I think one of the reasons San Antonio is such a great place to
visit today is the respect the residents have for their
multicultural heritage. Preservation is important here. They
haven't razed the old missions because somebody decided the land
could be used for a "higher and better use" like an apartment
building or big box store that would bring in more revenue. I
love some of those big box stores but I wouldn't quietly
acquiesce if someone wanted to destroy an historic site to build
one. I'm glad these sties are preserved as national park
Visiting San Antonio is almost like being in a
foreign country to these two Midwesterners even though we've
also lived in the West and South most of our adult lives. The
Hispanic influence is evident in every part of our country
(except maybe the Northeast), but in the Southwest the heritage
and culture is well-preserved and more obvious.
amazing to consider how diverse this country is. I love
In this entry I'll focus on what the four missions in the San
Antonio Missions Historical Park look like today and give a bit
of the history of each. You already know from the
last entry why and how the
missions were established and how the Native Americans were
assimilated into Spanish society. I also showed half the mission
photos in that entry. The new photos in this entry will be more
like a tour than an examination of the architecture and details.
Let's take a look at each mission:
MISSION SAN JOSÉ
That's a lot easier than its full name: Mission San José
y San Miguel de Aguayo!
Mission San José was the
second of five missions established in the San Antonio area in
the early 1700s. The first was Mission San Antonio de Valero (AKA the
Alamo), built in 1718. Two years later Father Margil de
Jesus, a veteran Franciscan missionary, saw the need for a
second mission in the area (mostly because of all the Coahuilatecan Indians
they could convert!) and gained the blessing of the governor
of the Province of Coahuila and Texas to found and build Mission San José.
San José became the largest and most successful of the four newer
missions along the San Antonio River, earning the distinction of
the "Queen of Missions." It was a model of mission organization
and a major social and agricultural center for the region.
We went through Mission San José first simply because it was next to
the visitor center for the Historical Park where we began our
missions tour. We were quite
impressed with its size, layout, and beauty. You can get an idea
of the arrangement of the mission from this bronze replica and
map. Each mission had one of these near its entrance:
During its peak years approximately 350 Indians lived in eighty-four
two-room "apartments" around the perimeter of the mission. Some of the Indian quarters
are open to the public.
Although the adobe-walled rooms look small to us now, they
were an improvement over the shelters in which they lived before
the mission was built.
We walked in a counter-clockwise direction at this (and the
other) missions. In the next photo you can see more of the
Indian quarters to the right:
If you look toward the far end of the mission complex (below)
you can see the magnificent church building that was constructed
from approximately 1768 to 1782 and restored in the early 20th
century. In the foreground is the foundation of one of the
workshops that used to stand here:
This limestone church is considered to be an extraordinary
example of Spanish colonial Baroque architecture. It replaced
the original church that served the community when the mission
was established sixty or seventy years earlier.
The lower arched building to the right of the church is the convento, housing for the Franciscan
missionaries, and their visitors. Although small and Spartan,
they were probably better digs for the Spaniards than where the
I showed a couple photos of the beautiful arches in the
last entry. I also love this view as you enter
Visitors are routed past this neat little window . . .
. . . and this wall . . .
. . . to the back side of the mission.
A grist mill that was operational in the late 1790s to early
1800s stands behind the convento and church, outside the massive stone wall
that served as a defense. I showed photos of the grist mill and
talked about the acequia system of irrigation in the
The thick walls surrounding the large
site make the mission look like a fortress. I'll show this photo
again because it includes one end of the large granary (right
side of photo) built in
1755. It was also restored in the 1920s and '30s when the church
Each mission was surrounded by large, productive fields and
pastures. The granary was used to store corn, wheat, and other
grains that were grown here.
Next we checked out the entrance to the church, which is on the
far side of the building (through the opening in the wall in the photo above):
That's the side of the church with the colorful motifs painted
on it "back in the day." (See
if you missed those photos.)
There were more people coming and going at this church than the
other three we visited. Here folks greet the Franciscan priest (friar?) at
The sanctuary was full of people waiting for an all-women's
choir to come in for a musical presentation but we were able to
get a sneak peak inside before their arrival:
I mentioned previously that all four mission churches are still
used for services, weddings, funerals, and other events. Here's
a different photo than the one shown previously of the choir
waiting outside the church before their concert:
You're probably wondering if I'm going to show you this many
photos from each of the other three missions! Nope. San José
has more remaining structures than the other missions, the
architecture and details are more elaborate, and there was just
more stuff to photograph. It was also the first
mission of the bunch that we toured, so I may have taken more
pictures at San José for that reason, too. (If you have more
than one child, you know what I'm talking about!). Mission Concepción has lots of
things to photograph, too, but I already showed you most of
those pictures (primarily the frescos) in the last entry.
These four sites are all very different in appearance, both now
and back in their heydays. Let's go see the two less-elaborate
ones next, and I'll finish up with the elegant Mission
MISSION SAN JUAN
As with the other missions, this one has a longer formal name:
Mission San Juan Capistrano.
But that wasn't its original name. The mission began in the
woods in eastern Texas back in 1716 as Mission San Juan de los
Nazonis, where it served the Nazonis Indians. The mission was
not successful, so everything that could be moved was
transported to the San Antonio River in 1731 and reestablished
as San Juan Capistrano.
Original church built in the 1730s
Close-up of the espadaña
Interior of the small church, which is still used by
ancestors of the
people who lived at Mission San Juan in the
There were still adversities in the new location (epidemics,
drought, aggressive Apaches and Comanches), but the mission
persevered and grew to include over 200 Coahuitecan Indians by
1762. Many of the buildings are in ruins or gone now. At its
height, the mission had a granary, textile shops, and adobe
houses for the Indians.
About all that remains now are the original church, the
foundation for a newer church that was never finished (not
enough Indian labor), and a convento for the Franciscans:
Foundation for church that was begun in
1772 and halted in 1786
Part of the old convento (friary) at San
This mission usually enjoyed a surplus of food because of its
fertile lands in the river's flood plain. Acequias also provided
a reliable supply of water. The Indians raised corn, beans,
chilies, melons, cotton, sugar cane, and squash. Surplus produce
and cattle were traded with the other Spanish missions and
settlements in the area, with Mexico, and probably with French
settlements in Louisiana. That agricultural legacy in this area
Of course there's a longer version of the name: Mission
San Francisco de la Espada ("Mission Saint Francis of the
Sword"). I'm surprised it's not nicknamed Mission San Francisco
but maybe there's another one of those somewhere.
Like several other Spanish missions (there were six in all), Espada was originally
founded in east Texas as a buffer against
French encroachment from Louisiana, ran into too many problems
there (diseases, floods, fires, enemies, and limited supplies),
and was relocated farther west.
It was the oldest of the missions, begun in 1690 as San
Francisco de los Tejas. It was reestablished at its present
location along the San Antonio River in 1731. It is the
southernmost of the missions here, although not as remote now as it
must have seemed in the 18th century.
I mentioned in the last entry about all the building (and other)
skills that were taught to the Indians living at the missions.
Espada is the only one of these missions where the Indians made
bricks and tiles. Some of those bricks are still in evidence
Some people say that the unusual broken arch over the church
doorway is a builder's mistake but the inversion of the expected
line could well have been intentional:
This mission apparently wasn't as successful economically or
socially as the others. By 1794, when the mission was
secularized, it was impoverished. There were only fifteen
families left. Each was given land but they had to share the
remaining equipment and supplies. An inventory showed eight
yokes of oxen, one cow, one calf, four horses, three mules, lots
of sheep (1,150), two looms, a few spinning wheels, one pair of
shears per family, three pounds of steel, 98 pounds of lead, two
cannons, 25 pounds of iron, and 875 pounds of wood!
"In 1826, a band of Comanches raided the cornfields and
killed livestock. The same year, a kitchen fire destroyed most
of the buildings; the chapel survived. Yet, people continued to
make their home here." (from the National Park Service
web site for the missions
The church continues today to serve this small community.
Mission descendants still worship here as did their ancestors
centuries ago. Franciscans still wear their simple brown habits
and live in the convento attached to the left side
of the church:
Talk about tradition! How common is such continuity in
our rather young country? This is much more like European and
other cultures that have survived for millennia and not just a
few centuries. I don't have anything (well, not a lot)
against progress, but it's nice to keep some traditions going,
too. That's what I was talking about at the beginning of this
entry -- one of the reasons San Antonio appeals to me so much --
the respect for history.
The mission of Nuestra Señora
de la Purisima Concepción de
Acuña is the third of
six missions from east Texas that was transferred to the San
Antonio River Valley in 1731 (busy year for those Spaniards!).
It was named in honor of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
and Juan de Acuña, who was
the Marqués de Casafuerte
(Viceroy of New Spain AKA Mexico) when the mission was moved.
Two people, long name.
Artist's conception of Concepción
at its peak. Note the quarry in the right foreground.
Jim and I were "missioned out" after seeing the first three
missions in one afternoon, so we saved this one for another day.
I'm glad, because I appreciated it all the more.
the mission closest to the downtown San Antonio area
I haven't read how many Indians lived here at the mission's
peak, but it must have been a lot from the size of the site and
the church. Although fewer walls and buildings remain here than
at Mission San José, the church
is in better shape and even more impressive to me. This is the
one I mentioned in the last entry that is reportedly the oldest
un-restored stone church in America.
The beautiful Baroque church looks much like it did when it was
dedicated in 1755, although the colorful
geometric designs on the exterior walls have
disappeared after weathering for over 250 years. One reason for
the church's integrity is the fact that it was built on bedrock
and hasn't settled. It is the least restored building of any in
the Missions Historical Park. See the same link as above, and my
previous entry, for
photos of the beautiful interior frescos that have been
uncovered in recent years in four of the church and convento
rooms. Those are also fairly well preserved over time because of
the structures' integrity (i.e., the roofs didn't leak or fall
Bottom line: build on bedrock!! (metaphor for life?)
Deteriorated walls of the school are in the
foreground, but the church is in good shape.
The next photo toward the front of the church shows the large
twin bell towers, gothic arches, Romanesque forms, and
mostly-intact convento area (on the right):
There isn't as much to see on the outside of this mission site, so
let's go in the front door of the church:
The interior of the sanctuary in the cross-shaped church is
similar to the one at San José. This room is reported to have great
acoustics. The roof is vaulted with a dome and has a series of
arches that I was only partially successful in capturing with my
The sanctuary has a wonderful feeling of light and space.
Recent research indicates that the windows in the ceiling were
probably placed deliberately to illuminate the altars on specific feast
days. Mission Concepción was
the residence of the Father President, the Franciscan
missionary who was the local administrator or field coordinator
for all the missions in the area, so more meetings and religious festivals
were likely held at this site.
We enjoyed wandering throughout the church offices and other
rooms to the right of the sanctuary. This is where the frescos
are located that I showed in the
last entry. Go back and
see those if you missed them. They're worth paying admission to
see (but all the missions are FREE to tour).
FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT THE MISSIONS
To see more photos of the missions and read more about each one,
go to the National Park Service
click on "Plan Your Visit" in the menu on the left-hand side,
then click on "Things To Do." It took me a little while to find
those pages, but otherwise the site is pretty easy to navigate.
Life at the missions was pretty good for the Indians
despite what may appear as exploitation to us in this day of
political correctness. Without the
missions, the Tejanos faced famine, hostile tribes to the north,
epidemics from European diseases, and possible extinction. Although some of
them chose to return to their old life, most accepted
Catholicism and became active participants in Spanish society.
It is estimated that over 2,000 Indians were baptized at Mission
San José alone in the 104
years it operated as a mission.
Possible ancestors of mission inhabitants?
(women in the chorale group at
Mission San José on 1-27-08)
Many people who live in San Antonio today are direct descendents
of the Spaniards and Indians who founded the mission
communities. Those of mixed race are called "Mestizos." In
addition to the settlers who came directly from Spain, there
were also many native Mexicans and people from other parts of
North America and Europe who settled in this area in the 18th and
19th centuries. They have all
added to the race and cultural mix that is modern San Antonio.
I'm glad so much of the mission culture has been preserved.
Whether you're deeply religious, an atheist, or somewhere in
between, there is much to enjoy and appreciate when visiting
Next entry: much more than a fort -- the famous Alamo
Another cultural mutt (aren't we all?),
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil