Art and architecture connect us to our spiritual and cultural foundations, as much as or more than oral or written history. San Antonio’s seven remaining Spanish-colonial structures are full of these significant works, said Father David Garcia, archdiocesan director of the Old Spanish Missions in San Antonio.

“San Antonio, of all the cities in the Southwest, has the most intact colonial fabric,” Garcia said. Not even in California does a single city have more than one structure still intact.

As part of St. Mary’s University’s Catholic Intellectual Tradition Lecture Series, Garcia gave a virtual tour of the most powerful and illustrative artifacts in San Fernando Cathedral and the Missions. The lecture series features speakers whose contributions connect the heart and intellect of the Catholic faith in its private, institutional, and civic roles. 

The artifacts of the city’s Spanish-colonial buildings speak to this spiritual and social connection. They may resonate with those who struggle with the identity politics of our present political landscape.

“What that helps us understand is that there’s a whole different way of looking at ourselves through the prism of history, culture, and faith,” Garcia said.

Father David Garcia gives a service address at Mission Concepción on Sunday September 11, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.
Fr. David Garcia. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

So much of the “us” and “them” of political rhetoric in the United States follows the country’s British colonial history from east to west.

“We would like to look at it from south to north,” Garcia said.

In doing so, the community values weave through the fabric of society, rather than being transposed onto an individualistic framework concerned primarily with the nuclear family. 

From 1995 to 2008 Garcia served at San Fernando Cathedral, where his efforts fundraising for the $21 million restoration project led former Mayor Julián Castro to dub him “the premier pickpocket of San Antonio.” Garcia wears the designation with pride, considering that money, as well as the $16 million spent on the renovation of the missions, to be money well spent to preserve the spiritually rich and culturally diverse heritage of San Antonio.

Like all cathedrals, San Fernando’s architecture reads like a catechism of the Catholic church. Saints guard the door of the cathedral, meant to symbolize Christ, who said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

After passing through Christ into the “salvation” of the church, the worshipper immediately encounters a baptismal font, the purifying water of salvation. From there, surrounded by stained glass windows and friezes depicting the stations of the cross and other Bible stories, the worshipper proceeds with his journey of sanctification, symbolized by the aisle.

The whole journey is meant to be made with eyes toward heaven.

“Gothic churches were meant to give you this sweeping feeling that you have to look up,” Garcia said.

Arriving at the altar, the worshipper looks up to see the retablo, the altarpiece adorned with saints, the “cloud of witnesses” encouraging believers to persevere in Hebrews 12:1.

It is here at the retablo that the doctrine of the Catholic church mingles with the cultural pluralism of the colonial Americas.

As the Canary Islanders who built the church made their walking journey from Mexico, the priests shepherding the community encountered Catholics who worshipped la Virgen de Guadalupe, an image of the Virgin Mary contextualized by the Aztec converts. They embraced this along with their own image of Mary, la Virgen de Candelaria. When the Canary Islanders built their church they paid homage to both visions, and the cathedral is now also known as the La Iglesia de La Virgen de Candelaria y Guadalupe. Both versions appear on the retablo, not only to convey the doctrines of two Marian apparitions, but the culture of two peoples who would worship together.

Garcia himself saw more art added to the cathedral in keeping with its history.

The Pietá (pictured below) added in 2003 speaks to a particular element of Hispanic spirituality. Visitors will notice that the knees and feet of the Jesus figure have been rubbed white by continual touching.

“Hispanic spirituality is a very earthy, a very touchy-feely spirituality,” Garcia said.

Garcia often sees worshippers come into the church “bent under stresses.” They connect with the anguish of the Pietá, and in touching it find strength. As they interact with the art, they feel that Jesus is with them, Garcia said.

At Mission Concepción, the oldest unrestored church in the United States, another culture is folded into the faith. The mission’s frescoes, some of the best enduring clues as to what the missions would have looked like in their heyday, depict the sun. This would have resonated with the newly converted natives, for whom the sun was the supreme deity. The Franciscan friars communicated the power of their chief saint, Mary, using the language of the sun. Every year the architecture of the church famously creates a double illumination for the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. At this point it appears that the light of the sun emanates from the Virgin.

San José, the grandest of the missions, is perhaps the most multicultural, and perhaps the most didactic, after San Fernando. Its six-layer relief sculpture surrounding the entrance depicts the “Tree of Life,” the family tree of Christ. The shell shapes over some of the doors reference the shells carried by pilgrims, a sign of St. James. Romanesque and peaked arches tell of Spanish and German occupation, respectively. The famed Rose Window hints at another, particularly striking influence: the Moors. 

The Rose Window follows the Moorish quatrefoil design. Remnants from the façade of San José reveal the use of bright blue, a color commonly used in Moorish mosques and madrasas.

The same Moorish influence can be seen in the door of Mission Espada.

The missions received their UNESCO World Heritage status not only because of their architectural history, but because they have preserved a religious practice that continues. The missions are still in use, their art and architecture still speaking to diverse cultures.

As San Antonio approaches its Tricentennial celebration in May 2018, Garcia sees an opportunity to celebrate a continuing mission.

“We will be celebrating the founding of a mission, a religious entity,” Garcia said. “We were begun for a holy purpose.”

The Catholic church has seen its art and architecture of the missions speak across epochs, eliciting common emotions — awe, encouragement, reverence — from people in every era. Garcia hopes to see those emotions translate into actions of openness, generosity, and devotion, which are every bit as necessary now as they were centuries ago.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.