We know very little about the Franciscan friars and their role in the establishment of 18th century San Antonio. The surviving records fall well short of revealing a true narrative of life in the Missions, either for the indigenous people that provided the labor to build them, or the Spaniards who brought their government and religion with them.
Each year, on Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, San Antonians of all faiths witness the same natural-light phenomenon first experienced by those who built Mission Concepción, named for Mary and the Catholic feast day of the Immaculate Conception.
Hundreds of parishioners, neighbors and visitors are expected to gather this Friday for the 6:30 p.m. Solar Illumination at Mission Concepción, the state’s oldest continually operating house of worship. According to the Texas State Historical Association, some experts consider the mission edifice the oldest unrestored church in the United States.
Mission Concepción was moved here from its original East Texas site in 1731 and completed in 1755. The feast day tradition has been witnessed and celebrated here every year for more than two and a half centuries. The event has drawn growing crowds since a meticulous restoration of the church interior was completed in 2010.
Precisely at 6:30 p.m., as the late summer sun arcs across the horizon, rays of light will pass through two windows on the mission’s western wall, illuminating the face of Mary, the Biblical mother of Jesus, as she is depicted in the painting of the Immaculate Conception that hangs behind the altar on the sanctuary wall. The occasion usually attracts numerous photographers. Only overcast skies can mar the moment.
There are other Spanish missions in Texas and California where colonial architects and astronomers designed similar windows for feast day illuminations. But Mission Concepción offers a rare double illumination. At the same moment the face of Mary is illuminated, a second ray of light will illuminate the sanctuary floor at its center below the dome.
The missions are operated by the Archdiocese of San Antonio under the nonprofit Old Spanish Missions, which raised $15.5 million to restore the missions. A Permanent Fund has raised several million more and will serve as an endowment to maintain the colonial structures and prevent them from once again falling into disrepair.
Fr. David Garcia, who led the restoration of San Fernando Cathedral and now serves as the executive director of the Old Spanish Missions, also serves as the parish priest at Mission Concepción. He will deliver a brief talk about the mission and the solar illumination and afterwards celebrate a 7 p.m. mass. Visitors who want to experience the event from one of the church pews are advised to arrive no later than 6 p.m.
“It’s an extraordinary moment to experience for Catholics and for people of all faiths,” Fr. David said last year. “Life was so harsh in 1731 when the mission was first planned, it really is a miracle that the people back then were able to survive, to design and build the missions, and to engineer this double solar illumination.”
Donations are still being sought as the National Park Service leads the process to win World Heritage Site designation for the city’s five colonial missions from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). An alliance of San Antonio government and non-government organizations have come together as the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Site Committee.
If successful, the Spanish Missions would become the first World Heritage Site in Texas and only the 22nd in the United States.
“It’s hard to describe just how important having the San Antonio Missions elevated to World Heritage status will be for San Antonio and Texas,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “Most San Antonians know about the Missions, but their historical and cultural significance to Texan and American heritage is not thoroughly understood. We now have an opportunity to shed a very bright light on our Missions and share these irreplaceable works of art with the world.”
This Friday evening offers a special opportunity to gain a first-hand appreciation of one of the five missions and its unique character and place in San Antonio history.
*Featured/top image: Small windows allow two beams of light to illuminate the Virgin Mary’s face and altar floor at 6:30 p.m. every Aug. 15 for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at Mission Concepción. Photo(s) courtesy of Fr. David Garcia.