Father David Garcia walks the walk. The San Antonio priest and Westside native led the $15.5 million campaign for the restoration of San Antonio's Spanish missions, yet he won't be among the city's delegates in Bonn for UNESCO's 39th World Heritage Committee's meeting June 28-July 8 in Bonn, Germany. That observer delegation will be led by San Antonio's secular leaders, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ivy Taylor.
(Readers who want to watch the live streamed presentation and discussion of the San Antonio Missions and Alamo application for World Heritage status, expected to take place among the 29-nation committee members and the official U.S. delegation on July 5, can bookmark this link.)
Father David, as he is known throughout the city and his home parish at Mission Concepción, embarked Sunday on another, more personal journey, a pilgrimage to walk El Camino a Santiago, better known in English as the Way of St. James or the Road to Santiago. Since the 11th century, countless faithful, penitents and miracle seekers have made the journey along many paths that begin in Spain, Portugal and France and lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. History and legend say the remains of St. James the Apostle were entombed there after being spirited out of Jerusalem as Christians and Muslims warred through the Middle Ages. Pilgrims journeyed months, braving attackers, robbers, religious persecution, and the plague, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.
Today the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela is a World Heritage site.
Today's pilgrims find hostels and inns and no shortage of restaurant choices and diversions, especially along the Camino Francés, the French Route, which also has World Heritage designation. The Camino Francés is a 32-stage, 485-mile journey that starts in the Spanish village of St. Jean de Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Walkers can cover the route, one of five that starts in Spain, in one month. Cyclists can do it in two weeks or less. Many modern-day pilgrims choose Those who choose to walk only the last few stages. Few tourists have the time, stamina, or inclination to walk the entire length.
Fr. David and two fellow parishioners from Mission Concepción have been walking the less-traveled Via de la Plata, which starts in Sevilla and is the longest of the many different routes, with 35 stages. Fr. David said in an email Friday that the small group will complete a five-day journey Saturday, having covered a little under 70 miles of the 621-mile route. Along the way they met a couple, ages 75 and 80, who started in Sevilla and are going the distance, which takes six weeks or more, or half that time cycling.
People who go often come back displaying their Pilgrim Passport, which is only given to those who walk 100 kilometers or more, and holds individual stamps showing the stages walked. Fr. David has promised to write about his journey, and I am certain he used some of the solitude he enjoyed along the way to think about his next big idea for San Antonio.
El Camino a las Misiones de San Antonio
San Antonio's Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, Fr. David and other local Catholic leaders are discussing the creation of a Camino a las Misiones de San Antonio, a local walk modeled on the Camino a Santiago. It's an idea with special appeal as San Antonio awaits the World Heritage outcome in Bonn, and one that resonates on many levels: spiritual, environmental, and as public health and wellness initiative. It's one more reason for the city to redouble its efforts to revitalize the main corridors running south of downtown that lead to the Missions. San Antonio, like Santiago de Compostela, could have many paths leading to the same place.
San Antonio's Camino would start at Main Plaza and San Fernando Cathedral, Fr. David told me in a conversation before he departed for Spain. It would follow the river south to Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. The walk along the San Antonio River would be approximately 12 miles and take the average adult 4-6 hours, with stops at each mission. A special VIA trolley or bus could return pilgrims to their downtown starting point.
Sojourners seeking to complete the round-trip journey could spend the night in one or more hostels modeled on the Spanish albergues, and retrace their steps on a second day, earning another stamp for San Antonio's version of the Pilgrim Passport. A third stamp could recognize a walk to the Alamo and the future Alamo Museum on the Plaza that will tell the story of Mission San Antonio de Valero.
Stamps also could be issued by the San Antonio River Authority for the King William, Eagleland and Mission Reaches. Individuals unable to make the journey in one day could walk the route in segments over a set time period.
This would not be the first pilgrimage to exist in South Texas. Church officials in San Juan in the Rio Grande Valley say 20,000 people a week visit the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle National Shrine.
Many people travel specifically to experience World Heritage sites. If the San Antonio Missions and the Alamo are given that status, San Antonio will be the only World Heritage site in Texas and the only one west of the Mississippi River built by Europeans. A good argument can be made that since the missions were built with the labor of indigenous residents they are a true representation of both cultures.
The City of San Antonio's Metro Health department could be a secular partner in the endeavor with a goal of encouraging every San Antonian to make the walk at least once. A Síclovía could be designed to cover the same route along Mission Road. The Convention and Visitors Bureau could promote the Camino de San Antonio as a unique experience unmatched in any other major U.S. city.
Fr. David Garcia, meanwhile, no longer surprises me with the many ways he has helped change our city. His extraordinary efforts to preserve and celebrate San Antonio's colonial past make for a much more interesting future.
*Featured/top image: Fr. David Garcia points to the small openings in Mission Concepción that 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. Photo by Iris Dimmick.