|Painting by Arthur William Best.|
Father Pedro knelt at the altar of the little chapel in the mission de Valero. Several times a day for the last sixteen years he had accustomed himself to petition God from the foot of this alter. More times than he could recount, he had beseeched God’s blessing and His mercy upon the people of the mission. Many souls had been touched. Many lives had been changed down through the years. But his prayers today were more urgent than ever, for things were very desperate. He finished his prayer and stood to his feet.
“Father, may I have a word with you?” It was Jose Hernandez, one of his parishioners.
“Of course you may, Jose. What can I do for you?”
Jose stood sheepishly in the center aisle, nervously twisting the brim of his sombrero, which he had removed upon entering the little chapel. “Father, is it true what they say?”
Father Pedro looked lovingly at this faithful member of his flock. Jose was a skilled craftsman in leather. His belts and harness, boots and saddles, were among the finest made. He worked very hard to feed his wife and four daughters, and he never missed a mass. What would happen to his flock now, he thought to himself?
Father Pedro sighed and gave a slow nod. “If you are referring to the rumor that the church is going to close the mission, then I am afraid it is true.” He took Jose by the arm and said, “Come with me.” The two men walked out into the courtyard alongside the little chapel. The sun hung low over the western horizon, but it was still very hot outside, as it usually was in España Nueva at this time of year.
“Let us walk down by the river,” said Father Pedro. The river was one of Father Pedro’s favorite places to be, especially when the summer sun was unrelenting. Its banks were lined with beautiful, huge cottonwoods which provided a cooling shade under which Father Pedro received the inspiration for many of his sermons. Across the river to the west was the village of Bexar where many of Father Pedro’s flock lived.
The two men stood side by side along the bank of the river. Silently, they listened as a warm breeze rustled through the leaves of the majestic old trees. The leaves seemed almost to be whispering something. There might have been hope in the whisper. There might have been encouragement. Jose strained to hear what the leaves were saying, but he could not understand.
They watched the sun settle over the village of Bexar. Its light played a symphony of color and shadow across the red clay tiled roof tops of the adobe buildings. But Jose could not hear the music. He could not hear the whisper of the leaves. He heard only the buzz of an irritating fly that landed on the back of his hand. He saw only the setting of the sun; the end of the day; the end of the church that he loved.
“But how can they do this? What will happen to us?”
Father Pedro shrugged in resignation as he explained. “It is mostly a matter of policy, Jose. It has always been church policy not to start missions closer than seven miles from each other, yet we have five other missions located within nine miles of this very spot.”
Jose bent down and picked up a leaf. Tossing it into the river, he watched as the current carried it downstream and out of sight. The river was always flowing; always moving; always changing. The water that flowed by one second was gone the next, never to return. It made Jose uncomfortable. He had buried his father this past spring, and his oldest daughter was soon to marry and would be moving out of his home. Too much was changing, and Jose did not handle change very well.“But what will happen to us? And to you, Father? What will become of you?”
“You will be well taken care of Jose. Father Miguel at the mission San Jose de Aqyayo will assume responsibility for your souls. As for me…” There was a pause, and then a slight tremor in the Padres voice as he continued. “I will return to the Franciscan Seminary in Mexico City to be reassigned.” Sixteen years was a long time to invest in the lives of others.
They stood together in silence now and stared back through the years. Each man sorting through the memories and assigning value, knowing that it was the memories that would remain to provide comfort and stability. How many marriages had there been? How many baptisms and funerals had the little church witnessed down through the years? They turned to walk back to the courtyard of the mission.
“There is a time and a season for everything, Jose. We must have faith and trust that God knows what is best for us.”
Jose felt little comfort in Father Pedro’s words. “I do not like it when things change.”
“Everything changes, Jose. A wise man will see the change, and grow with it. Change is the only way that things get better.”
From where he stood in front of the chapel, Jose could see the little church cemetery where his father was buried. “That is also how things get worse!”
Father Pedro just smiled. “People change. The seasons change. Even the times change, Jose, and you must change with them. Look how much Bexar has changed. How it has grown and prospered with all of the new comers.”
Jose frowned at the mention of the new comers. “I must confess, father, I do not care much for the new comers.”
“But why not, Jose? What do you have against them?”
Jose pointed to the village across the river. “Bexar used to be a quiet, peaceful town; it was a town to raise a family in. It was a town where my ninjas could play in the street. The new comers want to change everything to suit them. They even want to change the name of the town. Bexar is not good enough for them. They are now calling it “San Antonio.”
Father Pedro stood in front of his parishioner. Smiling, he reached out both arms and placed his hands firmly on Jose’s shoulders. “San Antonio is a good name. It honors a revered and godly saint.”
Father Pedro led Jose to a bench in the court yard. As the two men took a seat, Father Pedro said, “Jose, do you remember when your oldest daughter, Maria was born?”
Jose’s eyes narrowed as he looked quizzically at the priest. He knew there was a lesson coming. “Of course I remember. Who doesn’t remember the birth of their first born?”
“Good!” Father Pedro patted Jose on the leg and continued. “Then you remember how sick she was as a young child. There were several occasions before she was even weaned when we were not sure that she would even make it to her next birthday.”
Jose recalled the constant anxiety that he and his wife felt over the poor health of their daughter when she was little. He recalled the many sleepless nights; the prayers and pleadings with God to spare her life and make her strong and healthy. “Yes, Father. I remember. God answered our prayers.”
“Yes, Jose. God did answer all of our prayers for Maria. He changed her from being a sickly child and he made her to be a strong, healthy, normal little girl. And over the years he has made her to be a beautiful young woman who will soon be married and have children of her own. He caused all of that change to take place, and it was a good thing, was it not?”
Jose sighed and turned to look back across the river toward town. Lanterns were being lit to illuminate the streets, and the sound of music and laughter from the cantina was carried on the night breeze. Perhaps Father Pedro was right, he thought. Perhaps he could learn to live with the changes that came upon him, whether he wanted them or not. Perhaps they would turn out for the better after all.
The two men sat in silence for a long while. Jose was cataloging all of the changes that were taking place in his life; all of the things that he had no control over, that seemed to want to carry him away like the river had carried away the cottonwood leaf.
Father Pedro sat listening to the clicking sound of cicadas and watching the fireflies dart in and out of the trees down by the river. He felt better after talking to Jose. As was often the case when he counseled one of his flock, he often wound up preaching to himself.
Darkness had settled in and Jose needed to get back home to his family. He said goodbye to the Padre and then started down the path that would take him to the footbridge across the river. After a few steps, however, he turned to face the Padre one last time. He had one more question to ask. “Father, what will become of the church?”
“That is what I was praying about when you entered the chapel, Jose.”
Look at her, thought Father Pedro. Her walls were cracked, and in some places her roof was falling in. “I do not know what will become of her. Perhaps she has lived the life God intended for her and will return to the dust. But I was praying that God would not abandon her, and that she would yet find some usefulness. That is in God’s hands, and we must have faith, Jose.”
Jose just smiled. “You know, Father, the new comers even have a new name for our mission?”
“I was not aware of that. What do they call it?”
Jose called back over his shoulder as he started for home again, “They call it after the cottonwoods that grow along the river. They call it the Alamo.”