Sacred Space, Profane Reality: The Politics of
Building a Church in Eighteenth-Century Texas
CHURCHES, AS MONUMENTAL ARCHITECTURE, "FORMED THE DOMINANT
element of symbolic landscapes" in New Spain. They carried a mes-
sage about and to the community that created them, used them, and
maintained them. Historic buildings that preserve their function in the
present become venerated. In time, how they became is unimportant. The
mundane matters of their construction are obscure and trite. By commis-
sion, religious architecture is sacred, for it is the place for discourse with
the divine. Marc Treib has aptly noted, however, that "Politics always
plays a key role in the generation and understanding of architecture,
whether implicitly through funding or explicitly through legislation."
The following discussion began as an exercise to determine the chronol-
ogy of the early eighteenth-century construction of the parish church of
San Fernando de Bexar, which is now subsumed within San Fernando
Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas. What has evolved in this review, howev-
er, is a manifestation of the political nature of a community in formation
and transition while building its parish church. The disparate and com-
peting sectors of San Fernando de Bexar at mid-century had not yet coa-
lesced into a unique identity. That cohesion was not to come until the
end of the eighteenth century.1
Casual observers may assume that an institution, which wanted a
building constructed, neatly filed and maintained the records of the
* Adin Benavides is hbrarian for research programs, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American
Collection, the University of Texas at Austin, and a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association.
He is indebted to several scholars for comments in the preparation of this article, especially David
Weber and Robert E. Wright, co-panelists when an earlier version was presented at "The Community
Hentage in the Spanish Americas," qumcentenary symposium sponsored by San Antonio Missions
National Historical Park and Los Compadres de San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, San
Antonio, Texas, November 1991. Readings by William E. Doolittle are also gratefully acknowledged.
' Karl W. Butzer, "From Zacatecas to the Alamo: Colonial Towns m the Mirror of Their Churches,"
"At The Pass" conference, University of Texas at El Paso, March 1993, 2 (1st quotation), copy in
author's possession; Marc Trieb, Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1993), xiii (2nd quotation); andJesis F. de la Teja, San Antonio de Bixar: A Communty on New
Spain's Northern Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 156.
VOL. CVII, No. 1 SOUTHWESTERN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY JULY, 2003
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 107, July 2003 - April, 2004. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101224/. Accessed July 25, 2014.