he holds is entitled Charitas.
Appropriately, when the church opened, Father Vecchio became its first pastor and established a thriving parish. San Francesco soon offered a variety of lay organizations and activities which continue to this day.
Eventually, time and progress began to affect the district. Residential areas were re-zoned and younger generations started fleeing the city core for the more family-friendly suburbs. Most seriously, a freeway carrying four major highways was pushed through just a block from the church. And, although some access exists beneath the elevated roadway, the parish was effectively cut in two. Mass attendance dropped off as the area began to stagnate.
Then, in 1997 new life was injected into the parish following observances of its 70th anniversary. These were enormously successful and included sung Masses, receptions and the publication of a glossy souvenir booklet.
As another way to revive interest in the church, parishioner Frank Pantuso published an innovative series of historic walks.
These show, on city land plots, the home-sites of early residents in the book My Catholic Italian Community, which also includes brief family histories in the text.
Today, San Francesco, just four blocks from San Antonio's tourist area and Market Square, attracts visitors to 6 p.m. weekday Masses and to two weekend liturgies. Mass is celebrated for the deaf community Sundays at 11:15 a.m., part of an ongoing ministry, with full participation in parish activities.
Pastor Father Guy Blair, when not involved with baptisms, weddings, funerals, a dozen parish organizations, signing Masses for the deaf and celebrating daily Eucharist, seems to be always available, even for unscheduled confessions.