Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 5, 2005
Oldest stone church houses priceless art
Crafted in 1775, this historic church boasts an active parish life
The Immaculate Conception – December 8
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
San Antonio, Texas
In December of 2003, an important event at Mission Concepcion in San Antonio caused the site to become even more popular as a place to visit.
This was the return of a priceless work of art to the sanctuary of the historic church, an unconventional portrait of Mary, the Immaculate Conception painted by an unknown artist more than 200 years ago.
Concepcion, or more correctly Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisma Concepcion de Acuna, is the second in a chain of Franciscan establishments along the San Antonio River extending south from Mission San Antonio de Valera - the Alamo. It was originally situated in East Texas near the town of Nacogdoches, but in 1731, it and other nearby missions were relocated after a series of setbacks.
The mission takes its name from the idea of the Immaculate Conception, that is that the mother of Jesus had been born without the stain of original sin, carried by all humans as a result of the fall in Eden. Thus Mary served as an appropriate vessel for the bearing and birth of Christ.
The tradition existed in the Eastern Church from the early beginnings of Christianity. Celebration of the December feast day was begun in France in 1138 and has become one of the major Church year events. In 1954, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma as an article of faith.
One of the more dramatic expressions of the doctrine comes from the appearances of Our Lady to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858 where Mary proclaimed that "I am the Immaculate Conception."
Mission Concepcion is the oldest church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and the oldest surviving stone church in the U.S. and of the 18th century San Antonio River missions, it has been least altered.
The site, with the exception of the chapel, is administered by the National Parks Service. Of a large walled facility, only the chapel, and parts of the convento and cloisters remain. Other buildings, including housing for native converts, have been removed over the years for building stone.
Construction of the church of local limestone was completed in 1755 and the mission initially flourished as a ranching and farming operation, but later decline resulted in its secularization beginning in 1794.
Then, 41 years later, during the uprising intended to separate Texas from Mexico, insurgents occupied and fortified the old mission buildings. There, cannon and small arms repelled government forces in one of the first actions of the conflict that led up to the attack on the Alamo.
Finally, after years of neglect, the old chapel was recovered by the Church in 1861 and in 1911, title was transferred to the archdiocese.
Today, tours of the site offered by the parks service provide an insight into life in the early years here. Knowledgeable guides explain for example, the meaning of Latin inscriptions and Franciscan symbols above the main chapel entry. Inside, the d‚cor is sparse, there being little to break the heavy grey stone walls since only remnants remain of the brilliant polychrome frescoes that once adorned the church both inside and out.
Prize of the sanctuary is the Immaculate Conception painting, which had languished in storage for years until painstakingly cleaned and restored by the Art Conservation Laboratory. It's the artist's unique interpretation of Mary where, attended by angels, she is portrayed with arms extended in an aura of light.
Today, Concepcion is an active parish with regular weekend Masses. Its future has been assured with the announcement in 2004 by Archbishop Patrick Flores that $1 million would be pledged to be used for restoration and preservation of the four active San Antonio mission churches, including Concepcion, to be spent over a period of 10 years.