We have settled in San Antonio for a couple of weeks, to recharge and see some of this charming city, so steeped in history. As far back as 1691 a group of Spanish explorers and missionaries named the Native American settlement and river they saw San Antonio, after St. Anthony of Padua. From that small settlement, it has grown to be the second largest city in Texas today, behind Houston, and has a population of 1.3 million. This city is famous for many things, one being the Spanish missions, which I will focus on for this post.
We had not realized until arriving in San Antonio that there were so many missions here, the reason for their existence, nor the fact that the Alamo was part of this grouping of missions.
The chain of six missions that were established in San Antonio in the 1700’s was one of Spain’s most successful attempts to extend her dominance northward from “New Spain” (present day Mexico), as well as convert the native population. This collection of sanctuaries, established by Franciscan missionaries, is the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America. Five have survived and four are still active parishes and are a part of San Antonio Missions Historical Park.
Mission San Antonio de Valero (now known as the Alamo) was constructed initially in 1718 , serving as home to missionaries and their Indian converts until 1794, when they were driven out due to continuous attacks by the Comanche and Apache. The Spanish cavalry arrived from Mexico in 1803 to occupy the mission and changed the name to Mission del Alamo del Parras, or what we know today simply as the Alamo.
Where this mission originally stood and where it stands today are very different. Much of the original mission has now been incorporated into downtown San Antonio and the land where the Alamo now stands has been expanded upon, to include some lovely gardens and research facilities. We were surprised to see how small the remaining shrine is as we had envisioned it to be of a much grander scale.
An oak tree, dating back 140 years, still stands on the grounds, with its base measuring 12 feet in circumference and its longest branch measuring 50 feet, quite a specimen!
We found the story of the Alamo to be fascinating and we had certainly learned some of this history while in school, although along the way much of the details had been lost to both of us.
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, founded in 1720, second behind the Alamo, was considered the strongest of the missions and was a major social center. Given her grand design, bastions, and magnificent church, she was referred to as the “Queen of the Missions” and was the model for those to follow. Of all the missions, San José provided the greatest protection against raiding Indians.
Since there is a visitor center on site, we took the tour of the mission offered by the Park Service, which was very informative.
The courtyard of the church, which is still an active parish today, is lovely, and reflects both a Moorish influence in its rounded archways and a Gothic design in its pointed interior archways.
The restoration work that was done in the interior of the church focused on recreating the colors that existed during the mission’s operation. The back altar, brought from Mexico, is quite beautiful.
The facade of the church, particularly the archway and statues over the church doorway, is presently under restoration and is quite ornate.
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña (known simply as Mission Concepción), built in 1731, is thought by many to be one of the most beautiful of the missions, and looks essentially as it did almost three centuries ago. It was well-known for its religious celebrations and its extensive artwork painted on the walls in many of the buildings.
The interior of the church is beautiful in its simplicity. It is an active parish still today and is the oldest, un-restored church in America.
Experts continue to uncover some of the original frescoes that adorned the convento walls and ceiling, which contain a blending of Christian, Spanish, and Native art elements.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was originally San José de los Nazonis in east Texas and in 1731 was moved to its permanent home in San Antonio. Given its fertile farmland and pasture, it soon became the regional supplier of produce and allowed this mission to be self-sustainable. The chapel and bell tower are still in use today and many of the parishioners can trace their roots back to the original inhabitants. The church is closed to visitors at this time for major renovation.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada (Saint Francis of the Sword) also had its beginnings in east Texas and was moved to San Antonio in 1731. In order to build a strong economy, the missionaries taught mission Indians vocations. Espada was the only mission that made bricks, which can be evidenced in her bell tower.
Having the most simplicity of all the mission chapels, when I stepped inside Espada’s chapel the serenity there compelled me to envision her congregation today participating in a mass.
This mission contains the best preserved section of the acequia (irrigation system) that was used to bring water to the fields. Today part of this acequia operates the Espada aqueduct and dam.
The missions here are a treasured slice of Texas history, well-preserved, and still operational today through the active parishes.