My roots in San Antonio go back more than six-and-a-half decades, and I have always been proud of how the city nurtured a colonial glamour that evolved into a vivacious fusion of cultures.

We are the heart of Texas and our historic missionary character enriches our world-class inheritance.

It was my grandfather who first spoke to me about the sacred character of our city and that our city was intentionally named after a saint. Not just any saint, but one who lovingly holds el niño Jesus. The name, San Antonio de Padua, establishes a sacredness about our colonial and southwest cultural heritage.

My abuelito would take the little statue of San Antonio de Padua that he kept next to his altarcito, his home shrine, and let me hold it as he talked about how special this Portuguese Franciscan was to our family and city. He would point to a lighted candle near the statue and tell me how that little flame meant that God was hearing what we would ask of our San Antonio.

I learned that if I lost something I should pray to San Antonio and ask him to help me find what I had lost. My abuelito also taught me that San Antonio helped the lost people, lost souls, people who had lost any of their limbs in war, and that San Antonio loved the poor. I learned more about San Antonio at an early age than any history book could have taught me. I was fascinated by the sacredness of this saint who had such influence on the lives of people I loved so much. I learned to love San Antonio de Padua, not just because he was a special saint, but because my abuelito loved him, and I loved my abuelito.

Growing up on San Antonio’s far-Westside, I saw statues of San Antonio everywhere I went as popular piety has long been part of our southwest faith tradition. Reflecting today, I can see how faith has always been instrumental in shaping the development of our city. Stories abound with missionary tales that shape our foundation.

As a pastoral theologian, I marvel at how our 17th-century history begins with stories about Franciscan missionaries from Spain working and catechizing Native American tribes – Payaya Indians – who lived by the streams of the Yanaguana River. Tales of how these life-supporting streams known as “sacred waters” or “place of refreshing waters” were so vital to the tribal peoples captures my imagination. These sacred refreshing streams of the Yanaguana baptized our Indian ancestors with faith and life and provided a fertile location for growth and development of what we now call the San Antonio River.

History tells us that in 1691 the first governor, Domingo Terán de los Ríos, of the recently established Province of Texas traveled with a Franciscan Friar named Damián Massanet to East Texas. While on their journey they decided to camp at a rancheria of Payaya Indians along a beautiful Yanaguana stream. Legend had them celebrating mass and renaming this sacred stream “San Antonio” because they had gathered on the feast of San Antonio de Padua. Once again, faith inspired and intervened upon our glorious history that at times was terrible but in our hearts always sublime.

Our 300-year anniversary inspired me to look briefly at our past, specifically the year 1718. Another governor of Texas, Martín de Alarcón, took needed initiative to merge and reinforce our early mission compounds so that there was security and water. History credits Alarcón with merging the presidio San Antonio de Bejar with the Mission of San Francisco de Solano. Ultimately, Alarcón’s visioning fostered the building of villas and other missions along the sacred winding San Antonio River.

The name, the saint, and the sacred waters have all contributed to protecting, building, and cultivating a culture of people who are no longer lost. Faith in San Antonio has made us prosper.

Today the San Antonio River winds along a world-class heritage trail that still supports churches, government buildings, cultural and business centers. It welcomes and delights the hearts of people from all over the world.

An 18th century statue of Saint Anthony of Padua greets visitors to the San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art.
An 18th-century statue of Saint Anthony of Padua is part of the San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

Nestled below the historic Church of St. Joseph, along the “sacred waters,” is the large bronze monument of our sainted patron, San Antonio de Padua. Renowned Portuguese sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida created this magnificent statue when his country’s government commissioned this work of sacred art as a gift for our city as it opened its doors to the world for the 1968 HemisFair celebration.

Upon careful examination of the dedication inscription one reads: “San Antonio – For the city and the river are named – Gift of Portugal.” Simple and elegant, it captures our oneness with all creation and the thread of our cultural fabric. St. Anthony lovingly and proudly holds the baby Jesus and so continues to invite all of us to embrace the light and the glory of creation that our river offers.

I wish I could share what I have learned with my abuelito today. He taught me the importance of having pride in my Hispanic cultural heritage because it is what makes San Antonio San Antonio. This fusion of the sacred and sublime fosters a wonderful connection between young and old, story and truth, history and legend.

Reflecting on our cultural heritage draws us to appreciate the robust gifts that will lead us into the future. Our San Antonian cultural heritage is the soul of our city.

Rev. Vela is a Marianist professor of pastoral ministry at both graduate and undergraduate levels. He has taught courses on spiritual direction, Hispanic/Latino theology, and pastoral ministry at graduate...