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A block away from the newly renovated Waco Convention Center stands a building that looks like it was plucked straight out of the 1600s. Heavy wooden doors positioned beneath and between the carved likenesses of Catholic saints lead to a cavernous room filled from floor to ceiling with historic and meaningful artwork.
St. Francis on the Brazos Catholic Church was established in Waco in 1924 by the Franciscan missionaries of the Third Order Regular. It was established to minister to the needs of the Mexican, Spanish-speaking population of the Waco area.
The first building established was not the one seen today, but a wooden one, burned down in 1928. The fathers and parishioners of the church then had the idea, according to a pamphlet of the church’s history, to “construct a more efficient and comfortable church.”
The walls of the sanctuary are covered by murals created for the church by Spanish artist Pedro Barceló. Facing the congregation are murals, the “Glorification of St. Francis,” which shows St. Francis’ glorification in Heaven; the “Arrival and Work of the Franciscans in Texas,” which depicts scenes of the arrival, predication and martyrdom of the first Franciscan missionaries in Texas; and The First and Last Stations of the Cross, which are depictions of Jesus’ path to crucifixion.
“Whether celebrated by a community or by individuals,” according to the 2000 edition of the book “Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship: Guidelines of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.” The book’s purpose is to assist in the renovation of churches with suggestions such as, “the Stations of the Cross offer a way for the faithful to enter more fully into the passion and death of the Lord and to serve as another manifestation of the pilgrim Church on its homeward journey.”
On March 5, members of St. Francis on the Brazos Catholic Church took part in walking the Stations of the Cross as a part of the Easter season, said Orlando Salas, office manager for the church. Members passed around each station and participate in prayers and petitions. The Stations of the Cross are a part of the Franciscan tradition, Salas said.
“It’s basically just resembling what Jesus went through when he was going through that sorrowful way to crucifixion,” Salas said.
The mural, the “Glorification of St. Francis,” which stands at the front of the sanctuary above the pulpit, shows St. Francis being glorified in Heaven. St. Francis is the patron saint of Salas notes that on the mural one can see the depiction of the pope, angels, nuns, and other figures watching the saint rise into the clouds. Above St. Francis a dove representing the Holy Spirit floats, flanked by Christ and God the Father. At the bottom of the painting is the image of the Waco skyline.
The church’s pamphlet on its history says that Barceló “tried to exalt the city that was to receive his work by capturing it inside his painting of The Glorification of St. Francis right under the clouds.”
Beneath this mural sit three other murals that show the story of the first Franciscan missionaries in the United States. They portray their interaction with Native Americans as they tried to evangelize the native people. The center mural depicts Native Americans attacking missionaries and a church, and the series of the three ends with Native Americans kneeling at a cross, having converted to Christianity.
Concerning any controversy about the three paintings’ topic of Native Americans and how they became Christians, Salas said that he can’t speak for what the artist who painted the murals originally intended. He did note that some people have trouble with the graphic nature of the paintings, though.
“Some people don’t like that it’s actually people killing someone else,” Salas said. “It’s graphic, you know, but in art, it’s telling you the story. It’s speaking for itself.”
Various statues of saints and of Christ stand in small side chapels around the sanctuary, surrounded by ornate wall décor and canopied by blue ceilings with painted yellow stars. At the feet of many saints sit trinkets ranging from Rosary beads to flowers made out of pipe cleaners. An altar dedicated to a particular revered form of the Virgin Mary in Mexican Catholic culture, known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, is honored with bundles of flowers placed at her feet.
The front of the church, called the façade, is a replica of the Mission Church San Jose de Aguayo near San Antonio. Statues of saints surround the heavy wooden doors, and representations of cherub heads and the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary face Waco from the front of the building as well.
“I enjoy coming here,” said Erica Escobedo, a member and secretary for the church. “I think that’s what attracts me to come here. It’s beautiful; it’s very historic.”
Escobedo was baptized and raised in the church, her parents having been members for decades. The art and architecture doesn’t affect her worship, she says, but it is still something she likes.
“In the Christian community’s place of prayer, art evokes and glorifies ‘the transcendent mystery of God, the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ,’” according to the book “Built of Living Stones.”