The Haunted San Fernando Cathedral

One of San Antonio's most mysterious, and haunted locations

Technically, its name is the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelabra y Guadelupe.

A mouthful, perhaps, which pays homage to the Church’s patron saints. For the masses, though, the imposing Gothic Revival church situated on San Antonio’s Main Plaza goes by San Fernando Cathedral. It was named after the thirteenth-century King Ferdinand III of Castille (Spain), who was largely responsible for creating an atmosphere of peace among his Christian, Muslim and Jewish citizens.

Ferdinand III was canonized in 1671, and so maybe we can imagine that the early Spanish settlers of San Antonio de Bexar sought a similar sort of peace in the New World.

The peace, they ultimately achieved, thanks largely to disease and war.

As for the peace for the Dead—well, it seems that many spirits still wander around the grounds of San Fernando Cathedral as they did in life . . . and now as they continue to do in death.

The History of San Fernando Cathedral

The Canary Islanders Arrive

In 1731, 56 Canary Islanders (Isleños) made the arduous trek from off the coast of Spain, across the Atlantic Ocean, and to the Gulf of Mexico. Life on water was tough . . . and life traveling across eighteenth century Mexico was even harder. Four people were lost during the journey, as well as 125 horses.

The Canary Islanders arrived in colonial Texas with high hopes and anticipation. They’d been promised land grants, the rights as the first civilian settlers to form a town government, and the prestigious title of hidalgo, which was a rank of Spanish nobility.

The problem: It had all been a lie. There were no towns. There was no government. There were the Spanish missionaries and their accompanying soldiers, and that was it. The King of Spain had sent them so that they could claim the territory as Spain’s before the French arrived and stuck their greedy fingers into it.

The only choice was to work the land, to toil away from sun up to sun down. And so the Canary Islanders did so, even though they were forced to share their promised land with the missionaries, as well as the soldiers and their families. (None of which had been part of the original deal with the the King of Spain).

Despite the hardships that San Antonio de Bexar provided to the Canary Islanders, there was one mission that they refused to relinquish: to build and complete a cathedral for them to worship in freely.

A Mission Derailed

A historic sketch of Main Plaza and the Old San Fernando Church, which is located in San Antonio Texas
A sketch of the Main Plaza and the San Fernando Church

By 1738, the Canary Islanders settled on prime real estate for their new church and the first cornerstone was laid. It was to sit on a wide expanse of land overlooking the San Antonio River and was near to the presidio (the military fortification which is now the Spanish Governor’s Palace).

(Five years later, the Alamo’s first stone would be put in place).

Unfortunately, sometimes the best laid plans are often the ones that suffer.

The Canary Islanders, as well as the other families in San Antonio de Bexar, were under constant threat by the Lipan Apache peoples. Battles were frequent among the Spanish and the indigenous people, and bloodshed even more so.

It was in 1730, just a year before the Canary Islanders arrived, that the Lipan Apache tribe declared war on San Antonio. Their attacks were brutal, constant, unforgiving. So much so that that the people of San Antonio were warned not to leave their houses because they worried about imminent death by the Apaches if they did.

Less than a year later, the Apache rode in to San Antonio and stole sixty head of cattle from the presidio’s herd and other livestock; guns and also ammunition. The Apache viewed the Spanish as the encroachers, and so helped themselves to whatever they desired.

The lines had been drawn, the blood had been shed, and the raids seemed to never end.

Until the Comanche tribe entered the fray. By 1749, the Lipan Apache struggled greatly against the warring horsemen of the Comanche peoples, leading them to approach the Spanish for a peace treaty.

Peace at last seemed a true possibility.

Burying the Hatchet

The pace offering was to be made before the old San Fernando Church.

With a crowd gathered around to watch the momentous occasion, the Apache dug a deep hole into the soil. The peace offering came in the form of their hatchets, arrows and war clubs—giving history and symbolism to the saying, “burying the hatchet.”

But that was not all the Apache put inside of the pit. They also buried a white horse, which was still alive, as horses were significant to their culture and the white color symbolized peace. Then, they began to refill the hole. Only then did the Apache and Spanish dance around the pit to celebrate their newfound peace.

Only, the peace was once more short-lived.

Though the physical battles between the two cultural groups had finished, another—this one more deadly—took its place. With more contact occurring between the Apache and the Spaniards, it was only a matter of time before smallpox left its mark.

The disease ravaged the Apache population, greatly diminishing their numbers so that they were unable to defend themselves against the Comanches, who were furious that the Apaches had sought a peace treaty with the Spanish. Those who survived the smallpox fled the area to protect themselves.

The hatchet had indeed been buried, with more casualties than anyone had probably envisioned at the time.

Major Historical Events at the San Fernando Cathedral

The Marriage of Colonel James Bowie

In 1831, the ever-famous, Alamo defender, James Bowie, took the hand of Ursula de Veramendi at the old San Fernando Church. Ursula was the daughter of Juan Martin de Veramendi, the governor of Coahuila and Tejas, and was nineteen years old at the time she married Bowie. Bowie, on the other hand, was thirty-nine and nearly twenty years her senior.

Their wedding was held at the old San Fernando Church, much to the delight of the local citizens of San Antonio. (It must have been a grand, lavish affair since Ursula’s father was a governor). And for a time, all was well with the Bowies . . .

Until, once more, fear of disease threatened the city. A cholera epidemic swept through Texas, and news spread that San Antonio was next. Bowie refused to risk the lives of his family, so he packed them all up and sent Ursula, her parents and their children to their family estate in Mexico.

In a tragic turn of events, it was not San Antonio that suffered the wrath of cholera but actually Monclova, where Bowie’s family and in-laws had sought shelter. Within eight days, Ursula and the rest of her family were dead.

As local lore goes, James Bowie was never the same again. Drinking became his main source of comfort. His haggard appearance reflected his depression.

He continued on this way until the Fall of the Alamo in 1836, when Bowie became one of the 189 defenders to die in the Texas fight for Independence from Mexico.

No Quarter Drawn

“Remember the Alamo!"

Legend has it that the rallying cry could be heard all over the battlefield as the 189 Alamo defenders drew their last breaths against Mexican General Santa Ana’s calvary and troops. Davy Crockett, the notorious outdoorsman, wielded his rifle above his head like a club when he ran out of ammunition.

James Bowie, tied up with yellow fever, was sprawled out on one of the beds in the Alamo, rifle clutched in his grasp as he shot every one of his enemies when they dared enter his makeshift hospital room.

But before all of this—before the chaos of war and loud sounds of canons heaving, muskets firing, men crying—General Santa Ana gave the Texians one last chance to escape the misery he would deliver them upon their loss.

High up on the San Fernando Cathedral’s tower, Santa Ana raised a red flag to signal that there would be “no quarter” if the Texians did not surrender. As the story goes, the Texians answered with a single canon blast.

The siege and defeat of the Alamo lasted a period of thirteen days. There were no survivors, but when the Texans won their Independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto not long after, they returned to the old San Fernando Church to fly the victory flag.

In true meaning of the phrase “no quarter,” the Alamo’s fallen defenders were not given a proper burial by General Santa Ana, and were simply burned on mass pyres or thrown into the rivers. After Texas had won its independence, Colonel Juan Seguin, who controlled the new Republic, reportedly buried the corpses under the sanctuary railing of the old San Fernando Church.

Did this really happen? Some say yes, some say no. In 1936, a box was unearthed from the Cathedral during renovations and it is said that charred bones, nails, and tattered uniforms were unearthed. Since then, historians have been quick to point out that it’s unlikely that Seguin did any such thing since the bodies were probably never recovered from the pyres.

Legend or not, a marble sarcophagus now graces the southeastern corner of the cathedral, where it is said that the ashes of Colonel William Barret Travis and Davy Crockett are interred.

There remains the relics of Texan heroes.

Building the San Fernando Cathedral: Completion and Renovation Through the Years

Less than a year after the peace treaty with the Apache, the Canary Islanders were finally able to lay the final stonework in completing the old San Fernando Church in 1750.

The church was designed in a Colonial style, befit for the time period and the Spanish culture of its founders. While its oldest feature remains its baptismal font, which is said to have been a gift from King Charles III of Spain, the old church underwent a massive renovation during the mid-nineteenth century.

An historic photo of San Fernando Cathedral under renovation in 1873, which is located in San Antonio Texas
The historic San Fernando Cathedral of San Antonio

In 1868, the church’s front facade was demolished to make way for a French Gothic architectural style that was all the rage during the period. Architect Francois P. Giraud, who later became the mayor of San Antonio, ran the renovation, and not six years later the church officially was consecrated as a cathedral.

The Diocese of San Antonio was not only the first, official diocese in Texas, but San Fernando became the state’s first cathedral as well. Later, in 1920, the cathedral finally received its beautiful stained glass windows that are so often photographed today.

San Fernando Cathedral was added to the US National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and Pope John Paul II traveled to Texas for the first and only time in 1987 when he visited San Fernando Cathedral. Today, a statue stands in the cathedral in commemoration of the event.

Another renovation project took place in 2003, though this one spanned three-phases and was worth $15 million.

Despite the many alterations and renovation in the last two centuries, the San Fernando Cathedral continues to be the center point of Catholic religious life in San Antonio. Over 5,000 people participate at weekend Masses each week of the year. If that number isn’t astounding enough, over 900 baptisms, 100 weddings, 110 funerals and many other services are performed at the Cathedral each year as well.

It goes without saying that the historic San Fernando Cathedral is quite popular for both the living and the dead, and the ghosts which are rumored still haunt its grounds.

The Ghosts of San Fernando Cathedral

As the oldest church in the Lone Star State, it only makes sense that San Fernando Cathedral might be one of the most haunted locations in all of San Antonio. The apparition of a white stallion galloping in front of the church has been spotted, as though the ghost of the Apache's peace offering from the 1730s has yet to leave the site of his death.

Guests on ghost tours have caught all sorts of paranormal phenomena, including brightly-lit orbs skirting past and the sight of dark shadows moving around.

Who are these spirits who still call San Fernando Cathedral home?

Although we can’t say for certain, it’s quite likely that it might be the energies of the people who were once buried within the walls of the church itself.

Buried Within San Fernando Cathedral

During the early years of the old San Fernando Church, it wasn’t out of the norm to actually bury people within the walls of church. The rankings of the people never mattered. From the highest-ranking men, to the smallest, poorest child, all ultimately found themselves interred within the walls of San Fernando . . . for a period of time, at any rate.

While the parishioners were given the walls, the priests and other prominent Catholics in the parish were given the floor of the church as their final resting place. Anthony Dominic Pellicer, the first bishop of San Fernando Cathedral, is buried under the head of the main aisle of the church. More strangely, the area where the Alamo defenders’ “remains” were found by the sanctuary railing just so happens to be the place where many officers who perished in the Battle of El Rossillo, on March 28 1813, were buried.

For years, many people who visit San Fernando have reported seeing faces appear in the exterior walls of the church. A gaping mouth, two sunken eyes—the features of a skull have appeared to countless of people visiting the oldest standing structure in Texas.

Are the faces on the rock wall only a matter of imagination, and interpretation?

While some might argue that the skull-like, spectral faces that suddenly appear on the outer rock walls of the church are the spirits of those interred within San Fernando Cathedral, there’s no mistaking the amount of people who have been buried within, as well as the amount of paranormal sightings that have occurred elsewhere on the cathedral’s grounds.

Dark Shadowed Ghosts of the San Fernando Cathedral

On multiple occasions, shadowed ghostly figures have been spotted wandering the grounds of the cathedral.

The Dark figure of a Man

On one occasion, a guest on a ghost tour stood listening to her guide regale her with the tales of the church itself. But even as she stood there, her gaze continued to track a strange man who seemed to be following the tour. He trailed them, following them from the front of the cathedral and then again when they edged toward the back of the historic site. And then . . . then, he simply disappeared.

When she tried to describe him, she likened his all-black clothing to the dress style of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. She’d initially thought him to be another tour guide joining the group, but his abrupt disappearance suddenly had her wandering if he hadn’t been a ghost himself.

To make matters even stranger, a few others of the tour-goers had witnessed the same dark shadowed apparition, leaving all to wonder: who was he?

Ghostly Monks

Other people meandering past the historic, yet haunted, landmark have reported the manifestation of other shadowy figures by the walls and next to the doors of the cathedral. According to some who have seen these specters, many of the ghostly shadows have appeared with hoods drawn down over their faces.

Are these apparitions the residual energy of the monks who once established San Antonio and who may have worshipped at San Fernando Cathedral?

Almost always, these dark figures have appeared in the back of the cathedral and have been known to manifest and vanish almost at will.

But of all the paranormal occurrences which have been seen at the cathedral, the ghostly monks seem to be the most frequently spotted.

Perhaps they are unwilling to leave their house of worship; or perhaps they are simply unable to leave the place where their physical bodies may have been buried within the walls or under the floor of the church.

The Ghost of Halloween

Over the years, San Fernando Cathedral’s haunted reputation has grown tremendously. Because of its innate spiritual ambience as a house of worship, it’s not so surprising that there might be a ghost or two still roaming the grounds.

On Halloween in 2007, however, the common orb-sightings took a step back to make way for a rather incredulous, paranormal incident. Workers were conducting a restoration project on the cathedral by removing old plaster from the original stone. Plans were set in place to re-plaster the walls.

Despite the construction, the Cathedral was still open for visitors. One of whom happened to be touring San Fernando with his handheld video camera. He captured the marble sarcophagus in the back, which many visitors claim to be ghostly cool to the touch at times, as well as the seal on the ground which confirm’s the church’s old age.

Then, without any sort of warning, he captured the visceral image of a man kissing a skull on the head.

He panicked, realizing that not a single soul was in sight.

The image he’d captured on his camera had been nothing but a shimmering apparition of a ghost from long ago.

Visiting the Haunted San Fernando Cathedral

If you find yourself wandering San Antonio during your next trip, be sure to take a moment to stop in to San Fernando Cathedral, which is not only the oldest structure in Texas but the first Roman Catholic church in the state as well.

The Cathedral offers both self-guided and guided tours each day of the week, and parking can be found in one of the private lots surrounding the church as well.

You surely don’t want to miss out on visiting this beautiful place of worship that is such an integral part of San Antonio’s history!

And if you’re lucky, you may come across one of the Cathedral’s many ghosts still wandering the holy ground of the church.

Interested in hearing about more of the ghostly stories attached to the historic and haunted San Fernando Cathedral? Check out our San Antonio Ghost Tours, which will be sure to feature this haunted location!

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