We are packing our bags and heading into the time machine so we can zip ourselves back to the 18th century. We’re headed to present-day Texas which was then Papaya territory—we don’t mean the tropical fruit that smells like vomit, but rather a tribe of indigenous hunter gathers.
The Papayans lived around what is now called the San Antonio River, and in 1731, a group of people all the way from the Canary island with a promise from the King of Spain that they could build a church there. Today we’re going to try and understand why they thought this was a good idea, and how the church that they would eventually build would become one of the most haunted landmarks in America.
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History of the San Fernando Cathedral
To begin we honestly don’t know much about the Papayans because, as hunter-gathers, they didn’t leave much behind that has lasted very long, and because the Spanish who encountered them were kind-of-sort-of racists that didn’t have much interest in recording Papayan culture or history. They really just wanted to build that damn church. What we do know is that when the Spanish first encountered them in 1690, some Papayans were living in a village that they called Yanaguana.
Who were these Spanish dudes, you ask? They were a combination of missionaries and soldiers. Throughout the 17th and 18th century from its base in Mexico City, the Spanish Empire was slowly spreading itself northward setting up “presidios” (these were forts) and “Misions” (which were just missions) throughout what is now the American Southwest. Their goal was quite literally to extend both their religion, along with the country’s borders.
On June 13, 1661, another one of these combined missionary-and-soldier expeditions ended up at the settlement of Yanaguana (not for the first time). What was one of their first acts upon coming upon this place, you ask? They decided to name the river “San Antonio” because June 13th is the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua and what better name is there for a river in Papayan country than a dude who was born in Portugal and died in Italy in the 13th century? We weren’t there, but we’re guessing they didn’t ask the locals to weigh in.
Learn more about San Antonio’s haunted history with Lauren M. Swartz and James A. Swartz’s Haunted History of Old San Antonio (Haunted America).
Building the Church of San Fernando
The Spanish didn’t try to lay down any real routes in Papayan country until 1716—yes, they basically swooped in, renamed some shit and peaced it in the 1660s. In that year a Francisan gentleman by the name of Fray Antonio de San Buenventura y Olivares (AKA Tony “the fortunate guy from the Olive Groves”) traveled back to Papaya country to set up a mission there.
Tony had visited the spot briefly on an expedition in 1709, and then spent six years back in Spain trying to convince the King to let him set up a mission amongst the Papayans (we’re assuming they were short on North American-born parishioners). Apparently, and we only have his own word to rely on here, upon his return to Yanaguana when he actually started talking to the Papayans, they grew to like him and helped him build a rudimentary mission station which is what we all now know as the famous Alamo.
The following year our main man Tony wrote to the Viceroy of New Spain in Mexico City that he needed some help. He asked the Viceroy to send out some Spanish settlers, preferably with building skills, to help him and the Papayans build a larger mission. He responded by sending some soldiers and their families to enlarge the presidio.
However, the Church of San Fernando had to wait until a new group of Spanish settlers arrived from the Canary Islands in 1731. The Canary Islanders were farmers and pretty green to frontier living, so it took them a while to settle into their new life, but in 1738 they, along with the other settlers and Papayan converts, made their first attempt to build a stone church.
Unfortunately, it seems to have been a tad bit of a failure because 10 years later it still wasn’t finished. It seems to have been a bit of a failure, however, because ten years later it still wasn’t finished. In 1748, when the Viceroy approved 12,000 pesos in additional financing, they were able to hire two professional stonemasons—Geronimo Ibarra and Felipe de Santiago—to finish the job.
And by “finish the job” we mean they demolished the original crapshoot of a building and built an entire new church in its place. By 1755, this new build christened the Church of San Fernando after a 13th century Spanish king Ferdinand III.
Indigenous tribes in the area
Part of the reason they might have had trouble getting the church done before the arrival of Ibarra and Santiago was that the Spanish settlement, which at that time was called San Fernando de Bexar, was repeatedly under repeated attack throughout the 1740s from Apache raiders.
The Apache were not native to the area but had been pushed out of their homelands to the north by encroaching Spanish settlements. Understandably pissed off, the Apache were forced into a nomadic lifestyle. But they were resilient, and once they became master horsemen (and women) they began fighting back guerrilla-style against whichever Spanish settlements they were able to. San Fernando de Bexar was one of the larger settlements in the area, so the Apache targeted them relentlessly.
During one raid on the settlement, the Apache stole 60 head of cattle, which is quite a feat. Unfortunately the Apache had another problem besides the Spanish settlers, the Comanche. The Commache were another indigenous tribe from further north, they weren’t huge (read: at all) fans of the Apache and they were even better horsemen and raiders. Sometimes in life, the enemy of the enemy must become your friends, so the Apache made peace with the Spanish in 1749, just a year after the arrival of Ibarra and Santiago, in an attempt to help combat the Comanche.
Relative peace ensued, for a while anyway. The settlement of San Fernando grew, as did the parishioners of its church. However, that doesn’t mean the settlement wasn’t fraught with a few unlucky incidents. In 1819, a flood damaged the Church of San Fernando, then in 1828, there was a fire that made a big impact. But it was quickly rebuilt and continued to be the cultural focal point of the growing town.
The Battle of the Alamo
Mexico declared its independence in 1821, and, in what would turn out to be a bad move, they started to encourage settlement in the area by non-Spanish settlers from the young and expanding United States of America.
But those backstabbing cowboys turned on their Mexican hosts by declaring Texas an independent state, war ensued, and in 1836, the famous “Battle of the Alamo” took place. While we won’t go into a deep dive on this battle, that’s for another episode, the Church of San Fernando played a role on these pivotal battlegrounds.
It was first used by the defenders of the Alamo. It’s bell tower was manned with watchmen to keep a look out for the inevitable arrival of the Mexican national army under the direct command of the President-General, the famous and ruthless, Antonio Lopez de Silva Santa Ana.
Massively outnumbered by the time the army was in view, there was nothing the Texan rebels could do but retreat or hole-up in the Alamo and hope for reinforcements, they chose the latter.
When Santa Ana marched his army into town, he made the Church of San Fernando his headquarters and raised a single blood-red flag in its tower to signal to the defenders of the Alamo they were utterly fucked. No quarter would be given and no surrender allowed. Over the next couple days the original 1,500-man Mexican army swelled with reinforcements equalling a total of 3,000 men, compared to just a couple hundred inside the Alamo.
It only took three charges and the battle was over, the end result never having been in doubt. But Davy Crockett and the defenders of the Alamo did manage to take out an impressive number of Mexican soldiers. The Alamo defenders were killed, and their bodies were burned or thrown into the San Antonio River. The stench of death could be smelled in the town square at the Church of San Fernando.
If you want to watch a Hollywood version of the battle in the Alamo, check out Texas Rising, which features famous faces such as Bill Paxton, Jeffery Dean Morgan, and Brendan Fraser. You can watch it for free with a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime Video.
After the Alamo
However, as we know, ultimately Mexico loses Texas, and it joins the United States in 1845—Santa Ana’s ruthlessness at the Alamo backfired.
The Church of San Fernando and its parishioners had to witness all this carnage, and were definitely feeling some PTSD strain. In 1840, half of the church’s roof collapsed. And although it was quickly repaired, the parishioners of the church and the city of what was now officially San Antonio (its name had been changed in 1837), the church needed a major facelift.
A second-generation Frenchman by the name of Francois Giraud was brought in to do the job. He literally ripped the church’s entire face off and replaced it with a French Gothic Revival façade that was all the architectural rage of the time. With its new look, the church was declared a cathedral in 1874, and Giraud eventually became the mayor of all San Antonio.
Since then, San Fernando Cathedral has led a relatively peaceful existence. The first hundred years were tough, but the last 100 plus years have passed without too much drama.
Ghosts of the San Fernando Cathedral
For many, the Cathedral of San Fernando still has a lot of skeleton’s in its armario, if you will. Many who have walked its corridors swear to have seen apparitions lurking around, and some say it’s the most haunted church in America. Most of the tales, many undated, seemingly start around 1937, when the church was renovated and nails, bones, and even military uniforms were unearthed near the church’s main altar.
Are these the charred and buried remains of slaughtered Alamo soldiers like Davy Crockett and John Bowie? Historians say it is unlikely, but maybe the ghosts say otherwise?
Some have even claimed to have seen a white horse appear galloping in front of the church. This apparition is particularly disturbing because it is known that the Apache buried a live white horse in the village square as a sign of their peace accord with Spanish settlers in 1749.
Others have claimed that they have seen faces push themselves out from the very walls of the church itself. Again, these apparitions point to a known piece of history, early on it was the tradition for parishioners of the church to be buried within its very walls, and underneath its floor. In 1817, soldiers who died at the Battle of El Rosillo are known to have been buried in the floor near the sanctuary.
Others have claimed to see floating orbs or cloaked figures resembling monks of old wandering through the cathedral grounds.
Visiting the San Fernando Cathedral
You can absolutely go see the San Fernando Cathedral and possibly its haunted inhabitants for yourself (so long as you’re doing it safely). Visiting is free and it’s open to all throughout the year. Plus there are plenty of other attractions and things to see, which make it a worthwhile vacation destination.
The Cathedral itself is located right in the center of the city, and if you want a haunted guided tour you can check out the one by Ghost City Tours. If a nighttime tour feels a bit too scary check out Amigo tours, they offer a tip-what-you-like walking tour of San Antonio that includes the Cathedral.
If you are only going for a couple of days make sure you are there on the weekend or Tuesday, because there is a “Lazer Light Show Extravaganza” called rather dramatically the “The Saga” in the evening. It has three 24-minute showings at 9:00pm, 9:30pm, and 10pm.
Of course, you should also visit the Alamo while there and, if you are a foodie, you must sample some of San Antonio’s famous barbacoa restaurants. The great thing about San Antonio, especially for tourists, is that all its main attractions are centrally located, so you can walk around to all of them including, the Cathedral, Alamo, and the La Villita Historic Village.
Flights to San Antonio International Airport are easy to find, and it is located just a short distance from downtown in the northern part of the city. Just grab an Uber into downtown and stay at an AirBnb in historic Dignowity Hill or downtown proper. Or perhaps if you want to double up on the number of ghosts you can see in one trip why not try the reputedly haunted Emily Morgan Hotel right next to the Alamo?
But before you book your ticket and plan to head to the San Fernando Cathedral, not everyone had a great time:
- Including Rodolfo P who says: “ Yyou can enter for free, besides that this is not the best example of Architecture or culture in the city. If you are In San Antonio for a limited amount of time better go to the Missions not worry too much about this.”
You can attend the church now (though, make sure to do it safely) but according to Wslin86, they have a lot of COVID regulations who says ““Beautiful church with history. Sadly, lacking in faith. It is a church. Where people should be able to go in time of duress. It’s worse than our own diocese.” They were notably not a fan of the temperature checks, and said the bathrooms weren’t super accessible.
That said, it’s important to point out that out of over 2000 reviews over 90% of them give the Cathedral 4 or 5 stars so I think it is a safe bet that it is worth a gander. But, at least according to Mari9 from Woodridge Illinois, don’t believe the gift shop lady if she tells you there is a “Mariachi Mass” at 5 pm, cause it just ain’t so!
Looking for more ghost stories? Check these out:
- Head down to Tennessee to learn about the Bell Witch.
- Hear about ghosts in the air with the story of Flight 401.
- If you’re looking for a little true crime diddy, Jazz It Up with the Axeman of New Orleans.
The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with this information themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:
- San Fernando De Bexar Cathedral, Tripadvisor.
- San Antonio, Texas, United States, Britannica.
- Apache (people), Britannica.
- Comanche (people), Britannica.
- Coahuiltecan Indians, Texas State Historical Association.
- San Fernando Cathedral, Texas State Historical Association.
- Giraud, Francois P. (1818–1877), Texas State Historical Association.
- Canary Islanders, Texas State Historical Association.
- San Antonio The Saga, Visit San Antonio.
- The Ghosts of San Fernando Cathedral, Ghost City Tours.
The Lady Dicks was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion and Tae Haahr. “Ghosts of the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas” was written by Justin Krause, produced by Tae Haahr, and edited by Rory Joy. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.
Written by Justin Krause
Justin Kraus is a historian and educator. Since he could legally leave the house, he has been off writing and traveling around world. He is a bit older now but still learning. If you want to learn with him or have him write something up for you, he can be reached at email@example.com.