Places of worship, often called sacred, are the
heartbeats of the communities that surround
them. And these sacred places aren’t simply
the ones with golden spires that sprout above
treetops. They’re often small nuggets nestled
quietly in the most surprising places, as one
UTSA architecture class discovered.
The roar of traffic on Zarzamora Street doesn’t
penetrate the stone walls of the Basilica of the National Shrine
of The Little Flower. Inside the dark and cool church, built in 1931, there’s a smell of polished wood. Congregants sit spaced apart, heads bent in prayer. This place, sitting on the city’s West Side, is sacred.
Not far away, off Buena Vista Street, is La Santisima
Trinidad, a small, slightly worn wooden house built in
1936 that also serves as a church. It, too, is sacred.
They couldn’t be more different, yet they’re both
among the more than 200 sites in a 12-mile area defined
as sacred and considered to be cultural assets by UTSA’s
Center for Cultural Sustainability.
In spring 2011, a graduate architecture class teamed up
with the national nonprofit and nonsectarian Partners for
Sacred Places to identify areas that could be considered
sacred. The class was a historic preservation seminar
led by local architect Charles John and was
part of the Graduate Certificate Program in
Historic Preservation. Using the
national organization’s definition of that word—any location that is or has been dedicated for the worship
of any religion—the class identified churches, synagogues,
convents and cemeteries located within the Westside
Development Corporation, which is bounded by Interstate
35, Interstate 10/U.S. 90 West, Acme Road/36th Street and
"If it appeared to be sacred to the people there, it went on
our list," said Vincent Ramirez, a second-semester graduate
student in architecture. "Sometimes we’d find places behind
houses, even revival tents. We also included abandoned
churches. It didn’t have to be old—sometimes they would
be brand new. We didn’t exclude anything."
For four weeks, the students divided into groups and
trolled the area. It was surprisingly grueling.
"We didn’t spare any road," Ramirez said. Even dirt roads
and alleyways were explored. "It’s like you’re stepping into
a different world. There were chickens running everywhere
and you’d be surprised. You’d look up to find a little church
sitting between two houses."
Intrigued by the students’ findings, William Dupont,
director of the Center for Cultural Sustainability and the
San Antonio Conservation Society Endowed Professor
in the College of Architecture, decided to take it further.
What if there was a scientific way to show their
cultural value? He tapped Ramirez to continue the
research by documenting each site’s location
and construction date, as well as the programs
it offered, the size of its congregation and its proximity to
schools and restaurants.
Using digital geographic software, also called GIS, what
resulted was about two dozen maps that showed the area’s
pulse, Ramirez said.
"It gives it a heartbeat, like Bam-Bam. There are this
many people here at this location at this time of the week,"
Ramirez said. "This is a lower-income neighborhood.
There is so much cultural richness in it that people often
overlook in these neighborhoods."
Findings documented in an academic paper will eventually
be published by Dupont and Ramirez and used to
secure grant funding for further study.
"This is an area that has to be explored," Dupont said.
"The city is going to keep growing in population and size,
yet there are attributes about it that everybody loves.
How do we grow yet retain our continuity with our past? I
think it’s valuable for the community to understand what
is important about itself and its cultural heritage and seek
some cultural continuity."
Places of worship have always driven communities.
San Antonio is just one example, Ramirez said.
"Look at the Alamo. It was once a chapel and then
a community grew out of it," he said. "Then you have
the missions south of downtown. Those are still live
congregations. It seems like churches come first and
the neighborhoods build around them. They’re