12 February 2017

Remembering our beginning...

The original outdoor Shrine to Our Lady of the Atonement

The outdoor Shrine as it is today

In the courtyard between the church and the school is an outdoor altar which marks an important place on our church grounds – the site of “the finding of the crucifix,” and also the spot where the first Mass was celebrated here on the property thirty years ago. This is the story of how it came to be where it is.

After the parish was canonically erected on 15th August 1983, I began to search for a permanent location for us to worship and to grow from our original eighteen people. We were, at that time, meeting at San Francesco di Paola Church, in downtown San Antonio. It is a lovely little place, built by Italian immigrants, but the location was ill-suited for us. Everyone had to travel quite a distance, and it was difficult to build up our parish life in a place which was fairly remote for all of us. So I began to look for some land.

It seemed to me that the future growth of San Antonio would be taking place on the northwest side of the city. Everything pointed to it, and that has indeed come to pass. The archdiocese had (several years before) purchased a small plot of land for the possibility that a territorial parish might be needed. When I inquired about locating our parish there, the answer was, “Yes, that would be fine. There’s not much happening out there anyway, and we probably won’t need it for a territorial parish.” The short-sightedness of that statement aside, it worked out well for us. To get the property, we were required to pay a rather hefty sum to the archdiocese, which eventually we did.

As soon as I saw the land, I knew this was the place. On my first visit to it, I had to crawl through the underbrush, literally on my belly, to make any kind of exploration. I had a small medal of Our Lady of the Atonement with me, and I buried it in the earth as I was making my slow progress through the woods and brush, claiming it for our Lady and her parish. Shortly after burying the medal, I came into a small clearing, allowing me to stand up. With the thick undergrowth surrounding me, I saw in the middle of the clearing a wooden cross stuck into the ground, and fastened to the rough cross was a small crucifix. How it got there, and why it was put there, I do not know; however, I took it as a sign. It confirmed to me that this was the place. This was where our Lord and His Blessed Mother wanted us to be, and this confirmation came at exactly the right time, because at the same time as I had requested the possibility of getting the land for our parish, some Dominican priests had approached the archbishop about staffing a chaplaincy for the University of Texas, which is a short distance away. Even though we had asked first, the archbishop thought perhaps a better use for the land would be to give it to the Dominicans. I told the archbishop, “You can’t! I’ve already claimed it for Our Lady of the Atonement.” He expressed his regret, but told me his mind was set. I warned him that we would begin praying very seriously about this. And so we did.

For nine evenings we gathered to pray the Novena to the Holy Ghost. By the fourth evening, the archbishop contacted me. “I don’t know what kind of prayer you’ve been saying,” he said, “but the situation with the Dominicans has fallen through. You can build there.” We finished the novena as an act of thanksgiving. We were intensely grateful to God, but not surprised at what He had done. Mind you, I have nothing against the Dominicans, but the Blessed Mother had other plans for the land.

I saved that little crucifix. We built a simple wooden shrine to Our Lady of the Atonement on the property where the crucifix had been found, and fastened it onto the peak of the shrine’s roof. In time we made plans to celebrate a Mass there, which we did on 9 July 1985, to prepare to break ground for a new church.

Today, on the spot where the first Mass was offered on the property stands the shrine, a copy of the original wooden one, but now in stone. Encased within the altar is the simple wood altar which stood there originally, now protected from the elements. And the little crucifix is there. It is mounted in the place where the tabernacle would normally be, if this were an indoor altar. So it reminds us of our beginnings, and of how God guided and protected us as new converts to the Catholic faith. There are plaques on either side of the shrine, briefly telling the story of the finding of the crucifix and the celebration of the first Mass, so our children and their children will never forget that the Lord and His Mother heard our prayers.

The first Mass offered on our property, 9 July 1985

The crucifix which was found on the parish land