When San Antonio celebrates the Tricentennial in 2018, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word will have spent nearly half of those 300 years, or since 1869, as an integral part of the city’s history. On Oct. 1, the Sisters’ new Heritage Center will be the starting point of a “pilgrimage” to remember those who served and were served and to carry forward a renewed commitment to service.
This journey will include visiting Mission Espada and Mission Concepción – designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites last year – as well as San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the United States. These places hold memories of both the Franciscan priests who came in 1731 and the Incarnate Word Sisters who arrived in 1869.
The Heritage Center, which was dedicated on Sept. 18, holds hundreds of pictures and artifacts from the five countries where the Sisters have ministered. It includes gallery spaces, the Blue Hole (headwaters of the San Antonio River), the Brackenridge Villa/Sweet House, and the Motherhouse Chapel or Chapel of the Incarnate Word, a Romanesque designed contemplative space that has given the Sisters strength for their mission.
The Brackenridge Villa/Sweet House holds the story of the foundation of the congregation in the form of words, photographs, and artifacts. Incarnate Word Sisters archivist Donna Guerra has done extensive research for the Heritage Center and will share insights during the forthcoming pilgrimage.
Acclaimed Texas historian and chair of the initiative to document the UIW’s role in San Antonio’s Tricentennial history, Gilberto Hinojosa, Ph.D., and Cecilia Elizondo Herrera, global service coordinator in the UIW Ettling Center for Civic Engagement and a member of the San Antonio Mission Board, will also share information and invite people to embark on a journey through time on Oct. 1.
The new Heritage Center originated in 1869 when Claude Dubuis, then-Bishop of Galveston, called upon three young French women to come to Texas following the mayor of San Antonio’s urgent plea to provide health care for citizens dying of cholera.
Sr. St. Madelein Chollet, Sr. St. Pierre Cinquin, and Sr. Agnes Buisson began a new foundation, opened their first hospital, the Santa Rosa Infirmary, and took in “all persons irrespective of nationality or creed.” This was only a few years after the Civil War and many objected to the Sisters’ openness to all.
The San Fernando Cathedral Museum holds the chalice of Bishop Dubuis who wrote a letter to the Catholic Sisters in France after the mayor had asked him for help in the cholera epidemic. The Bishop wrote, “Our Lord Jesus Christ suffering … seeks relief at your hands.”
Pope Francis called this year a “year of mercy,” so participants who enter through the doors of San Fernando during the pilgrimage will symbolize an entrance through a realm of mercy.
The Sisters who came had only intended to nurse the sick, but soon orphaned children who were entrusted to them. As the number of orphan children steadily increased, the Sisters responded to that need and built the St. Joseph’s Orphanage downtown.
In 1912 a terrible fire struck the orphanage, killing three boys and five sisters who were searching for children in the fire. Eighty-nine orphan boys were saved.
Seeking a place to house the children, the Sisters built St. Peter’s right across from Mission Concepción in 1913. Children from the home, which today is known as St. Peter-St. Joseph’s Home, still attend worship at the Mission today.
Fr. David Garcia, director of the San Antonio Missions, will share some of the fascinating history of Mission Concepción, which houses the oldest murals in the state and a double solar illumination which amazes people today as it amazed indigenous people centuries ago.
The Sisters nursed the sick at Santa Rosa, and cared for children in their orphanages. Soon both orphans and neighborhood children needed education so in 1874 the Sisters started teaching. They taught at the school at San Francisco de la Espada Mission, today commonly referred to as Mission Espada, for many years. They enjoyed many aspects of their time there, particularly the Christmas posadas and the rich devotion of the people.
Incarnate Word Sisters Vocation Director Sister Marichui Bringas encourages people to learn more about the deep roots of service in our city as they can lend strength to grow, flower, and bring forth more fruits of sharing, selflessness, and service today.
Today, UIW students engage in a minimum of 40 hours of community service that carry forward the values of the university’s founders. More than 250 students and 50 faculty members volunteered in 25 agencies on UIW’s “Meet the Mission” service day Sept. 16.
Nonprofit agencies that could benefit from student volunteers on a short or long-term basis are encouraged to register with the UIW Ettling Center for Civic Engagement which coordinates efforts. To learn more about the Oct. 1 pilgrimage tour, call the Ettling Center at (210) 283-6423 or click here.
For more history of the Incarnate Word Sisters click here, and for current information and ministries click here.
Top image: Sister walking with children at Mission Espada. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.