Spanish missionaries arrived in Texas before most Europeans. They found a native population to whom they felt the need to deliver the word of God. Across the western half of the United States, they built their missions, some of which survive to the present day. As a descendant of northern Europeans whose ancestors arrived in Texas just prior to the Revolution, I tend to think of these churches as places of historical interest. A visit to any one of the four missions in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park demonstrates that they continue to serve their congregations in the 21st century.
As I discuss the missions, bear something in mind. Missions move. If the Church or the government decided that they needed to relocate, they did. So, when they say that the mission was founded on such-and-such date at so-and-so place, under some-other-name, it’s kinda like saying that the Tennessee Titans were founded in 1960 in Houston, Texas as the Houston Oilers. They may have moved and changed names, but all their records, their history, went with them.
You can visit them in any order, on any day. Just remember to plan around mass if you want to see the chapel interior. If you time your visits well (and avoid the rainy season) you can start at Mission Espada, then walk the trail to Mission San Juan, Mission San Jose and end at Mission Concepcion (or keep walking to the Alamo). Or you can do that in reverse.
We had pretty awful luck on our first visit to the San Antonio Missions NHP. We’d planned to visit two or three missions on May 26, 2014. God had other plans for San Antonio that day. It rained so much, I think I saw animals lining up two-by-two to board a boat. In addition to the bad weather, the chapel and convento at Espada were under renovation at the time. We were able to stroll the grounds. That’s where we learned about the arrangement between the Catholic Church and the National Park Service.
As I said, all of the mission churches are active. They all hold mass on Sunday, they administer the sacraments and host various religious rites. They are near and dear to their congregations. The sanctuaries and some of the supporting buildings are the property of the local Diocese. The Diocese maintains, restores and renovates these buildings. They are also kind enough to share these buildings with visitors to the parks, schedules permitting.
The remainder of the mission structure – some of the residences, the storage facilities, agricultural facilities, etc. – are the property of the National Park Service. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare that making any alterations, updates or improvements must be.
Founded in 1690 as San Francisco de los Tejas near present-day Weches, Texas, this was the first mission in Texas. In 1731, the mission transferred to the San Antonio River area and renamed Mission San Francisco de la Espada. A friary was built in 1745, and the church was completed in 1756.
Mission San Juan
As you can see, when we visited Mission San Juan in July 2014, it was a clear, sunny day. Quite the contrast to the dreary, wet day on which we visited Espada.
This mission includes the sanctuary (whose altar is the center image of the post header) and a residence that belongs to the Diocese and is private. As with most of the other structures that belong to the National Park Service, the remaining walls are in varying states of completeness. While the Diocese has focused on renovating, restoring and updating the parts that remain in use by the devoted, the park service stays focused on preservation of the rest of the mission in an as-is state.
Originally founded in 1716 in eastern Texas, Mission San Juan was transferred in 1731 to its present location. In 1756, the stone church, a friary, and a granary were completed. A larger church was begun, but was abandoned when half complete, the result of population decline.
Of all the missions we visited, this one captured my imagination the most. As we neared the end of our walk around the mission, Dean and I sat on one of the park benches and just listened. To the wind. To the birds. To whatever the message our spirits needed to hear. We looked at each other and spoke at nearly the same time – whatever the history of this mission, it felt serene.
Right up until the guy stomped out a cigarette by the sanctuary entrance and left the butt on the ground. Come on, people! Dean’s a smoker. He gets it – smoking spots are disappearing. If he can pick up his butts and dispose of them safely in the proper receptacle, so can you!
Yes, we picked up a complete stranger’s nasty cigarette butt and threw it away with our own trash. We do that a lot, actually. We just don’t often get to give the offending smoker the gimlet eye like we did at San Juan. I found it satisfying.
Mission San Jose
Mission San Jose is the largest and busiest mission in the San Antonio Missions NHP. It’s also the most well-preserved. The park headquarters can be found here. For those of you with a National Parks Passport, all four missions have stamps, but the main visitor’s center and gift shop is at San Jose.
Unlike Missions Espada and San Juan, most of the surrounding mission is intact. In the 1930’s the Works Progress Administration took on the challenge of restoring Mission San Jose. So, while it’s intact, it’s not quite original. An estimated 80% of the sanctuary is original, the surrounding buildings less so.
The architecture of the sanctuary makes this mission stand out. You don’t often see baroque architecture in the New World, but you’ll find it at this mission. As you tour the interior and exterior of the sanctuary, take a good look. Above you, behind you, in places you don’t expect to see something amazing. That’s where you’ll find incredible attention to detail in the carvings and artistry of the building.
Founded in 1720, the mission was named for Saint Joseph and the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, the governor of the Province of Coahuila and Texas at the time. It was built on the banks of the San Antonio river several miles to the south of the earlier mission, San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo).
Our final trip to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park brought us to Mission Concepcion. Our timing could have been better, but at least we didn’t have to suffer through a deluge like we did at Espada. We pulled up right behind a big limo, bedecked in white streamers. Obviously several someones would celebrate the rite of matrimony during our visit on July 10, 2014 (congratulations!).
The Diocese closed the sanctuary to anyone not attending or participating in the wedding, but the remainder of the grounds stayed open. Of all of the missions, Concepcion has the most complete convento. In fact, of the four churches, Concepcion is the most complete original structure. That means that the frescoes painted in the sacristy and convento survived the centuries because the structure, including the roofs, retained its integrity.
Originally founded in 1716 in what is now eastern Texas, the mission was one of six authorized by the government to serve as a buffer against the threat of French incursion into Spanish territory from Louisiana.
Developed by Franciscans and after a tenuous existence and several moves, the mission was transferred to its present site in 1731.
This handsome stone church took about 20 years to build, and was dedicated in 1755. It appears very much as it did over two centuries ago. Due to the fact that it was built directly on bedrock, it never lost its roof, or its integrity. It remains the least restored of the colonial structures within the Park.
Planning your visit to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Start your walk at Mission Espada – 10040 Espada Road, or at Mission Concepcion – 807 Mission Road. Unless you’re feeling adventurous, in which case, start at the Alamo – 300 Alamo Plaza. Word of warning – you may have to pay to park at the Alamo, but parking at any of the four missions is free (and if you’re driving a hybrid, there’s a charging station at San Jose). You can download a PDF of the trail map here: www.sanantonioriver.org. Along the way, be sure to stop by the Espada Acequia (Espada Aqueduct) to see how the missionaries got water to the fields.
Have you visited the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park? Tell me about it in the comments!