Travel: Exploring the San Antonio Missions
Missions in East Texas were established as early as the 15th Century by religious Spaniards. Friars formed communities in order to convert the local Native Americans to Catholicism and to make them into Spanish citizens. The religious leaders would train the Native Americans in vocational skills and teach them the Catholic faith, with the intent of creating a colony that could operate and thrive in a similar manner to the Spanish villages. The San Antonio missions were relocated along the San Antonio River from East Texas during the 18th century. Although most were eventually secularized, some mission churches are still active parishes and hold Mass regularly.
Most people are familiar with the Alamo and its history. In 1836 during the Texas Revolution, the Mexican Army, led by President Santa Anna, defeated – and killed – all of the defenders of the mission. Although this battle lasted mere minutes, it impacted the Revolution greatly. The Alamo is located just off of the famed San Antonio Riverwalk and is by far the most visited mission. The grounds of the Alamo are very tourist friendly, with plaques describing the detailed events of the siege and ultimate collapse of the Alamo, and ropes guiding visitors through the displays. There is even a photographer staged at the front to take a picture of the visitors before they enter the building.
In addition to the Alamo, there are four other missions in the San Antonio area: Mission Espada, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Concepción, and Mission San José. These are less popular than the Alamo, and if visited in the early morning it is likely no other visitors will even be on the grounds. All are located along a 10 mile pedestrian only trail, the Mission Riverwalk Hike & Bike Trail, and operated by the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. From the southernmost mission (Espada) to the northernmost (Concepción) is about 6.5 miles, or a 15-minute drive up Mission Road. Admission to all San Antonio missions is free, and most allow photography inside (The Alamo does not). The missions that are still active parishes request silence and respect upon entering the churches.
Founded in 1690, Mission Espada was the first mission established in Spanish Texas. After three years of hardships and an epidemic that killed half of the population, the missionaries eventually left the area, burying the mission bell and burning the church down. Mission Espada was reestablished more than 20 years later, and moved to its present location in 1731. In its current location, a friary and a church were added to the grounds.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was also relocated to San Antonio in 1731. In addition to building a chapel in its new location, stone buildings and houses were also constructed. Because the mission grew crops and raised livestock, it was fully self-sufficient. Mission San Juan provided for several other missions and surrounding colonies, and even traded with other communities nearby. Despite being raided frequently, the mission survived for more than 60 years before it was secularized.
Originally established in East Texas 1716, Mission Concepción had a brief stint in present-day Austin before settling permanently in San Antonio in 1731. The current church was finished in 1755, and to this day is the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. Several of the rooms contain original art, called Frescos, and designs are still visible on the stone walls.
Mission San José was built in 1720 out of necessity when nearby missions closed in and the inhabitants crowded into other missions. Mission San José was the largest mission in the area. In addition to a church, the mission was also comprised of guest rooms, offices, a dining room, a pantry, and a heavy outer wall comprised of limestone rooms to house over 300 Native Americans. When completed, the exterior of the church was covered in a colorful geometric pattern that has all but faded today, with a few visible spots left.
These missions play a huge part in Texas history. Battles were fought, skills were taught, and lives were impacted through the Friar missionaries. The churches and other stone buildings are some of the earliest in American history; their art work and architecture are striking. The four missions along the trail can easily all be seen in a few hours, but the Alamo will take longer, as there is more information readily available at the site. Whether a history buff or not, when traveling through the San Antonio area these missions are a must-see.
For more information, visit nps.gov.