This profile was last updated in 2006
Standing at the direct center of the city, the San Fernando Cathedral is the oldest continuously used cathedral in America, and has become symbolic of the place of religion in the spiritual, cultural, and historical heart of the city of San Antonio. Originally constructed by the first Spanish immigrants to San Antonio, San Fernando continues to welcome immigrants each year, holding masses in Spanish, celebrating traditional Latin American festivals, and providing a space where immigrants can hold onto their traditions. As Rev. David Garcia, the rector of the cathedral has said, Latin American immigrants who travel to San Antonio “often look for their first welcome in a church.” More often than not, it is San Fernando cathedral that, over 270 years after its founding, still provides that first welcome.
The small town of “La Villa de San Fernando” was founded on March 9, 1731 by a group of 15 families who travelled to this remote settlement from the Canary Islands at the invitation of King Philip V of Spain. Originally, these families were entrusted with settling the Spanish area of the Texan territories in order to prevent incursions from the French.
In 1738, the Canary Islanders laid the cornerstone for San Fernando Church, creating the first Parish in Texas. The center of the Cathedral, which was placed behind the altar, became the official center of the city of San Antonio, and the point from which all distances travelled were calculated. In 1749 they completed the church, and the original walls are to this day the oldest standing structures in the state of Texas. In 1898, a new addition to the church transformed it into the French Gothic style structure that we see today.
For parishioners living in an uncertain new world, the San Fernando Cathedral became a world unto itself, a place where locals could hold onto the traditions of the countries they left behind. The cathedral was declared to have two patronesses; Our Lady of the Candlemass, who was the patroness of the Canary Islands, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico. To this day, icons dedicated to them stand watch within the cathedral, a testimony to the stories, beliefs, and memories those first immigrants brought with them. As Hispanics experienced the change of five governments in fifty years during the 19th Century (Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, the United States of America), the one institution that remained the same was their church, San Fernando. To this day, the San Fernando Cathedral is often the first place that new immigrants from Mexico visit, still referring to this structure in the center of the city by its old familiar name, “our church.”
Activities and Schedule
Saturday/Sabado 8:00 a.m. Sabatina/Espanol
Saturday/Sabado 5:30 p.m. Bilingual
Sunday/Domingo 6:00 a.m. Espanol
Sunday/Domingo 8:00 a.m. Espanol/Televised
Sunday/Domingo 10:00 a.m. English/Espanol/Latin
Sunday/Domingo 12:00 p.m. Espanol
Sunday/Domingo 2:00 p.m. English
Sunday/Domingo 5:00 p.m. Bilingual
Monday – Friday/Lunes – Viernes 6:15 a.m. English
Monday – Friday/Lunes – Viernes 12:05 p.m. Bilingual
The San Fernando Cathedral continues to celebrate the most important feast days in the Latin American calendar, including el Dia de los Muertos (the day of the dead), the Posada, or pilgrimage of the Holy Family in search of an inn, Diez y Seis, the feast of San Antonio de Padua, and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Cathedral’s most famous celebration is the annual Passion play carried out in front of the cathedral each Good Friday, and attended by 25,000 people.
Dominating the center of historic San Antonio, the San Fernando cathedral has a commanding presence, with its twin white steeples and austere white stone exterior, a beautiful rose window over the front door. The newly restored interior is in a traditional French Gothic form, with stained glass windows along the walls.
The real history of the cathedral can be told through the icons and objects within the cathedral, collectively telling the story of immigration to San Antonio. Inside, immediately to the left, a white stone container holds the remains of the heroes of the Battle of the Alamo, including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. Nearby, in front of the main entrance, the famous statue of the Christo Negro, or black Christ, El Christo Negro, a replica of the Black Christ from Esquipulas, Guatemala, welcomes visitors. Traditionally, locals and visitors from Latin America have written letters to this statue, asking Jesus for help or thanking him for miracles. The statue is continuously surrounded by these letters, photographs of car crashes survived, and love notes addressed in the familiar “Dear Jessie.”
In front of the Christo Negro, a stone carved baptismal font is believed to have been a gift of King Charles III of Spain in 1759. The carved stone Stations of the Cross as well as the carved wooden pulpit in the center of the church were installed in 1874. The pipe organ, which looks down on the cathedral from the choir loft, is the oldest in the city of San Antonio.
Behind the altar, a stone circle in the floor, inscribed with a cross, still marks the official center of the city of San Antonio. Behind it, the statues and icons are stories unto themselves. The beautiful 1770 painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico and the “Mother of the Americas”, celebrates the moment when the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico and asked him to build a church in her honor. The Black Madonna celebrates the statue of the same type carried over by the Spaniards sailing from the Canary Islands. A statue of St. Anthony, recently installed, honors St. Anthony of Padua, the namesake for the city of San Antonio.
The cathedral is a pioneer in interfaith work in San Antonio, working closely with the leaders of almost all the religious communities. On Thanksgiving day each year, the cathedral holds an interfaith worship service, where Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Baha’is, Hindus and Christians all gather to give thanks for the diversity of their city. In addition, every four years the cathedral holds an interfaith blessing on the new members of the city council, where religious leaders remind their civic leaders of their duty to protect and serve San Antonio’s citizens. The cathedral also participates in ecumenical work, trying to bring together leaders of San Antonio’s many Christian denominations. In its official literature, it describes itself ” not exclusively as a Catholic Cathedral, but as a center of unity and harmony for all the God-loving people of San Antonio and beyond.”