By now you've surely figured out that I have other interests
besides trail running, mountain climbing, photography, and
writing -- the focus of much of my last three years' web
journals. Since my Granny Knees preclude me from running and
racing as much as I have in the past (or completing another
journey run, darn it), you'll see an increasing number of entries
about travel, history, architecture, and other topics that
interest me. Even in the first journal during our Appalachian
Trail Adventure Run, Jim and I managed to find a bit of time to
absorb local history and culture and share some of that online.
And that's what we're doing in San Antonio between two of our
ultra races, Across the Years and Rocky Raccoon. We may as well
expand our knowledge of this magnificent country of ours as much
as we can while we're on the road, eh? Learning is fun at any
age, and we're trying to keep our brain synapses connected as we
Entrance to a whole new world at Mission
Jim's a "history buff" from Day One. Not me. I did fine in history
classes in high school and college, but it was an exercise in
memorizing facts to ace the tests -- and then I promptly forgot
not only most of the details, but also most of the important connections between
various events. Ohio history, American history, world history . . . it was just never
interesting or relevant to me until I started traveling after
By now I'm also a history buff like Jim. It's so much more fun
to learn about an event where it happened than it is to only
read about it in a book. (That's one reason parents should take
kids to lots of "educational" places when they're growing up,
instead of just "entertainment" venues.)
I must say that the old Spanish missions in San Antonio have
grabbed my attention. Not only do I love the architecture and
layouts of the various missions, but the whole history and culture
surrounding them intrigues me. I'll do my best to stick to the
facts here and try to leave out my personal feelings about the
arrogance of countries, cultures, and religions that try to impose their
beliefs on other people . . .
Oops! Sometimes it's hard not to editorialize.
SAN ANTONIO'S MISSION TRAIL
All of the information I'm presenting in this entry is from San
Antonio Missions National Historical Park brochures and
web site. This
organization is part of the National Park Service.
When I quote material from the brochures or web site, I'll put it in
Your typical tourist shot of this mission
The National Park Service maintains and preserves the mission
sites through cooperative agreements with the Archdiocese of San
Antonio and the state of Texas. The mission churches continue to
be active centers of worship in their communities and the public
is invited to attend services. Otherwise, they are available for
self-tours nearly every day of the year.
The Historical Park consists of four Spanish frontier missions
and other cultural sites that were part of a massive
colonization effort by Spain across the Southwest in the 17th,
18th, and 18th centuries. We visited all four missions, which
are strung out along the San Antonio River on the "Mission
Trail" for seven or eight miles south of downtown. Guided tour buses
are available but we drove ourselves, visiting three missions one
afternoon and the fourth on another day. You can spend hours at
each one, or zip through fairly quickly.
Map of the Mission Trail, too small to read but maybe
you can see where the missions are located.
The missions were fairly easy to find following signs and Park
Service maps. I was expecting more of a scenic corridor since
the map shows green NPS land between the three most southerly
missions, but the route is mostly on surface streets that are
rather busy and sometimes go through unattractive areas.
There is also an eight-mile hike and bike trail that connects
the missions; it is sixteen miles out and back. We didn't
run or ride on it this time but we probably will the next time
Our first stop was at the Historic Park's visitor center near
Mission San José. That was a
good plan. We picked up brochures, looked at the exhibits, and
watched a 25-minute orientation film about the missions, which
enhanced our experience at all four missions.
There are ranger-guided tours at each
location but it was faster and easier for us to go alone and at
our own pace. We picked up mission-specific brochures at each
location and read
them as we walked around . The
pamphlets have diagrams and photos that explain what you're
seeing. You can also get all this information at the downtown
Visitor Center near the Alamo. The introductory film and all the
brochures are in both English and Spanish.
I will scatter photos from the four missions throughout this
essay, then show pictures from each one separately in the next
entry so you'll have a better idea of what's special at each
WHY WERE THE MISSIONS BUILT?
The blurb at the top of this entry pretty much sums up why the
Spanish built these missions: they wanted to extend their
domination into as much of what is now the Southwest part of the
United States as they could, and when their initial dreams of
fortune faded they concentrated on spreading the Catholic faith
among the native hunter-gatherer tribes of Indians collectively known
as the Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tekens).
Spain wasn't the only country trying to colonize the American
continent. France was encroaching from Louisiana in the late
1600s. In 1690 Spain established six missions in eastern Texas
to help prevent France from getting a foothold in "their"
When they decided they needed a mission between there and the missions
in New Spain (present-day Mexico), they built San Antonio de Valero in 1718 --
later renamed the Alamo.
Current entrance to Mission San José
through the thick, protective wall
Spanish explorers already knew how fertile the San Antonio
valley was but it wasn't until the Franciscan friars noted the
large population of Coahuitecan Indians in the area that they
decided to establish several more missions along the river. In
1720 Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus founded San José
y San Miquel de Aguayo, now known simply as Mission San José.
As the missions in eastern Texas failed because of disease,
drought, and hassles with the French, three more were moved to
the San Antonio river valley in 1731. These five missions and a
presidio (fort) became the most successful concentration of
Catholic missions in North America.
The symbiotic relationship between the Spanish "invaders" and
the frontier tribe around the future San Antonio area, the Tejas
Indians, is interesting. Each culture became dependent on
the other and both apparently benefited. Although some of the natives fled
so they could retain their own culture, most welcomed the sanctuary provided by the
missions and became assimilated into the Spanish colonial society.
It wasn't long before their ancient living habits were forever altered.
The system was great for a while, but gradually became obsolete.
"The missions flourished between 1747 and 1775, despite
periodic incursions by Apache and Comanche Indians. Military
support was always inadequate; the Spanish trained the
Christianized mission Indians to defend their communities. After
70 years the need for the missions diminished due to the effects
of European diseases, acculturation, and intermarriage. By 1824
the San Antonio missions were secularized -- their lands
redistributed among the inhabitants and the churches transferred
to the secular clergy."
"The Spanish missions helped form the foundation for the city
of San Antonio. The modern San Antonio community early
recognized their significance, and since the 1920s has worked to
preserve them. Today these missions represent an almost unbroken
connection with the past. Carrying the legacy of generations of
American Indians and Hispanics, they live as active parishes."
Some of the singers preparing to enter
Mission San José to present
Even though the churches are still used today, all of the
missions on the "Trail" are protected, historic sites open to
the public. The missions are
often used for weddings, funerals, concerts, and other events. We saw
a couple in wedding finery being photographed at one of the
missions, and at another a large group of costumed singers
(above) was waiting
outside for their grand entrance to a concert they would be giving
in a few minutes.
LIFE IN A MISSION DURING ITS HEYDAY
Although the Spanish colonization of the West was exploitive,
the Franciscans reportedly governed in a gentle manner
the leaders of many other aggressive cultures throughout history. In their
church role, the friars pledged to protect the Indians as they
converted them to the Catholic faith. "They [the
Franciscans] also assisted the
Crown as explorers, cartographers, diplomats, scientific
observers, and chroniclers. But their primary task in the New
World was to aid in extending Spanish culture to whatever lands
the Crown claimed."
Life at the missions was highly regimented for the indigenous
neophytes, people newly converted to Christianity. They
pretty much forfeited their entire culture. Not only did they
have to forsake their own religious beliefs and attend mass
three times a day, they also changed their diet,
clothing, and names. They had to learn new languages (both
Spanish and Latin), take on new jobs, and pledge allegiance to
the Spanish government. Talk about culture shock!
But I have to point out
that the Coahuitecans / Tejanos apparently did this voluntarily. They were not prisoners
or slaves, although they did a lot of the physical labor. They participated in the
governance of the missions and they were given land when the missions were
secularized later on. From what I've read, it appears they were treated with
Old loom used to weave cloth at
Mission Espada (displayed in museum on site)
What else did the Indians gain from their labor, obedience to the
Crown, and indoctrination to Christianity? Food, shelter, and
protection, no small benefits at the time. They also learned valuable
vocational skills needed for economic self-sufficiency. They
worked the fields, orchards, and gardens; tended
livestock at distant ranches (the only one remaining, Rancho de
las Cabras, can be toured near Floresville, TX); mined
the quarries, forged iron, and learned stonecutting, masonry,
and carpentry skills to build the structures and
protective walls around the missions; fished and hunted;
wove and spun cloth; sewed clothing; cooked;
and made soap, candles, and pottery. They also learned to
use European firearms to protect their communities from the
Apaches and Comanches, something they had problems doing on
their own before the Franciscans arrived..
One of the legacies of the missions is the acequia
of irrigation. Water is life, and water is scarce in this part
of Texas. The Spaniards and Indians built seven gravity-flow
ditch systems with five dams and several aqueducts along the San
Antonio River for water to drink, power mill wheels, bathe in,
and irrigate crops. The Espada Aqueduct, built in 1745, still
diverts river water today. It is the oldest Spanish aqueduct in
Sign at Mission San José explaining how the
grist mill worked (+ two photos below)
THE ART AND ARCHITECTURE OF THE MISSIONS
Early missions were built of wood or adobe and had no walls.
Later, thick stone walls were built for protection against
northern Indian tribes, making the missions resemble forts.
Outside of one of the remaining walls at
Mission San José
Skilled craftsmen from Mexico taught the mission Indians how to
build the walls and buildings within each community.
As you can see from the photos in this entry and the next, the
churches and remaining structures look different at each
mission. Basic Spanish architecture was modified by frontier
conditions and what each village needed to serve its population.
Intricate Renaissance and Moorish details blend with Romanesque
forms and Gothic arches.
The extremes in the size and complexity of the churches in the
missions are shown here:
The church at Mission San Juan (a larger
one was started but never finished)
The church at Mission Espada is similar but larger and
is the oldest (1755) un-restored stone church in America.
Stately Mission San José
illustrates extraordinary Spanish colonial Baroque architecture.
It's somewhat amazing how many architectural details were
incorporated into these churches and conventos / friaries
(where the priests and missionaries lived), considering their
remote locations. Here are some of the interesting archways,
windows, and other details that I caught in pixels (and I
can get a lot more by focusing in on some of the other shots
The perspective of multiple arches is very appealing in the
convento at Mission San José:
I'll show another shot of that from farther back in the next
This photo is in a different direction from about the
same vantage point, but looking left toward the church:
The shadows also add to the perspective and repetition in the
Then there's the famous "Rose Window," also found at Mission San
José. Or is it "Rosa's
Window?" There is some mystery about both the sculptor and
significance of what is considered the best example of Spanish
Colonial ornamentation in this country:
I quote, "Folklore credits Pedro Huizar, a carpenter and
surveyor from Mexico, with carving the famous window as a
monument to his sweetheart, Rosa. Tragically, on her way from
Spain to join him, Rosa was lost at sea. Pedro then completed
the window as a declaration of enduring love."
Details of one corner of San José's
famous Rose Window
"A less colorful theory, but more likely, is that the window
was named after Saint Rose of Lima, the first saint of the New
Whatever. It really is beautiful up close and in person. I like
the romantic version best! It surprises me that more accurate
records weren't kept, however.
Now get this:
"Amid their struggle to conquer the
frontier of New Spain, the Franciscans planned extravagant
beauty for the mission churches. Colorful murals covered both
the exterior and interior of the church and the 'convento'
(priests' residence) at Missions Concepción
and San José."
Artist's rendering of the colorful church
entrance at Mission San José
in the mid-1700s
A touch of elegance (albeit gaudy) in the wilderness!
This is what the entrance to the church as San José looks like
I like subtlety, so I prefer this to the original.
That's at least as elaborate as the nearby Rose Window.
Around the corner, below the bell tower, some of the fresco work
has been replicated for modern visitors (it's apparently not original "uncovered"
The Rose Window is just to the right of all that.
MORE MYSTERY AND INTRIGUE INSIDE
There are more examples of fresco on interior walls where the
ravages of time and weather were less severe.
Two hundred fifty years later you can still see some of the
faded original frescos on walls inside the church and library at
Mission Concepción where art
conservators have been uncovering them for the last twenty years:
The mission Indians learned the art of frescoing walls and
ceilings from the Spaniards and Mexicans. Some of the designs highlighted architectural details;
others hid construction flaws.
Although some were symbolic of the Catholic faith, most were
simply decorative. Until art restorers uncovered the entire
painting below in 1988, viewers for a century or more
could see only one eye. Legend labeled it "The Eye of God" or
"All-Seeing Eye." However, the second eye, a mustache, and
goatee were revealed during the conservation work, leading
experts to conclude that the symbol was not religious but rather
a Spanish medallion. According to an NPS brochure about the
frescoes, the meaning of some of the artwork that has been
uncovered remains a mystery.
The mission art was apparently very impressive in its day,
especially considering how remote the missions were at the time.
It's a shame that so much of the art has faded into obscurity.
I'm glad some of it has been restored. I really love the arty
Renaissance appeal of these faded
Ceiling design around a bell pull, left;
fresco on a wall in the sacristy, right
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As you can tell from the photos in this entry, I am
fascinated with the history, culture, art, architecture, and details of
the churches and other mission buildings we visited. I encourage
you to see them yourself if you're ever in the area. If you have
only a couple hours, I recommend you do self-tours at both
Mission Concepción and
Mission San José. Those two
are the most complete and memorable.
Oh, and leave time for the Alamo, too! You simply can't visit
San Antonio without seeing the Alamo, which was originally a
mission, not a fort.
Next entry: photo tours of Missions Concepción,
San José, San Juan, and
Glad I wasn't born in the 1700s,
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil