Sunday #43 – Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, 1715 N. Zarzamora, San Antonio
Why this church?
While visiting the Baha’i Community in San Antonio, I ran across this Beaux-Arts architectural marvel sitting on San Antonio’s west side. Its large dome beckoned from the main street upon which I drove, so I turned off Culebra Road to see what lie beneath the dome. To my surprise, it was a church that I had on my list of ones to visit. It’s an enormous cathedral; you quickly learn how big when you find that it has two addresses online: 1715 N. Zarzamora and 906 W. Kentucky Street.
This historic Roman Catholic church, built in 1931 is also called Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Thérèse. In the late 1920s, the Discalced Carmelite Friars began working in the surrounding parish community and the building was erected sometime during the Great Depression.
Named for French-born saint, also known as Little Flower, St. Thérèse is famous for bestowing favors on people who honor her memory. St. Thérèse has a symbol of the rose, so the cathedral uses roses in various forms throughout the building, which is currently being reconstructed a little at a time.
Celeste A. – a Yelp review had me chuckling when I read her post about a visit to the church: “It also has a pretty kick butt religious gift shop with the usual amount of kitschy figurine and holy water fonts in abundance.”
The cathedral has many intricate hand-carved Stations of the Cross, as well as
what appeared to me as a shrine area to St. Thérèse.
Side note: It always surprises me when I see Jesus depicted as hanging on the cross in Catholic churches. Most protestant churches only use the stand-alone cross and rarely, if ever, have Jesus hanging upon it. Makes me wonder where this divide in depictions of religious symbols happened.
<<Somebody jump in on the comments and let me know, if you have the answer.>>
With five minutes to spare, I found a parking lot across from the church and pulled in as others were scrambling to the entrance as the church bells wafted across the neighborhood.
As I entered the cathedral, my eyes focused on the massive altar area with a huge carving of Jesus, angels and a host of celestial beings awash in pastel colors. I quickly took a seat a few wooden pews back from the front.
I quickly noted that most of the Hispanics in attendance wore jeans and t-shirts. Children were in abundance and I continued to hear them throughout the service, so this Catholic Mass was a bit more lively than most Catholic churches that I’ve attended.
As the service began, one altar boy carried the “Jesus on a Cross” symbol and two other altar boys marched to the side of him with candles; the Rev. Luis Gerardo Belmonte-Luna proceeded behind.
Once the procession came down the side aisle, the quartet of people moved to the main altar area. The priest kissed the altar as the boys went out a door to the side. Then one came back with what appeared to be a lantern. I quickly learned that the priest needed that for lighting the incense. He began waving the lantern in front of and around the altar. I knew when I returned home that I would have to look up this ritual to better understand its symbolism. I didn’t realize that the use of incense in worship predates Christianity and that there’s a biblical instruction to burn incense (Exodus 30:7; 40:27).
After the priest welcomed everyone in Spanish (remember the whole service was in Spanish), he began to chant, then we sang a song before being seated. Two women then came to the large pulpit that loomed to my left. The first read the Bible before finishing with the words: Esta es la palabra de Dios.
Then an organ played and a disembodied male voice began singing. Don’t know why these disembodied voices bug me so. Guess I’m accustomed to seeing people sing from the front of the church instead of hearing it from the back.
Then the next woman climbed the stairs to stand atop the large pulpit and read other passages from the Bible en Español.
Then after the next song, the altar boys brought two candles out and faced the altar. The priest, holding a red religious text (I can only assume this was the Bible) above his face, walked with the altar boys down the side of the cathedral and back up to the pulpit. He then read a passage from the Bible he carried.
As the priest began his message, he first asked the audience a question about singing and whether we sung in church. A few people reluctantly raised their hands and he smiled. Then he asked a few more questions and left the pulpit. Wearing a microphone clipped just below his chin, the priest began walking up and down the main aisle while he spoke – no notes, no reference slides; just from his heart.
Up and down the aisle he paced, and continued on like that for a long time – longer than any previous Catholic sermon I’d heard. I hung on every word he said, hoping that the words I understood would coalesce in my mind to form exactly what he spoke about. I took from what little I could understand that he was gently chiding those who don’t sing aloud in church, but just mouth the words. He had the church laughing at numerous spots along the way. I found the atmosphere refreshing, because I’d never heard anyone laugh in a Catholic Mass before.
At one point, the pastor went into the history of the Cathedral and said the word Papa several times before I realized that the word “Papa” meant the “Pope.”
<<duh – one reference and I should have figured that one out!>>
The Priest continued up and down the aisle gently waving his hands to make his points about those who say they can’t sing in church, yet blast the music from their cars and sing to the top of their lungs. Upon arriving in church, they are suddenly mute and at a musical deficit. It didn’t take long to realize that this man is a great storyteller.
Even though I didn’t understand every word, the priest spoke slow and deliberately enough for me to understand most of the words and get a general sense of what he was saying. Toward the end of his gentle and wonderful delivery the priest started talking about “dinero.” I had to call the church this morning to learn what he said because I didn’t catch it all. His final story went something like this:
One day the $100 bill died and went to Heaven. At the door of Heaven’s gates, the $100 bill asked to come in, but he was turned away. But he tried to convince St. Peter that he had done good work, had helped many people and that his power had been used in many ways. St. Peter still said no. Then the $50 bill died and went to Heaven and he begged for entry but was turned away. Again, this bill tried and tried to explain how important he was to the people and had helped so many during his lifetime. Then the $1 bill arrived and was let right in. The $50 and $100 bills were aghast that something as lowly as a $1 bill would be allowed passage and not them, so they asked why. St. Peter said, “Because the $1 bill was at Mass every Sunday. I looked for you, but you never came.” As the crowd broke out in laughter, the priest who had slyly made his point quickly turned on his heel and headed up to the altar for more serious matters – Communion.
Before the communion, several men came to the front holding chrome baskets that looked like long-handled French-frying baskets you’d find at McDonalds. These were the their donation plates.
<<I must say, while a bit odd looking, these baskets were quite functional. The men could reach down the aisles without walking too far into the aisles or making people pass the plate.>>
After that, a few kids came to the front toting a large white wicker basket shaped like a trunk.
<<I immediately thought: WOW, they sure collected a lot of money, if they have to bring it up in a trunk.>>
But instead, the kids pulled out small glass bottles of what appeared to be oils of some kind and handed them to the priest.
Then, the altar boys appeared from a back room and brought the incense out again, which the priest then waved over the wine and bread and then all around the altar. From my kneeling position, I noted that one of the kneeling altar boys rang a bell every time the priest presented the bread and wine. After serving one of the fastest communions I’ve seen at a Catholic Mass, we all stood to “Pass the Peace.” I wasn’t sure what to say in Spanish, but I somehow muddled through.
Then the priest chanted again, before a woman came to another lectern located closer to me and read a few announcements. Then, the altar boys brought out the cross and candles, faced the altar and promptly walked with the priest back down the aisle as the service ended.
If I were Catholic, this would be my priest! Unlike so many mono tonal Catholic sermons delivered in English from Catholic pulpits, this Spanish one was absolutely captivating and I could kick myself for not spending even more time practicing my Spanish. I understood enough to enjoy and participate, so for that, I’m thankful.
I’ll be doubling up and doing two services next week – one at 5:00 pm Saturday and another new church I heard about nearby at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. Would like to go to the Sikh service, but I have to wear a long dress or tunic and pants and I don’t have either of those. I’ll see what I can work out between now and the end of the year.