The bells of San Fernando Cathedral rang out over Main Plaza at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua, for whom the city of San Antonio is named.
Throngs gathered in Main Plaza for a special Tricentennial year Mass, to be followed by the La Procesión de San Antonio candlelight procession along the River Walk, led by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller.
The bells signaled the uniformed and plumed Knights of Columbus, fez-capped Order of the Alhambra, and other representatives of Catholic organizations to file into the cathedral, where worshippers had already filled every available space, taking video and photographs on smartphones as servers, deacons, priests and the archbishop entered.
García-Siller’s homily was delivered first in Spanish, then English, after an enthusiastic call-and-response chant of “Que viva San Antonio de Padua,” answered by shouts of “Viva!” from the crowd.
Before the Mass, García-Siller identified the purpose of the evening’s events. “We are celebrating how the faith of the people built up a society that eventually became the city of San Antonio,” he said.
Like many events in the Tricentennial year, the Mass and procession proved an educational moment. Procession participant and San Antonio native Alejandra Leos, with her father Carlos and younger sister Emma, said she hadn’t known how the city got its name before García-Siller told the story.
“It’s interesting that we waited until the Tricentennial to have an event like this,” she said. “We could have this every year.”
On June 13, 1691, as García-Siller said from the pulpit, Padre Damian Massanet stopped with fellow Spanish and Franciscan expedition members at what is now called “Marriage Island” to celebrate Mass. The group renamed the river after Saint Anthony de Padua because the day was his feast day, and the name stuck through the next 327 years of settlement, battles, and community-building.
A plaque at that location recognizes the moment, and relates the meaning of the Rolando Briseño painted bronze sculpture on the island, titled Padre Damian Messanet’s Table.
The procession along the river was led by a festive mariachi barge, followed by a barge carrying the archbishop, priests, deacons, honorees, and the Eucharist from the earlier Mass in its star-shapen, gleaming monstrance. That barge also carried a statue of St. Anthony, borrowed from its namesake high school in Monte Vista.
The Archdiocese invited students from area schools and their parents to participate in the procession as volunteer candleholders along a windy River Walk.
“The candles were a little hard to keep lit, but it’s the community coming together and supporting not only the school, but San Antonio, as well,” said Adrian Cortés, a parent representing St. John Bosco School.
Participants followed along with the processional barges as they made their way to the St. Anthony de Padua bronze statue at Peak Park, the garden area near the “Y” split of the river canal near Hemisfair, named for former Mayor Howard Peak.
There, García-Siller offered prayers dedicated to the causes of the patron saint of lost things, including lost family members, said Sister Agnes of St. Francis Nursing Home, who followed the procession.
“I think that prayer was very meaningful this particular week,” said Father David Garcia, parish administrator of Mission Concepción. “Family unity is very important,” he said, “especially now when the government is separating families at the border, and taking children away. It’s really heightened the consciousness of all of us how precious the family is.”
Garcia said he was gratified by the number of procession participants, as was Father Larry Christian of St. Ann Catholic Church, whom García-Siller thanked at the Mass for helping organize the “feast day by the river.” Organizers had received 1,000 advance responses to a request for candleholders to line the procession route, Christian said, but he estimated perhaps twice that number had participated.
Exiting the barges around 10 p.m., García-Siller led the procession around Main Plaza as the San Antonio: The Saga video projection played on the facade of San Fernando Cathedral, offering blessings to worshippers kneeling before the Eucharist. The procession ended in the courtyard next to the cathedral to a round of applause from the gathered throng. The Archbishop offered personal blessings and thanks to everyone within reach.
One final detail remained. Two Knights of Columbus carried the St. Anthony statue from the barge to its temporary storage room in the offices next to the cathedral, to be returned to its school home on Thursday.