Third in a series: A Rising Southside

Throughout this week, Rivard Report readers are hearing directly from some of the change agents and protagonists behind the redevelopment of the Southside. Our series explore the economic, cultural and environmental renaissance underway. We also welcome submissions from readers who wish to share their perspective on a rising Southside. [Read more: “It’s The Decade of Downtown, But Don’t Miss San Antonio’s Rising Southside.]


Tomorrow, Aug. 15, a group of parish members and interested visitors will gather in the church of Mission Concepción to witness an extraordinary event.  It will be the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.

That day at around 6:00 p.m. a beam of light from the setting sun will enter through the west window over the front door and slowly make its way through the body of the church to the center of the sanctuary, where at 6:30pm it will illuminate the floor at the cruciform of the church directly under the dome. At the same time, another beam will enter from the west window of the dome and illuminate the face of the Virgin Mary on the painting above the main altar.

mission concepcion virgin mary light beams aug15_father david garcia
Virgin Mary and Altar illumination at Mission Concepción on a Aug. 15, 2012. Photos courtesy of Fr. David Garcia.

Two beams of light, perfectly coordinated by the ingenuity of our ancestors, provide a very moving moment for anyone fortunate enough to be present. All are welcome to attend this year’s illumination tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at Mission Concepción. This has happened every August 15th since 1749, as long as the sun was shining.

How did they do that in 1749?

The more I learn about the missions and their history the more I am astounded by the talents, abilities, resourcefulness and dedication of the first missionaries and the Native American peoples that built these fantastic treasures of San Antonio.  Just think about the fact that the Franciscans arrived here 300 years ago and found basically wild country.

There was a river, fertile land, lots of wildlife, and some Native American nomadic tribes.  That was it.  Literally they started with the very stones, earth and vegetation of South Texas to create the marvelous structures we see today.

Detail of the door and facade of Mission San José. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Detail of the door and facade of Mission San José. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

It is remarkable that not only did they build these fantastic buildings but actually they helped create and sustain living communities that worked together for the common good.  Everyone in the missions had their job and everyone knew that they were important to the life of the mission.  Everything from carpentry and stonemasonry, to farming and ranching, from cleaning and decorating the church to preparing the hymns for Mass, from defending the mission against hostile attacks to selling produce and meat to the nearby Villa de San Fernando, the missions were a living testament to the incredible talent of the missionaries and the people they worked with.

That same spirit seems to be once again very much alive on the Southside of our city today. New and exciting developments are exploding all over this part of the community, thanks to the City, Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority, the Church, private developers and other entities. It is the Southside Moment.

Mission Conceción's facade. The bright, colorful patterns have worn off during 300 years of weather and wind erosion. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Mission Concepción’s facade. The bright, colorful patterns have worn off after 300 years of weather and wind erosion. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Every Sunday that I celebrate Mass at Concepción I am very aware of the historical footsteps that I follow. Our 10 a.m bilingual service with a lively choir demands we set up extra chairs to accommodate the crowd while the noon Mariachi Mass attracts a lot of tourists who love that worship experience. I love it all!


I have the privilege to lead the Las Misiones effort to preserve, restore and maintain these mission churches that are the centerpieces of our national park and the crown jewels of our city. Las Misiones is raising the funds necessary to do this work now and into the future.  We have already restored the interiors of Concepción, San José and San Juan as well as the façade of San José and the stabilizing of the San Juan structure.

The restoration of the iconic Rose Window is next, along with work at Espada.  Millions of dollars have been spent. The work is never ending, but we are committed to do an excellent job with the best qualified architects and contractors we can have. Generous foundations, corporations and individuals are critical for this to happen.

The Rose Window at Mission San José. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Rose Window at Mission San José. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Recently Las Misiones was presented the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation for 2012.  This is not given every year and honors only those individuals or organizations that show truly outstanding work in the preservation of Texas history. We are proud to have brought this and other awards for our preservation work to San Antonio and to the Southside.

San Antonio is more and more discovering the treasure that many Southsiders always knew was there.  It is the story of our origins, our history and culture. There are new construction projects going on as well as restoration and reuse of great older places. It is another whole part of the city, away from the gridlock and overbuilding that has happened unbridled north of 410.

The Old Spanish Missions are a symbol of Southside perserverance. They are the enduring legacy of our ancestors. They represent not only faith, but the cultural, historical and economic foundations we are building on today.

The two symbols and anchors of the Southside have always been the missions and the river. Both have come through tough times in the past, when they were ignored and marginalized. Today they are the sparks for this rebirth.

Riders cross under the train bridge on the Mission Reach during the Something Monday ride. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Cyclists cross under the train bridge on the Mission Reach. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The missions were almost lost and would have been just a pile of stones if not for the strong commitment of community leaders over a hundred years ago.

They realized that San Antonio has the largest concentration of Spanish colonial structures in the United States. This fact has become the cornerstone of our application to UNESCO for inclusion as the first Texas entry on the list of World Heritage Sites. Back then, those leaders came together with private and public funding to save and restore what we have today. It was a civic effort and we need that same civic effort now to help the Southside reach its potential.

We have inherited not just beautiful buildings in our missions, but we have inherited a powerful spirit that built, sustained and passed them on to us.  That mission spirit is what we now put forward to build the new San Antonio.  That mission spirit calls us to marshal the incredible talent and ability that is all around us in our people.  If we can do that successfully, three hundred years from now they will speak about us the way we speak today about the original mission builders.

I hope more San Antonians visit the missions and discover one of the original inspirations for our city that keeps on inspiring today as well. Being inside one of these wonderful places is entering into a special sacred space and time that is uniquely San Antonio. I often have visitors tell me that experiencing the missions was the best part of their trip to San Antonio. Come see for yourself.

Father David H. Garcia is senior advisor for clergy outreach for Catholic Relief Services, helping to the agency’s efforts to develop and strengthen relationships with clergy leaders in the United States and promote solidarity with the poor and vulnerable in the developing world. He also focuses on outreach to Latino clergy and supports CRS’ Global Fellows program, a grassroots speaking initiative that draws on the talents of active and retired Catholic priests to spread the message about CRS’ work in parishes around the country. Garcia is also director of the Old Spanish Missions of San Antonio and has been rector of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio since 1995. He has served the Archdiocese of San Antonio in a number of ways, including secretary to the Archbishop, director of administrative services and vocation director.

Related Stories:

The Mission Reach: Bringing Life and Pride Back to the Southside

It’s the Decade of Downtown, But Don’t Miss San Antonio’s Rising Southside

Rain Date: Historic San Antonio River Mission Reach Party on Oct. 5

Something Monday: Mission Possible

Something Monday: Bikes, Beer, and Beautification on the Mission Reach

D.C. Official’s Visit to San Antonio Begins on the Mission Reach

 Confluence Park: Nature’s Learning Laboratory Atop the Mission Reach

Museums in the Current: Hardberger’s Homage to the San Antonio River

SARA Documentary Chronicles Story of the San Antonio River