Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller lights Rosemary Kowalski's candle during the candlelight vigil.
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller lights local businesswoman and philanthropist Rosemary Kowalski's candle during the vigil on Commemorative Week's Day of Reflection. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The opening ceremony of the Tricentennial Commemorative Week began Tuesday evening under cloudy skies over Main Plaza, with a designated Day of Reflection.

Faith leaders of 23 different groups, dignitaries from City and County governments, and hundreds of community members gathered despite the threat of rain, to officially celebrate the day of San Antonio’s founding, 300 years ago to the day of May 1, 1718.

“Happy Birthday to us!” volunteer organizer Wyndee Holbrook announced at the beginning the festivities.

At three stage areas around the plaza, performing groups representing a dozen faiths and traditions filled the square with sound and color as the audience gathered.

The Day of Reflection, the first of six themed days of Commemorative Week, aimed to consider the complex history of the village and presidio that would become the city of San Antonio and Bexar County.

As many speakers noted, that history began long before Franciscan friars, Isleños settlers from the Canary Islands, and Spanish military personnel built the San Antonio de Valero mission, the presidio to protect it, and the Villa de Béjar on land that native tribes had occupied for more than 10,000 years.

Interfaith leaders enter Main Plaza before leading reflections.
Faith leaders enter Main Plaza before leading reflections. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Earlier in the day under a light drizzle, a re-enactment of the founding of San Antonio de Bexar took place at San Pedro Springs Park, on the actual site where the Mission San Antonio de Valero was first formed. Actors portrayed the various characters involved in the founding, including Native Americans, the friars, and officers of New Spain.

What is sometimes forgotten, Ricardo Danel, professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told the assembled crowd of about 300, including 150 students from Losoya Intermediate School, is that May 1 also commemorates the eventual founding of the state of Texas.

“This is the true history of our state,” Danel said. “Three-hundred years ago, Martín de Alarcón founded the state of Texas here at San Pedro Springs.”

During the re-enactment, Danel played the role of Alarcón, the governor of Coahuila and Spanish Texas who would sign the official documents designating the settlement as a village.

Many Tricentennial celebrations have acknowledged the complexity of San Antonio’s history, and have included narratives of indigenous groups, Canary Islander settlers, slaves and free African-Americans, Texian revolutionaries and republicans, and many founding members and groups of what would grow to the current city of 2.3 million comprising most of Bexar County.

Hosting leaders of 23 different faith communities at San Fernando, the church that lies in the heart of San Antonio, “means growth, maturity, hope,” said Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller.

“This city was built on faith,” he said.

After a brief account of the 1718 founding of the Villa de Bexar, Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the crowd, “Our community is rooted in faith, and the traditions of many, many people.” San Antonians are united, he said, “in making this city great.”

The word “unity” was mentioned often throughout the evening by Nirenberg, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), Tricentennial Commission Deputy Director Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, many of the faith leaders who spoke, and glass artist Gini Garcia, who along with sculptor Emilio Flores created the Commemorative Flame sculpture that will play a key role in the weeklong celebration.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg lights the Commemorative Flame.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg lights the Commemorative Flame. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Dedicating Commemorative Week as “a week to help light the way to a very, very bright future,” Nirenberg then lighted the propane-fueled flame, which will illuminate the plaza each evening from 7-11 p.m. through May 6.

The future is shaped by memory, suggested Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Tribe of Texas indigenous group. The Day of Reflection is an opportunity to remember, he said.

“I want to remember that we are not above or below the creation, but only a piece of it,” Mancias said. “I want to remember my relatives, I want to remember those people that were here … that knew how to live on the land and respect it.”

Other religious and spiritual leaders took the stage to represent their faith communities, from the 100,000 local baptists whom Rev. Les Hollon spoke on behalf of, to the 2,000 San Antonio Mandaeans, represented by Shahram Ibad, who wished “kindness, health for mind and body,” and safety to the gathering.

Blue skies appeared briefly between clouds during the prayers and dedications, while Chaplain Jesse Howard of the Army Reserve, Episcopalian Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson, and G.P. Singh, representing the Sikh faith, spoke to the crowd.

“For us, the journey and the destination are inextricably tied to one another,” he said. “We believe the world is one, including you and me and them, there is no other, all is one.”

Other faith leaders represented Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, Mennonite, Buddhist, Krishna, Unitarian, Jain, Mormon, Methodist, Baha’i, and Hindu faiths, many of whom spoke about the history of their faiths locally and in the world.

As strong winds subsided toward the end of the program, the crowd began a candlelight vigil.

Emcee and KENS-TV anchorwoman Deborah Knapp announced the citywide ringing of church bells at 8:18, or 20:18 in military time, as a unifying gesture among dozens of churches, she said.

The Day of Reflection ceremony wrapped up prior to the start of San Antonio: The Saga, the visual history of San Antonio projected onto the cathedral façade.

The “300 prayers” kiosk on the east end of Main Plaza had been filling with prayers handwritten on white ribbons by members of the community.

One offered a broad prayer that echoed Singh’s comments: “May we live in Oneness.”

Another in purple ink focused more practically on the city’s immediate future: “Pray for socioeconomic integration in this wonderful city!”

Of the meaning of the Day of Reflection, Councilman Treviño said, “I think we have to look at ourselves as part of a continuum of history that exists here in San Antonio, the history of cultures that come together … What I’m excited to celebrate is … how far we’ve come. Here is a huge metropolis that is celebrating its diversity, its unique culture, and it embraces it beautifully.”

Details on Tricentennial Commemorative Week events can be found here.

San Antonio | The Saga is projected on San Fernando Cathedral.
San Antonio: The Saga is projected on San Fernando Cathedral.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...