El Carmen Church, Chapel of the Battle of Medina, marks 200 years

[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text]BY CAROL BAASS SOWA

SAN ANTONIO • An old stone bell tower, standing beside Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the far southeast Bexar County community of Losoya, memorializes a somber piece of Texas history which brought the little church, commonly called El Carmen, into existence.

When the parish celebrates its 200th anniversary on July 15, it will be because the bodies of Spanish royalist soldiers were laid to rest there, following the Battle of Medina on Aug. 18, 1813. The Spanish forces then continued on to San Antonio, but a chapel was constructed over the crypt in 1817 by order of General Joaquin de Arredondo, who credited his battle victory to Nuestra Senora del Carmen. Eventually, the chapel would become a church.

The Battle of Medina was a devastating defeat in the struggle for Texas independence from Spanish rule, and its effects carried over into the subsequent rebellion against Mexico. The grueling running battle of skirmishes and retreats took place over a large area below the Medina River — so large there is still controversy regarding its exact location. The fighting extended for miles and lasted around four hours. When it was over, the dead of the defeated rebel Republican Army of the North numbered around 1,200, while estimates of Spanish losses range from 55 to 150.

The rebels had previously harshly executed two government leaders and this was repaid by General Arredondo’s refusal of proper burial for the rebel dead. Their remains were left scattered across the vast battlefield for years until, in 1822, José Feliz Trespalacios, first governor of Texas as part of Mexico, ordered the bones of the fallen Republican Army of the North collected and buried. They were interred beneath an oak tree into which a cross was carved, with an inscribed tablet placed on the mass gravesite. The tablet later vanished and the site’s location was lost.

Over the years, a community grew up surrounding the Chapel of El Carmen, encouraged by the Vice Prefect Apostolic of Texas, Father Jean-Marie Odin, who became the first bishop of Texas. Land containing a chapel believed to be the El Carmen Chapel and several adjacent acres were donated to the church by Carmen Garza and August Pelleton.

Catholics in the area (largely of humble means) collected funds to construct a larger wooden chapel in 1854, recording individual donations that ranged from fifty cents to $31. Referred to as the Chapel of Medina, it was blessed in 1855 by Father Claude Dubuis, later the second bishop of Texas.

Bishop Anthony Pellicer, first bishop of the Diocese of San Antonio, oversaw the purchase of land surrounding El Carmen to spur the growth of a Catholic community whose streets were named for saints. The original wood frame church was destroyed by fire and rebuilt, only to suffer fire damage again decades later. It was eventually replaced with the present brick church in 1967, next to the original site. Remarkably, it too was nearly destroyed by fire in 1991. However, the iconic stone bell tower, added to the original church as a front entrance, survived it all, becoming a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

At times a mission of other churches, including St. Joseph in Las Gallinas, San Fernando Cathedral, Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Leo the Great. El Carmen also partnered with missions San Francisco de la Espada and San Juan. Pastoral care fell to Jesuits, then Claretians, priests from St. John’s Seminary and Vincentians. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived in 1958 to do catechetical work and later started a much-needed medical clinic on the premises. Some of these priests and sisters are now buried in the parish cemetery surrounding the church.

Also said to be buried there is Enrique Esparza who, as a child, witnessed the death of his father, Gregorio Esparza, in the Battle of the Alamo. The location of Esparza’s gravesite is another unsolved mystery, but a state historical marker beside the old stone bell tower commemorates his 1917 burial at El Carmen Cemetery. The bodies of the royalist soldiers, by some accounts, were moved in the distant past to hallowed ground elsewhere, the details undocumented, leaving the old tower as a memorial to the original burial and all who lost their lives in the bloody Battle of Medina.

Today, the grounds of Our Lady of Mount Carmel are a peaceful refuge from the hustle and bustle of San Antonio, 20 miles to the north. The parish encompasses 50 acres, 25 of which were purchased in 2010 in hope of building a larger church for the growing parish. Behind the present church, land in a natural state stretches beyond the cemetery. Crossing picturesque St. George Bridge, over a small creek, leads to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Prayer Park, the setting for re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross at Easter time. Three crosses on a hill, an impressive stone burial tomb and a Garden of Gethsemane, surrounded by yucca and century plants, with a rough-hewn statue of the kneeling Christ, round out the setting for the crucifixion in an oak-dotted south Texas landscape similar to the battlefield on which the rebel army and Spanish soldiers fought and died 200 years ago.

Parish history is being preserved and new discoveries made in a series of Historical Family Fairs begun this year, to which parishioners have been encouraged to bring old family letters, books, documents, photos and artifacts for sharing and discussion, as well as for digital archiving by Northwest Vista College (NVC), in a project sponsored by the parish, NVC and the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions (AIT-SCM). Information gathered at events like these assists NVC and AIT-SCM in establishing a digital archive of indigenous and Tejano history, culture and records and publication of a series of books on Texas history, in conjunction with Alamo Press.

“The story of the history of San Antonio is always about the Alamo and about other people,” notes Rosa Nuñez, president of Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s parish council. “It’s never about the local people who lived out here, especially in the rural area.” The project will insure that the history El Carmen has preserved will reach a wider audience and establish recognition of its role in the history of the archdiocese, San Antonio and Texas.

On the horizon is the parish’s 200th anniversary on Saturday, July 15, closest convenient date to their namesake’s feast day. The previous Sunday, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, will celebrate Mass and lead a novena at Our Lady of Mount Carmel as precursor to the following Saturday’s celebration.

The July 15 event will begin with a 9 a.m. procession carrying the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, accompanied by matachines, the Knights of Columbus and the faithful. A rosary, solemn Mass and reception will follow. And, of course, there will be an exhibit of pictures and historical information on El Carmen, the Chapel of the Battle of Medina.

Sources for this article included two books by local historians: El Carmen: The Chapel of the Battle of Medina, by Art Martinez de Vara, with foreword by Rudy De La Cruz Jr., Alamo Press, 2017 (first book in the Northwest Vista College Series on Texas History); and Federico Martinez’s A Brief Genealogical and Historical Survey of Early Families of Villa Del Carmen En Medina, Los Bexarenos Genealogical Society, 2006. Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church is located at 18555 Leal Road; (210) 626-2333.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”5112″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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