Because of its architectural interest and artistic splendor, St. Francis on the Brazos Catholic Church has long been a highlight of walking tours of downtown Waco.
It is listed on the city’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau website touting the multicultural heritage of the area, and on any given weekend it hosts multiple Hispanic events, from religious holidays to family celebrations of quinceañeras.
Just how a church structure almost 80 years old — but resembling one centuries older — came to inhabit the northwest corner of North Third Street and Jefferson Avenue is a story that recalls the talents of Roy E. Lane, one of the pre-eminent designers of Waco in the early 20th century.
Lane (1884-1956), a native of Kansas City, Mo., moved to Texas in 1907 after getting an architectural degree from the University of Minnesota.
He settled in Waco and established a practice here, growing a business for almost 30 years before re-establishing himself in Dallas in the late 1930s.
Career in Central Texas
During his time here, he designed numerous buildings in Central Texas, including the old Waco Public Library, the Hippodrome, warehouses and hotels in the business district and several Waco public schools, as well as collaborating on the 22-story ALICO building, which celebrates the centennial of its completion next year.
The parish of St. Francis was founded in 1924 in Waco by the Franciscan religious order. Priests from Majorca, Spain, staffed the church for most of its existence, when it was constructed to serve the Hispanic immigrant community.
When Lane was commissioned by the Franciscans in 1930 to design a permanent structure, he purposely created a church that emulated the Baroque stylings of Mission San Jose in San Antonio, built in 1720 by the Franciscan friars and their Indian converts.
Lane studied the colonial architecture of Mexico and made many trips to San Antonio with the monks to painstakingly fill up his sketchbooks and seek inspiration for the design.
The building, completed in 1931, boasts a facade ornamented with six life-size statues of saints. The entire entry-way arch is carved in a flower and fruit design, work done by Frank T. Johnson.
The famous sacristy window of San Jose was faithfully reproduced, according to the news clippings from the Waco Press of Sept. 11, 1931. The reporter noted that the outside dimensions were exact to the model, with only a subtle shift for an interior chapel.
Just as meticulous as the exterior is the breath-taking beauty of the interior, which boasts the work of painter Pedro Barcelo of Majorca.
His masterpiece, “The Glorification of St. Francis” — depicting in vivid detail the artist’s conception of the heavenly welcome for the humble friar of Assisi after his death in 1226 — commands the attention of worshippers and church visitors.
It is one of more than a dozen religious artworks that the parish family considers priceless treasures.
Concerned about damage
Restoration of the works was undertaken more than seven years ago, when a pastor grew concerned about the condition of the murals, which had been damaged by more than six decades of candle smoke and human breath.
In 1940, St. Francis pastor, the Rev. John Domenge, received a donation of $1,000 ($15,000 today) to purchase original artwork for the sanctuary.
Barcelo, director of the “Palma De Mallorca” art school, was commissioned to do the paintings for the entire sanctuary: 14 Stations of the Cross (known as “Viacrucis”), “The Glorification of St. Francis,” and “The Landing and Work of Franciscan Missionaries in Texas.”
Touching up murals
The first set of murals — “The Glorification,” “The Landing” and the first and 14th Stations of the Cross — arrived in the United States in late 1943, brought in by a Spanish priest, the Rev. Gabriel Tous, through the port of New Orleans.
The second shipment, the remaining 12 Viacrucis pieces, arrived in 1946 and were dedicated Dec. 15 that year during a community celebration in honor of “La Virgen de Guadalupe,” whose feast day is Dec. 12.
Barcelo, who had never visited Waco, got all his visual information on the city through the postcards sent to him, according to the Rev. Lawrence Soler, a former St. Francis pastor.
Soler, now pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Waco — also a predominantly Hispanic congregation — said Barcelo placed many of the founding Franciscans of Waco into the painting of “The Glorification.” The artist himself is depicted as a monk taking notes behind the pope in the celestial assembly.