Episode 62 – Missions: Accomplished

Caption: brass rubbing of the 4 San Antonio Missions south of downtown. The 5th Mission (Misión San Antonio de Valero) is now referred to as The Alamo, and is a major tourist destination right in the centre of San Antonio, separate from the Missions National Historic Park.

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.

Top: remnants of the original decoration in the rooms of a side wing still open with interpretive signs. Bottom: the church exterior showing the scaffolding around the domed roof.

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.

Left: San Jose’s church, with the attached arched “convento”. You can see the Moorish design influences in the dome and the arches. Right: The ornately sculpted main entrance to the church, with Mary (wearing her crown, depicted as the queen of heaven) over the upper rose window. You’ll have to imagine the stonework as it originally looked: plastered in bright white and decorated in blue, pink, and yellow.
Caption: Top left: Detail from the stone carving to the right of the front door, showing Saint Anne (Mary’s mother) holding Mary. Bottom left: The robins egg blue and gold leaf sacristy with crucifix, and saints in niches. The door on the upper right is where the priest can enter to address or bless the congregation when not standing behind the altar at mass. Right: A single original section of the exterior plasterwork. The design would have been made using rule and compass, by natives trained by the monks, and etched into the wet plaster before being painted. You can see faint traces of the blue, pink, and yellow pigments that were used.
Top: One of several wells in the Mission. This one has stairs to allow someone to climb to the level of the winch that would have raised and lowered a pail into the water. Bottom left: Interior of the mission’s mill, which was driven by river water diverted from the river by a series of aquecias (ditches) and dams. Bottom right: Homes of the Mission’s inhabitants, built into the fortification walls erected to protect against raids. Before the walls were built, families had individual houses arranged in “streets” within the Mission.

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.

The smaller Mission churches, and The Alamo, all feature iconic “Mission bells” which have become a popular decorative feature all around San Antonio, both as actual bells on plazas and restaurants, and as images on tee shirts and bags. Mission San Juan’s bells still call worshippers to twice weekly mass.

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.

Top left: the stone wall and gardens outside the rectory, which is still inhabited by the clergy who work in the church. Top right: the sanctuary with its simple altar. Saint Francis (San Francisco) has the central place of honour, with Christ on the left and the Virgin Mary on the right. Bottom: Mission San Francisco’s bells.

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.

Top: Beside The Alamo in the Cavalry Courtyard are statues of the battle’s heroes, added to in 2019. L to R: Davey Crockett, Susanna and Angelina Dickinson (who were freed after the battle to “spread the story”), and James Bowie. Bottom: The Alamo’s facade.

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.

Left: Engraved around all 3 sides of the plinth are the names of the Alamo defenders. The verse on the north side reads: “Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas. They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas”. Right: On the monument’s south side under the depiction of a rising spirit is a huge carved feather under the words: “From the fire that burned their bodies rose the eternal spirit of sublime heroic sacrifice which gave birth to an empire state”.

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?


  1. Omg! It must have been French!

    Loved the missions. Words and images How amazing to see the statues at the Alamo. So familiar… and yet, not. I’ve always loved the word Capistrano! I did not know st. Anne was Mary’s mother. Again and again, thank you. Just read the reference the other day of travelling with someone.



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