San Fernando parish, founded in 1731, was the first Christian community west of the Mississippi River to be entrusted to the care of the secular clergy of the Catholic diocesan church rather than to religious missionaries (see CATHOLIC DIOCESAN CHURCH OF SPANISH AND MEXICAN TEXAS). Before the arrival of the first secular pastor, Joseph de la Garza, in 1731, the Franciscans at the neighboring San Antonio de Valero Mission had been providing for the spiritual care of the local Hispanic community. In the decades after the founding of the parish, the civilians who formed the town of San Fernando de Béxar and the soldier-settlers at the adjacent garrison of San Antonio de Béxar Presidio managed gradually to build and often repair their church building, which much later became San Fernando Cathedral.
San Fernando Parish was the center for not only the religious but also the solemn civic events of frontier San Antonio throughout the era of Spanish and Mexican Texas. During its first four decades this parish had eight pastors, who also served as chaplains to the military company. Whenever the pastorate was temporarily vacant or the pastor unavailable, the Franciscans at the nearby missions would substitute as interim pastors. In 1759 the town and the whole province of Texas received their first visit from their bishop, who traveled all the way from Guadalajara as part of his inspection tour of his huge diocese. Bishop Martínez de Texada strongly encouraged the pastor to see that the work of the local schoolteacher continued.
During the last decades of the eighteenth century the Hispanic community at San Fernando achieved a stability and maturity that enabled it to weather rough times in the following century. The population of San Fernando and environs tripled or quadrupled between 1760 and 1800, and more peaceful relations were developed with the Indians. The parish community enjoyed sustained and able leadership from Father Pedro Fuentes (1771–90) and a lay sacristan, Ignacio de los Santos Coy, who served even longer. Fuentes was so highly regarded that he was appointed the bishop's vicar for the entire province of Texas as well as San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande in Mexico. During Fuentes's pastorate several young men from the parish decided to study for the priesthood. Three of these natives of San Antonio-José Dario Zambrano, José Refugio Guadalupe de la Garza, and Clemente Arocha-became in succession the pastors of San Antonio. Their service filled all but a few years of the first four decades of the nineteenth century, a time of divisiveness and revolutionary change.
While the San Antonio missions declined as separate institutions and were gradually secularized between 1793 and 1824, the mestizo communities that had developed at those missions were transferred to the care of San Fernando parish. At the time of this amalgamation, a new division of church administration was introduced into the community with the arrival in 1803 of the Alamo Company (the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras) and its chaplain, who took over the recently secularized Valero Mission for their quarters and chapel. Spanish colonial authorities continued to increase their military presence in Texas, with San Antonio serving as the strategic stronghold, in reaction to the border tensions following the Louisiana Purchase by the United States. In 1808 the Bexar garrison was also given its own military chaplain. Thus until 1834, the eve of the Texas Revolution, there were always at least two priests with differing assignments-pastor, chaplain, missionary-serving the settlers and soldiers of San Antonio.
During the initial period of the Mexican War of Independence (1811–14), the San Fernando community was divided by fierce conflicts and retributions among revolutionaries, crown loyalists, and foreign filibusters. The native-born pastor, Clemente Arocha, was exiled as a revolutionary and replaced by another native-born priest, Dario Zambrano. Families like the Arochas saw members executed or exiled and their fortunes ruined, while others like the Zambranos benefited from their loyalty to the Spanish regime.
During the brief Mexican national period (1821–36), the San Fernando parishioners were again divided politically. Some, such as José Antonio Navarro and Juan N. Seguín, allied themselves with the new Anglo immigrants and eventually accepted Texas independence. But others, such as Refugio de la Garza, the town's third native-born pastor, and Francisco Maynes, the presidial chaplain, remained Mexican loyalists to the bitter end. The Texas Revolution and its aftermath made San Antonio a contested battleground for eight years, further damaged the San Fernando church building and the former mission chapels attached to the parish, and forced many Tejano inhabitants to leave town.
After Texas statehood in 1845, San Fernando parish was practically the only Hispanic institution to endure in San Antonio, the strong Hispanic family excepted. Although Father Garza was removed from office by incoming foreign Catholic clergy in 1840, both the Hispanics themselves and their new foreign pastors reinforced the parish's primarily Hispanic focus, as new parishes were developed for other linguistic groups. Thus San Fernando was one of the most important ethnic and cultural rallying points for the increasingly subordinated Mexican Americans during the remainder of the nineteenth century. Among its pastors during that time were future bishops Claude M. Dubuis and John Claude Neraz.
In 1874, when San Antonio was made the headquarters of the new diocese of San Antonio, San Fernando became the cathedral church of the diocese. Being the "Mexican" parish of the city, it became a refuge for exiled clergy from Mexico in the 1870s and again in the early 1900s. Elementary schools for girls and boys were begun in the parish in 1875 and 1888, respectively. The girls' school was staffed by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and the boys' school by the Marianists. San Fernando School was combined into a single coeducational institution in 1930 under the direction of the Sisters of Divine Providence; it was subsequently operated by the Salesian Sisters, and finally closed in 1967. The old San Fernando Cemetery Number One, dating from 1855, and the large San Fernando Cemetery Number Two, which opened in 1921, were both administered by the parish until 1942, when they were placed under archdiocesan supervision.
In 1902 the Claretian Fathers accepted responsibility for the parish and its mission stations. As San Antonio grew over the next seven decades, the Claretians developed many of those stations into separate Mexican-American parishes within and beyond the city. San Fernando Cathedral parish itself was returned to the care of archdiocesan clergy in 1978. Since 1985 one of its Sunday worship services has been telecast nationally and internationally on Spanish-language television. With its bilingual worship services and public celebrations, which often flow out into Main Plaza, its involvement in civic concerns, and its centuries-old presence, San Fernando has endured as a vibrant center of community and an alternative symbol to the Alamo monument for the heart and soul of San Antonio. See also CATHOLIC CHURCH, and SAN ANTONIO, CATHOLIC ARCHDIOCESE OF.