It’s taken us a while, but we’ve finally walked around all of the San Antonio Missions, and have some pictures and a bit of new (to us) history to share.
The Missions are the reason San Antonio exists. Had they not laid the foundation for successful Spanish-founded communities along the San Antonio River, the city as it exists today might be very different, both in location and culture.
From what we learned through the film and exhibits at the Missions Visitor Center, prior to the 1700’s, this entire area was inhabited by small tribes of hunter-gatherers, speaking many different languages, celebrating their beliefs in many different ways, and interacting largely only through disputes over hunting lands. The land itself was much different than it is 300 years later; the rivers flowed year round, and what is now southern Texas was largely lush grassland. The original tribes’ (mostly) peaceful existence was disrupted first by smallpox, even before large numbers of the the Spaniards themselves arrived (from the south), and then by the warrior Apache, on horseback and armed with European weapons (from the north). Even though the Spaniards were after land to claim for their King, the Missions their Franciscan monks established must have seemed like the safer option. All that was needed to become part of a well-defended community was (1) a pledge of allegiance to the Spanish king, (2) conversion to Christianity, and (3) a willingness to work. Whether or not numbers 1 and 2 were done sincerely or not at the time, Catholicism and the Spanish language have both flourished here, as well as a unique mixture of the native and Spanish people referred to as “Tejanos” (similar to the Métis in western Canada).
As far as work, the native peoples traded hunting and gathering for stonemasonry, farming, irrigation channel (aquecia) building, European-style fine cloth weaving, and ranching. After about 80 years, when the Spanish left, the Missions were turned over to the native peoples to maintain, with a small group of Franciscans in each to continue holding masses.
Although they were originally intended simply as communities, each of the Missions was eventually fortified, both against the Apache and against Mexico who, once the Spanish were gone, fought to claim and keep the area that is now Texas.
The 4 Missions that today form the Missions National Park are, from north to south, Mission Concepción, Mission San José , Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.
Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña dates to 1731 and is the best preserved of the Missions, as well as being the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. The exterior of this church, like the other Mission churches, was once plastered and colourfully painted. The exterior decoration has not survived, but interior frescoes have. Sadly, we could not go inside because the church roof is being repaired, which will not be completed until after we leave Texas.
Misión San José y San Miguel de Aguayo is celebrating its tricentennial this year (1720-2020). It was the largest of the Missions and the oldest originally in this area.
Misión San Juan Capistrano, like Mission Concepcion, was founded here in 1731. The church is considerably smaller than either San Jose or Concepcion, and there is nothing left of the homes (with the exception of the monks’ quarters) but the stone ruins of foundations and partial walls. The exterior of the church does have its white plaster coating, making it unique among the Missions, although there is no evidence of its original coloration.
Misión San Francisco de la Espada again dates to 1731 in this location. All 3 of the 1731 Missions were communities originally established elsewhere and moved here in that year.
Misión San Antonio de Valero, “The Alamo”. The most famous of the Missions because of the historic battle fought there, but its church is no longer usable, having been fully converted to a military garrison in the 1850’s. The site remains a place of pilgrimage for the fiercely independent Texans, who one sometimes feels are still reluctant members of the United States. Inside what was the church are interpretive displays, and the flags of the countries from which those who lived there emigrated.
In the main park is the 60 foot tall Alamo Cenotaph, erected in 1939, called “The Spirit of Sacrifice”. It is truly impressive, made of grey Georgia marble on a base of pink Texas granite. According to tradition, the Alamo Cenotaph marks the spot where the slain defenders of the fortified Mission were piled after the battle and burned in great funeral pyres. Their remains were later collected by local citizens and today are located in a marble casket at nearby San Fernando Cathedral.
In total, the Spanish established 26 missions in Texas, 21 in California, 24 in Arizona and the Sonoran Desert, and 20 in New Mexico. Visiting all of them would be a whole winter’s themed road trip all its own. This winter we crossed 6 off the list. Who knows what future years might hold?