Postcard from Portugal: Pilgrimage to the birthland of San Antonio’s patron saint

Part of the excuse for extending our stay in Portugal until mid-June was to ensure we were there for the Feast Day of Saint Anthony of Padua, June 13, the anniversary of his death at age 36 in the year 1231. Actually, the celebration is more than a day. In Lisbon, the party in honor of Saint Anthony lasts throughout June.

While we call him “of Padua,” he wasn’t from there. He only ended up in Italy because his ship was blown off course during a storm. He was born in Lisbon and studied in Coimbra, and the Portuguese have not forgotten him. His images, and a few personal relics, are everywhere.

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They love him. And why not? Few saints are more versatile than Saint Anthony in the types of prayers answered.

So, following my pilgrimage to the homeland of the my city’s patron saint, I wanted to share, in layman’s terms, a few of the things every San Antonian should know about him:

  • Saint Anthony must have been fearless. His prime inspiration for becoming a Franciscan was the story of the five Franciscans beheaded by Moors for preaching in Morocco. He yearned to follow in their footsteps.
  • Forget being impressed by horse-whisperers. Sparrows would flock to hear Saint Anthony preach. A stubborn mule would bow to take sacrament from his hands. Early on, when heretics ignored him, he turned to preach to the fishes in the river, who all popped their heads up, mouths agape, and listened attentively as long as he cared to speak.
  • Saint Anthony was such a silver-tongued orator, rock stars would envy the crowds he attracted. His final sermons had to be given far out in the countryside in the open air to accommodate the thousands who swarmed to bear witness. He needed bodyguards to keep from being stripped naked by those who wanted to snip off scraps of his robes to remember him.
  • His popularity was so great and miracles so obvious, Pope Gregory IX had to put him on the ultra-fast track to sainthood. He was canonized within a year of his death, and there was none of the fudging about waiving confirmation of a second miracle like Pope Francis had to grant for Pope John XXIII.
  • Saint Anthony protects sailors, stemming from the miracle that his ship was merely blown off-course and not destroyed in a storm. Maybe Rio San Antonio Cruises should consider breaking the all-female naming tradition and christen one barge in his honor with a little statue of him on the bow.
  • Saint Anthony helps you find lost and stolen things. This stems from a story of a naughty novice who nicked Anthony’s psalter. Saint Anthony sent such a fearful devil of an ax-wielding creature after him, the repentant man scurried back and returned the book. Some of us would find Saint Anthony’s blessing handy every time we head to the car.
  • Saint Anthony’s been known to appear to guide lost travelers. Those tourists driving the wrong way down a one-way street downtown yesterday sure needed him on their dashboard.
  • Saint Anthony helps fishermen, which means bountiful fresh sardines in Portugal during his Feast Month. You might not think that is a good thing, but grilled fresh sardines are moist and sweet. Celebrating St. Anthony’s Month would provide San Antonio with a good excuse to promote their importation.
  • And what’s better than sardines? Wine. Faced with a drained keg on his arrival in Provence, Saint Anthony refilled it to the amazement of all.
  • In Portugal, people give each other gifts of sweet basil on Saint Anthony’s Day. Wow, how perfect for here. By mid-June everyone in San Antonio could use a fresh pot of basil to replace their summer-stressed straggly ones.
  • Even the poor get bread on St. Anthony’s Feast Day. Unsure whether this tradition stems from the French baker who promised to give bread to the poor if only the shop door would open; the mother who pledged to distribute her child’s weight in wheat if Saint Anthony would bring him back to life (which of course he did); or parents donating bread when placing their children under the saint’s protection. He was such an ardent protector of children, it is claimed that the infant Jesus was seen visiting him in his cell.
  • Saint Anthony not only can heal the sick and bring the recently deceased back to life, he can reattach limbs. A man confessed to Saint Anthony that he had kicked his mother. Taking his penance a little too literally, the man went home and chopped off his own foot. Upon hearing this, Saint Anthony kindly went to the sinner’s home and reattached his severed foot.
  • Saint Anthony helps single women find husbands. Needless to say, grateful brides are honored to be chosen to be part of the multiple-wedding ceremony held on his day.
  • And this is truly cool. Superman has to disappear from one place to fly off to do superhuman feats elsewhere, but Saint Anthony could bilocate. This meant he could be preaching a sermon, suddenly remember he was supposed to be up in the loft singing in the choir and do both at once. But it also meant that when his father was falsely accused of murder in Lisbon, Anthony – then based in Padua – was able to appear in court in Lisbon in support of his father. This feat was made even more impressive when Saint Anthony brought the murder victim back to life to offer his testimony as well, leaving no doubt as to the innocence of the saint’s father.

These tales may seem hard to believe, but everyone wants to believe in miracles. Faith is powerful. But enough about miracles for now.

A pair of Spaniards, Father Damian Massanet and Domingo Teran de los Rios, both claim to have named this place in June of 1691.

We just need to be grateful the explorers entered the land the Native Americans called Yanaguana on Saint Anthony’s Day.

And San Antonio certainly needs another excuse for a citywide party.

Visit those quiet little missions before the reenactors remember the Battle of Espada

One of the nicest features of the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project is that it invites you to visit the missions strung along the banks of the San Antonio River.

And not just the first two you normally take visitors from out of town to see before you get missioned-out and head for margaritas.

But the oft-overlooked San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de la Espada, which, true confession, the Mister and I had not seen for at least two decades (but, true confession, not as long as it’s been since my last confession). Their histories easily can be found online, so I will not attempt to rewrite. This post is simply meant to entice you through pictures to rediscover what we tend to forget on the south side of town.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1716, with much of the mission compound not completed until 1756. San Juan himself must of have been incredibly pious because he was governor of Perugia, the chocolate capital of Italy, before becoming a Franciscan. However, since chocolate came from the New World, maybe lording over Perugia around the year 1400 was not as flavorful as it would be today.

When the Mister and I made a mid-morning stop at the mission, the information center was staffed by a volunteer from the parish. What was wonderful was that he peopled the mission for us with his own ancestors, photographs of ancestors he did not realize had lived within the protective mission walls until seven years ago. Plus, he told us how a window at each of the missions is positioned to let illuminating rays of light shine on the statues of each one’s patron saint on the appropriate feast day. Clever calculations by the priests; miracles to the Native Americans they were converting.

The National Park Service seems proving a good steward of the grounds, and Father David has been applying the funds he has raised successfully through the nonprofit Old Spanish Missions to re-stucco the church for the first time in about 250 years. The church now gleams against the blue Texas sky. Unfortunately, the priest does not keep the same hours as the park, so we did not view the interior. Probably the most reliable time to view the interior is during a scheduled Mass, but I’ll probably stick with more random attempts.

Visiting Mission San Francisco de la Espada should become a more fashionable pilgrimage now with the popular Pope Francis in charge at the Vatican. More attention undoubtedly will be focused on Saint Francis, about whom I have written before in this blog. It would help if San Antonians, including myself, would incorporate the Francisco instead of shortening the name to Mission Espada.

Of course, if the National Park Service really wanted to market Espada to Texans, maybe the thrust of the story should change away from the agrarian and vocational skills the friars taught the inhabitants.

I mean, look at the Alamo. If you make it about guns, they will come, as Land Commissioner Patterson recently showed us.

If more people were aware of the battle fought there in October 1835, Espada would soon be mobbed.

The following is from a report submitted to General Austin by James Bowie and James Fannin following the battle, according to Wallace McKeehan on the Sons of Dewitt Colony Texas website:

Mission of Espadas, Saturday morning 7. oclk AM 24th octr 1835 Genl S F Austin Half an hour since we were attacked by the enmy, who were repulsed, after a few fires being exchanged Only a few men were seen-say about fifty-tho, from the dust etc. it is believed 200 or more, were in the company-Dr Archer says that Col. Ugartichea was the commandant, as he plainly saw him, and recognised him-The place is in a good condition, or can be made so in an hour, for defence, and until we know, of the advance of some aid, or what was intended by this feint, we will continue to occupy this station, where we have provisions enough for the army provided means are supplied to purchase….

If the Alamo attracts millions of visitors to a site where virtually all the Texians were slaughtered, wouldn’t people love to visit the spot where Bowie and Fannin were victorious?

Espada is the spot.

Visit it now. Before the word gets out. While it is still a peaceful place at the end of the Mission Reach.

A place to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis on October 4, perhaps even witnessing the rays of light illuminating his statue.

And well before reenactors decide they need to start shooting off noisy guns at 6:30 a.m. every October 24.

Update Added on August 12, 2014: As August 15th brings a solar illumination to Mission Conception in time for the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, an article in Today’s Catholic by Carol Baass Sowa sheds light on the phenomenon that would amaze Native Americans:

It was the Franciscan missionaries’ knowledge of astronomy, he related, that was responsible for the incorporation of solar illuminations in a number of their churches. They served to symbolically communicate the friars’ Catholic faith to the Native Americans, much as medieval churches used stained glass windows to tell the story of Christ and Gothic arches pointed upwards towards highly decorated ceilings to symbolize the heaven men should strive to attain.

Arriving in what was a wilderness, the Franciscan founders of Concepcion had little to work with, Father (David) Garcia explained, so they built into the church the symbols and signs that would tell the indigenous people about God and Christ. “They had a ray of sunshine come in and illuminate the sanctuary,” he said. It was a way to tell the native people “God is moving among us…..”

The friars were highly educated men, (George) Dawson explained, and the Catholic Church used churches as solar observatories since the 15th century as a means to figure out such things as when Easter fell. Also leading credence to the case for the Franciscans is research on the California missions, which has shown one or two Franciscan priests were in charge of construction for several of the missions there which feature the majority of the solar illuminations….

Mission Espada also has an illumination, he related. On the morning of Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, (the Franciscans’ founder), light from the rectangular window on the eastern wall bathes the statue of St. Francis on the altar in a golden glow. Again, there is a duplicate display on March 9, which happens to be the feast day of St. Frances, a woman mystic who died in the 1400s.