It’s been almost 300 years since San Fernando Cathedral was erected at the very center of San Antonio in the mid-1700s. An engraved marker embedded in the floor of the cathedral proclaims it as the geographic center of the city. But stay in San Antonio for any length of time and it soon becomes clear that faith has been the cultural and societal center of this city since its inception.
When Spanish Catholic missionaries flocked to the South Texas region to convert native people and set up trading posts they built five missions in this one area, as if they could not stop building until the city had become synonymous with the Catholic faith.
Today, hundreds of years later, San Antonio has become a tourist destination for many reasons, but one of the main draws continues to be its historic houses of worship. Designated in 2015 as UNESCO World Heritage sites, the main attraction at each site is the chapel, a church sanctuary where in some cases Mass is still conducted every week.
The Rev. Ann Helmke, the City of San Antonio’s faith liaison, said faith is deeply entrenched in the city’s DNA. Just one example of that is the traditional blessing ceremony at the San Fernando Cathedral for all newly elected City Council members before they are sworn into office.
“They are reminded that San Antonio was founded on faith,” Helmke said. “We’re not just about changing policy and not just about building sidewalks. We’re about being the best people we can be in caring for ourselves and for each other.”
At the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2018, Helmke said no less than 26 different religions were represented by individual faith leaders who were invited to share blessings and pray for the city.
That diversity of religions represented at an official city event is evidence of how the city has remained religious, but has also come a long way from the culture of the 1700s when Catholic Christianity was the only religion recognized by the Spanish or Mexican government.
After Texas won its independence from Mexico and then eventually became part of the United States, new non-Catholic churches began popping up in the city.
Temple Beth-El, a synagogue founded in 1874, is one of San Antonio’s oldest surviving places of worship, the oldest synagogue in South Texas and a monument to the city’s growing religious diversity of that time period.
But while Temple Beth-El was the first Jewish congregation in the city, it was certainly not the last. Today San Antonio has about 12 different synagogues and Jewish organizations.
According to data collected in 2020 by the Public Religion Research Institute, Bexar County has a score of 0.803 for religious diversity, which is well above the national average of 0.625. The institute’s Census of American Religion found that at least 1% of Bexar County’s population identified as Jewish, 1% was Muslim and 1% Mormon.
The actual numbers may be higher than the survey shows, though, since it registered the Hindu and Buddhist population at 0%, when in fact there are several Hindu temples in San Antonio and at least five Buddhist congregations in the city.
One of the most striking examples of the Hindu presence in Bexar County is the elaborate temple built in 1989 in the hills of Helotes. A large Mormon temple, one of only four in Texas, was also built in the Stone Oak area of the city in the early 2000s.
The Muslim presence in the city also has grown in recent years with at least nine mosques, as well as other Muslim organizations springing up in the city. Khadija Aboueisha is the public affairs and civic engagement director at the local chapter of the Muslim American Society. She believes the growing presence of Muslims in the city and the interfaith work they do can help to educate the public and quell discrimination.
“We collaborate with other churches or local mosques in the area to bridge that gap between other communities,” Aboueisha said.
Many other faiths are represented in San Antonio’s diverse houses of worship, including thriving Sikh and Mennonite communities, a distinctive Quaker meetinghouse designed by a prominent architecture firm, several Greek Orthodox churches, Baha’i and Unitarian Universalist congregations, and, of course, many evangelical Christian and Catholic churches.
Anthony Blasi, a retired sociologist who taught at UTSA and Tennessee State University, literally wrote the book on religious diversity in San Antonio, an in-depth research project titled An Urban Ecological Sociology of Religion: The Case of San Antonio, Texas. He said the emergence of many different religious groups in San Antonio can in most cases be attributed to the city’s industries attracting immigrants from many parts of the world.
The Hindu temple in Helotes, for example, most likely came about because a significant number of South Asian immigrants were pursuing job opportunities in health care or technology in the past few decades, and decided to make San Antonio their home. Blasi said development was occurring on the northwest side of the city at that time and that’s why the temple ended up in Helotes.
“My dentist is named Patel, my cardiologist is Patel, my oncologist is a hyphenated Patel,” said Blasi, explaining that an influx of immigrants from India and other nations is helping build up the community on San Antonio’s Northwest Side.
Blasi said San Antonio’s universities and military bases also played a role in bringing new cultural and religious groups to the city, which is why there are clusters of Filipino and Korean churches near the military bases.
While economic factors may have attracted different cultures and religions, Helmke says there is something unique about the way San Antonio’s faith communities thrive alongside each other, and it didn’t happen by accident. At many critical junctures in recent history, Helmke said, San Antonio faith leaders have peacefully collaborated to bring about change.
“During the civil rights movement San Antonio had no riots,” she said. “There were some faith leaders who came together and said, ‘We’re not fighting here, because that’s not who we are.’”
Instead of leaving it to the young people, groups of clergy in San Antonio from different faith traditions organized their own sit-ins at the Majestic Theatre and other places, which helped the city to more peacefully integrate in the 1960s, Helmke said.
She believes that kind of inter-faith cooperative activism for justice and social causes began to define the religious communities of San Antonio from that point on.
“All these things build on themselves,” Helmke said. “Decades of leadership that was focused on service and working together to meet the basic human needs of people. You know, for God’s sake, let’s help people and let’s stand up for civil rights as leaders.”
In her years as the city’s faith liaison Helmke said she has witnessed many acts of interfaith cooperation, like the time a Latter Day Saints congregation donated an expensive mobile bathroom unit for a Catholic Charities project.
That attitude of cooperation and religious acceptance has created an environment that Rabbi Mara Nathan at Temple Beth-El believes continues to makes it easy for diverse religious groups to establish their own faith communities in San Antonio.
“It’s a progressive city so it’s a comfortable place for a lot of different religions to flourish,” Nathan said. “There’s a perception that people can be themselves in a city that’s more progressive and so they don’t have to hide their faith.”
Helmke believes that San Antonians benefit from being exposed to so many different faith traditions.
“When you become curious about others and [are] learning from them,” she said, “you get not only the awareness of others and what you find in terms of common humanity, but then it also brings more self-awareness of who you are.”