The moment just after the double solar illumination at Mission Concepción.
The moment just after the double solar illumination at Mission Concepción. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For 287 years, the people of San Antonio have flocked to Mission Concepción on the city’s near South Side, a short walk to the banks of the San Antonio River. Community and worship here, according to some historians, has continued uninterrupted longer than in any other church still standing in the United States.

Once again, hundreds crowded into the small church late Wednesday afternoon, spilling into the aisle and edges of the nave, onto the floor of the transept, and all around the chancel and altar and into the larger sanctuary.

This 15th day in August is  a special one, the day of the annual solar double illumination when, thanks to the Spanish mission architects and the indigenous laborers who built Concepción, a setting sun in the west casts rays of light through two glass openings. One beam rises slowly toward a sacred space on a painting that hangs above the altar while the other beam  pours down through the transept onto the church floor.

At just the right moment, a confluence of light centers on the church floor and on the face of the Virgin Mary in the painting. For centuries, this has been a moment of spiritual awe. Today, our general appreciation of astronomy, architecture, mathematics, and art provides a more science-based understanding of the phenomenon.

The predicted moment this Aug. 15 was 6:30 p.m., according to Father David Garcia, the church rector, but attendees continued to pour in as the church filled before 5:30 p.m. Garcia explained the annual event and offered an overview of church traditions and history as people waited, smartphones at the ready.

Garcia read The Canticle of Creation by St. Francis of Assisi, what could easily be interpreted as a pre-Christian indigenous homage to the natural world and worship of the sun, moon, water, the Earth, and all its bounty.

And then the hour was at hand, actually 6:25 p.m. by my watch. The light beams settled on their appointed destinations. Last year cloudy skies cut short the occasion, but not this day. Wednesday’s experience did not disappoint.

It was a uniquely San Antonio moment. Gasps of wonder and surprise and a sudden buzz of chatter arose from people in the crammed pews witnessing the double illumination for the first time as one light beam slowly moved onto the visage of Mary and another to the center of the transept.

For many of the worshipers, it was a moment when everything else in life and the city stopped, when science and spirituality married to provide an experience unique to San Antonio.

Shumla archaeologists have spoken to me of witnessing a lunar illumination at White Shaman Cave along the Pecos River in Val Verde County, which proves that hunter-gatherer societies had a certain grasp of astronomy and mathematics at least 4,000 years ago.

Tulum, the Yucatán Maya ruin seemingly built as an observatory looking out to the Atlantic Ocean, also was constructed to showcase an annual lunar illumination.Garcia, our city’s most celebrated Catholic priest, has introduced the solar double illumination to an audience that now reaches far beyond his parish and the Mission Concepción neighborhood.

For those who might not know him, Garcia first led efforts to restore San Fernando Cathedral more than 15 years ago, and was later asked by a succession of archbishops here to raise funds to restore the churches at the four Spanish colonial missions. Without his singular efforts over the years, there would be no UNESCO World Heritage recognition of the missions and the Alamo.

Father David Garcia addresses the crowd with a prayer.
Father David Garcia Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Garcia recently “retired” from one of his jobs, a global assignment for Catholic Charities. He is now content to tend to the Concepción parish, participate in a variety of civic initiatives, and quietly continue to raise funds to build a permanent endowment to protect and preserve the missions.

Residents who have never witnessed a solar double illumination can mark their calendars for Aug. 15, 2019, and pray for clear skies.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.

Bonnie Arbittier worked as a photojournalist for the San Antonio Report.