When it comes to San Antonio’s downtown Catholic churches, two immediately stand out: the iconic San Fernando Cathedral and St. Joseph Catholic Church, a beautiful structure pressed on three sides by retail and fondly known as St. Joske’s because of the former department store that enveloped it.
But Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, a storied jewel just blocks from San Fernando? Unless you grew up on the near Westside, especially before Interstate 35 was built, you may be unfamiliar with it. Its outstanding Romanesque design and complex, Byzantine-inspired frescoes likely would surprise even lifelong San Antonians.
More than a century old, the church soon will undergo restoration work on its roof and bell tower, which has been inoperable because of structural and safety issues.
The church’s bell originally hung in San Fernando Cathedral and was said to have tolled to announce the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. In 1837, it was said to have rung from dawn until the hour of the interment of Alamo defenders William Barrett Travis, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie.
Although Immaculate Heart is a City of San Antonio “Historic Exceptional Landmark,” Claudia Guerra, the City’s cultural historian, said Thursday she was not familiar with the church. Nor was the San Antonio Conservation Society’s executive director, Vincent Michael, though the church, at 617 S. Santa Rosa Ave., sits just a few blocks from his office. (In fairness, Michael arrived in San Antonio in June of 2016.)
“It’s a great example of Romanesque architecture,” Michael said Friday during his first visit to Immaculate Heart. Romanesque architecture is a 10th- and 11th-century style employing round arches, preceding Gothic architecture’s pointed arches.
“The level of detail in its interior painting is of a quality you don’t see very often,” Michael said. “The sanctuary walls’ ornate stenciling represents at least 10 different designs formed from squares and arches as well as organic forms like leaves and palm fronds.”
He described as “sensational” the hand-painted frescoes, done in turquoise, browns, and grays.
The church was built in 1911 by the Claretian Missionaries, a Spanish order that expanded from Mexico into Texas in 1902. The local bishop, John W. Shaw, blessed the church on Aug. 11, 1912, and it began serving surrounding neighborhoods, mostly poor and Hispanic. Its parish remains Hispanic today, led by Father Gabriel Ruiz.
Mexican history informs its story as much as its art, such as how the church welcomed bishops and priests fleeing religious persecution during the Mexican Revolution.
The church’s history also reflects its location. In the 1950s , the construction of I-35 roughly a half-block west pushed family neighborhoods far afield, replacing them with warehouses and businesses. Current parishioners have returned mostly because of memories of first Communions, Quinceañeras, weddings, and an association with the Immaculate Heart of Mary School, which thrived from 1926 until its closing in 1959, said church business manager Patricia Vasquez.
They also return for the church’s aesthetic pull.
Michael and a Conservation Society associate, Brandi Hayes, said renderings of the four Evangelists on either side of the altar surrounded by painted yellow tiles recall a chapel in Ravenna, Italy. The trompe l’oeil – “deceive the eye” – device throughout the sanctuary makes architectural recesses and moldings appear three-dimensional although they are flat.
“The colors give a very graphic depth,” Hayes said, viewing the vaulted ceilings. “I thought the ledges were real, but they’re painted.”
She and Michael agreed that one stencil pattern derives from the elaborate Mexican paper craft papel picado. Paintings of angels in the sanctuary’s higher realms bear traces of Native American appearance and design.
“It’s just fantastic,” Hayes said. “It’s beautiful!”
The frescoes’ brightness can be credited to artist and Claretian brother, Rev. Alberto Domingo, who spent four years during the mid-1980s restoring the ceiling and walls, which had darkened through years of roof leaks and candle soot. A San Antonio Express-News article at the time said he had earned the nickname “the Michelangelo of San Antonio” for lying on his back on a scaffold, painting, as his Renaissance predecessor did in the Sistine Chapel.
The name of the frescoes’ original creator from 1911, Vasquez said, is unknown, but the Claretian missionaries sent him from the community’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Also unknown is whether the church enlisted local artists to help, as local laborers built the church.
The church’s stained-glass windows originally adorned a Catholic church in the Polish Quarter of San Antonio, St. Michael’s, founded in 1866 and rebuilt in 1922. To great heartbreak, a plaque in the Immaculate Heart of Mary indicates, St. Michael’s was razed in the building of HemisFair ’68, and the windows given to Immaculate Heart.
The church’s historic bell cannot be rung because the structural integrity of its tower is in doubt despite earlier repairs. But business developer and former catechism teacher at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Oliver Meza, noticed problems with the building’s roof and investigated the bell tower, the cap of which leans slightly. Because of Meza’s involvement, his employer, GP Commercial Construction of Grapevine, has offered to conduct structural and roofing repairs.
“We are thrilled to undertake this important project,” says Gregg Peterson, the company’s owner. “This jewel and fixture in San Antonio’s history deserves to be restored to its original glory, and to stand as a reminder of our history and a beacon of hope to future generations.”