Attendees feast on oysters during the 2015 Fiesta Oyster Bake. Photo by Kay Richter.

For 99 years, St. Mary’s University has hosted an oyster bake as a fundraiser. Times were different in the beginning. The U.S. entered World War I that year. The Third Aero Squadron left Fort Sam Houston and moved to a new installation which became Kelly Field. Mexico was still dealing with its revolution. But the need for St. Mary’s to raise money for scholarships and academic programs has remained.

Brother William Chewing has been involved with the oyster bake for 38 years, 28 of them as a chemistry professor. “The first oyster bake was on this campus,” he said. “It was mainly for the ex’s (alumni) to raise money for the students.”

The Fiesta Oyster Bake is now a large celebration for current and past students, families, and Fiesta revelers. Former student Cynthia Pena has worked as a volunteer for the past 25 years, soon after it became an official Fiesta Event.

Cynthia Pena during the 2015 Fiesta Oyster Bake. Photo by Kay Richter.
Cynthia Pena volunteers for the 2015 Fiesta Oyster Bake. Photo by Kay Richter.

“I started volunteering for the Oyster Bake the year I graduated,” she said. This year, she worked the booths that sold chicken on a stick and funnel cakes. “I enjoy it more now because I can afford everything I want.”

More than 7,000 volunteers serve more than 70,000 guests at the Oyster Bake each year. Flyers instruct patrons to insert the oyster knife (available for $10 rental) into the hinge of the bivalve and twist until the closure gives way. Force the knife between the halves, and then twist from side to side until the shell comes apart. Then enjoy with lemon, cocktail sauce, or Tabasco.

Some guests that proclaimed themselves as “professional” eaters even gave way to bringing their own special mix of condiments to enjoy their share of the 100,000 oysters that are served every year, but also to partake in the crawfish and other specialty foods.

A dozen oysters was only $7 this year. But you can get a lot more than mollusks. One truck sold everything from chocolate covered bacon to fried green beans. And then there is beer – the official drink of Fiesta. It was much more popular than the Arnold Palmer iced tea (sweet tea with lemonade).

And then there is music. Six stages offer a cross-section of regional entertainment at this two-day official Fiesta event.

Sweet ‘Shine & Honey set the ambiance Saturday as they welcomed guests at the entrance. Rachel Laven offered folksy vocals while her band performed bluegrass and Americana.

The Cactus Country Band entertained a throng on one stage while Ricky Valenz captivated a small crowd of Tejano fans.

One of the favorites Saturday afternoon was the Samba Vida Drum & Dance Company. Multicolored feathers swirled in a samba beat, glitterful high-heeled shoes mesmerized the eyes, and bejeweled bellybuttons had hundreds joining in their dance by the performance end.

Samba Vida Drum & Dance Company dancers during the 2015 Fiesta Oyster Bake. Photo by Kay Richter.
Samba Vida Drum & Dance Company dancers during the 2015 Fiesta Oyster Bake. Photo by Kay Richter.

Jessica Patiño is the dance instructor and choreographer for Samba Vida. She said her group practices regularly at Our Lady of the Lake University and welcomes new dancers and drummers. They perform in numerous festivals throughout Southwest Texas.

“You can catch us next week at the Fiesta Flambeau Parade,” she said.

Cardboard and straw mulch covered muddy areas around the campus in an attempt to preserve the lawns after Friday night’s rains. But the party went on.

The neighborhood around St. Mary’s University joined the merriment of the Oyster Bake as well. Some residents were parking cars in their backyards for a $20 fee while others were offering barbecued goodies fresh off the grill. D.J. Joe was blasting Oldies and Tejano music from his sound system for free to area passer-by.

In 1852, the Society of Mary established what has become the oldest Catholic university in the southwest region. The little school grew from the church campus on St. Mary’s Street downtown. The building adjacent to Saint Mary’s Catholic Church served as the Law School all the way until 1967 when it was converted into a hotel for HemisFair ’68. One may still discern the façade of the school at Omni La Mansión del Rio.

In 1891, the present campus at Cincinnati Street and Camino Santa Maria was founded and they received accreditation soon after. Today, St. Mary’s University serves around 4,000 students.

St. Mary’s has offered an Oyster Bake for 99 years. Catch their centennial celebration at next year’s Fiesta.

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Don Mathis

Don’s life revolves around the many poetry circles in San Antonio. His poems have been published in many anthologies and periodicals and broadcasted on local TV and national radio. In addition to poetry,...