The second installment of Something Monday, our weekly partnership with San Antonio B-cycle, saw more than a few new faces last night on the Mission Reach. Word has spread of the event’s casual, inclusive nature, attracting riders of all levels of experience – from youngsters riding in tandem with their parents to young women that frequent 10K marathons.
This chatting, sweating gang of 25 curious riders set out to explore what are, arguably, San Antonio’s greatest treasures, the Spanish Catholic Missions, and what they tell us about our city’s rich history and heritage.
These architectural and religious gems are but a stone’s throw away from downtown and many Southside neighborhoods, yet many native San Antonians and those straddling the line between new-comer and local (much like myself and many of my friends) have never spent an afternoon walking the grounds of these monuments. During the tour, riders were given a first-hand look at the case for designating the Missions a World Heritage Site in the coming years.
From his picture in last week’s preview of the evening’s tour, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Father David Garcia, Mission Concepción’s parish priest and Archdiocesan director of the Old Spanish Missions. Garcia is leading the $15.5 million restoration of the four colonial-era churches. It’s not everyday that he gives exclusive tours like this.
I have about zero experience with Catholicism and half braced myself for a sermon-like lecture on the importance of worship – drawing only from movie and television references to serious, strict Catholic priests.
However, as Fr. Garcia approached our group of cyclists mingling in front of Mission Concepción, he was quick to smile and cheerfully shake hands – he had left his white clerical collar at home and instead donned a civilian’s polo and jeans. Garcia’s tone matched his attire: casual, approachable, and smart.
He was genuinely excited to be able to talk about the historic, architectural, and cultural significance of Mission Concepción and, a half hour later after cyclists caught up with him, at Mission San José. Most of the Something Mondayers seemed genuinely interested (with the exception of a few reasonably restless young kids).
At each of the two Missions, Garcia spoke first of the external structural facades – the how, when, and why they were built. The Missions were essentially home-base for the outreach efforts of 18th century Spanish Catholic missionaries to attract and convert Coahuiltecan natives while providing some basic humanitarian services as an economic hub to immigrants and native populations in the surrounding areas.
“They were painted with bright colors and patterns to attract native americans,” Garcia said, pointing out the faint remnants of red paint at the entrance to Mission Concepción. “The hope was to get them wondering about what’s going on inside.”
Inside, Garcia explained the meticulous restoration process which included making sure that the right materials and colors were used – Concepción was the easiest of the four missions (including San José, Espada, San Juan) because it’s the only one that has never partially or completely collapsed.
“Probably because it’s the only one that’s named after a woman,” Garcia said to laughter that echoed through the mission’s main worship chamber.
Also, Garcia noted, upon its completion in 1749 the missionaries and native american peoples crafted the structure to allow two distinct beams of light to penetrate the cathedral. One illuminates the face of the Virgin Mary on the altar’s painting and the other shines directly down from the dome, illuminating the floor before the altar. This happens once a year during the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven – every sunny Aug. 15.
“We still don’t know how they did it,” Garcia said. The public is welcome to witness this event at 6:30 p.m. this August, click here for more information.
After bypassing a section of closed Mission Reach trail still under construction, the riders pressed on two and a half miles farther south to Mission San José, the “Queen of the Missions,” nicknamed for its size, courtyards and unique architecture/sculptures. The stairs, tower, roof, and dome have all collapsed over its 300-year history, but restoration is now near completion.
First, Garcia led the crowd to La Ventana de Rosa, “The Rose Window,” on the southern wall of the cathedral. The window is considered one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in North America, Garcia said.
Though it’s not known for sure who created the window, it’s said to be the work of Juan Huízar. A Mission priest would appear at the window and preach to un-baptized indigenous mission residents, Garcia said, as they underwent conversion to the Catholic faith. The Rose Window soon will undergo a major restoration project.
The cathedral’s entrance portal is host to even more elaborate sculptural work which has undergone numerous renovations, most recently from Czech-born master stone carver and sculptor Miroslav Maler of New York. From the top: a cross, representing Jesus Christ, St. Joseph (San Jose) holding the infant Jesus, St. Dominic and St. Francis, Our Lady of Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary), and St. Joachim and St. Anne holding the infant Mary.
“This is the highest level of art from this time period in this country,” Garcia said.
Garcia described the intimate symbolism of various elements; the pomegranate and its abundance of seeds as a metaphor for fertility and resurrection, shells as emblems of baptism, and skulls with more obvious translations.
The cyclists were impressed, some taking pause at the ornate stone carvings and painted walls – still holding 300-year-old brush strokes – and some exploring the grounds after the tour had officially ended.
By the time all cyclists departed on their journey back up towards Roosevelt Park, our starting point, the sun had begun to set behind the abandoned Lone Star Brewery. By the time most riders arrived at La Tuna Ice House and Grill – our previously agreed-upon post-ride relaxation spot – it was dark. But they were still serving food, beer, wine, and much-needed water and the cool, dark patio provided us with great ideas for the next Something Monday outing. The bat bridge off Commerce Street? The much more shaded Brackenridge Park? Perhaps a canoe/kayak tour of King William?
All great ideas. Let us know in the comment section below if you’ve any Something Monday ideas or an ideal post-ride meeting place.
Younger riders, their parents, and other busy participants couldn’t make it to the closing social – but Laura H. commented on our preview of last night’s ride:
“We made it a family outing tonight and it was wonderful! Definitely wore out our five year old too – bonus! I was born and raised in SA, but it’s always so refreshing to see the city sites in a new a fabulous way. Thanks to all involved in this outing. And to Robert Rivard, Mason still insists, ducks quack.”