In the year 1718, Ben Franklin was a fledging 12 year old boy growing up in Boston and knew very little about American colonist's plight with England's Crown. That same year, two of the new World's oldest cities were founded, New Orleans (by the French) and San Antonio (by the Spanish). Relative to the later, it was also the year that construction began on Mission of San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo.
Fourteen years later, the second and larger Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña was moved into it's new building in San Antonio, shortly before construction began on the Queen of all New World mission at the time, Mission San José y San Miguel de Agua.
It was the beginning of Spanish exploration into new territories of North America, and symbolized Spain's intent to dominate cultural and governing dominance in the New World, an effort that hardly ended with the construction of Mission San Jose.
It all started in Texas in the year 1632 when Spanish friars traveled north from Mexico into the area and constructed dozens of missions and presidios, or military forts). The goal of the Franciscan friars was to spread the Catholic faith by converting the native Indians. The missions were supported by the Spanish colonial government, which saw them as a means of spreading Spanish influence and claiming territory.
Many of the missions, especially in the south and eastern portions of Texas, grew into thriving settlements that formed the basis of some of the state’s most important cities, but nowhere more so than in San Antonio de Bexar, the cradle of Spanish domination in Texas and later, the shrine city of the fight for Texas Independence at the Alamo.
So many missions were constructed in the vicinity of San Antonio that many mission locations have been lost and forgotten. Even so, the remaining Missions of San Antonio represent what is arguably the Spanish mission capital of America. The Old Spanish Missions of San Antonio in modern times are represented by a chain of five colonial era compounds located in a southern line from the center of downtown San Antonio to the southern edge of the city.
Four of the five original missions still function as active Catholic parish Churches. They serve both a stable population of parish members as well as many visitors who attend worship services. These are Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan and Espada. They are operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio as the Old Spanish Missions, Inc., an umbrella non-profit organization to provide for their care. The Archbishop of San Antonio appoints the Director of the Old Spanish Missions, who is responsible for the maintenance and restoration of the mission churches.
San Antonio de Valero, known as the Alamo, is owned by the State of Texas and operated by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. It does not function as an active parish church and is not part of the Old Spanish Missions corporation. But added to the other Missions of the city, it offers travelers and visitors an excellent opportunity to explore the history of Spanish involvement and impact on the New World.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a good place to start if you are interested in visiting these remarkable historical landmarks. The missions, along with the Alamo, have been named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO).
The park’s Visitor’s Center is in Mission San José, where you can view the film Gente de Razon, which tells the story of life in the missions during the 1700s. The film is shown every 30 minutes. Mission San José also has a museum and bookstore. All four mission churches still have active Catholic parishes that hold regular services. The churches are open to visitors during regular park hours.
As a bonus now you can explore the Missions along the River Walk’s new Mission Reach. The Mission Reach is an eight mile stretch with recreational trails, picnic and seating areas, pedestrian bridges, pavilions and portals to four Spanish colonial missions—Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada. End your journey with a trip to the Alamo in downtown.
Here is a rundown of the four historic missions and a look at the history of the Alamo.
Mission San José
San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, the “Queen of the Missions,” is the largest mission in San Antonio, established in 1720 and completed in 1782. Spanish designers, directing workers from the local Coahuiltecan tribe, built the mission using Texas limestone and brightly colored stucco. At its height, it provided sanctuary and a social and cultural community for more than 300 Indians, and was surrounded by acres of fields and livestock herds. The mission had its own gristmill and granary, which have been preserved.
In 1874, San José’s church dome and roof collapsed. In 1928, the church tower collapsed. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) almost fully restored Mission San José to its original design in the 1930s.
When visiting the church, look for flying buttresses, carvings, quatrefoil patterns, polychromatic plaster and the famed “Rose Window,” a superb example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation that was sculpted around 1775. Explore the stairway that leads to the belfry and choir loft; all 25 risers were hand-hewn from a single log and assembled without the use of nails or pegs.
The beautiful church at Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña looks much like it did in 1755 when it was first dedicated. Interior renovations in 2010 returned the church’s interior walls to the rich colors of 255 years earlier. The church’s exterior was originally decorated with geometric designs painted on the façade and iron crosses and weather vanes were placed atop the two towers. The exterior paintings have faded, but inside you can still see original frescos in some of the rooms. The church stands as the oldest unrestored stone church in the U.S.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
storypicb_mission-san-juan.jpgMission San Juan was established in San Antonio in 1731. The church, priest’s quarters and granary were completed in 1756. The mission’s fertile farmlands allowed for a self-sustainable community, and its surplus helped supply the region with produce. The chapel and bell tower are still in use. Note the typical Romanesque archway at the entrance gate and the remains of a half-completed, more elaborate church that was begun in 1772 and abandoned in 1786 when the mission’s population declined. Guests can also tour a self-guided nature trail that leads to the river.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada, the southernmost of the four in the park, contains the best-preserved segment of the acequia (irrigation system) that was used to bring water to the fields. Today, part of the acequia operates the Espada aqueduct and dam. Also noteworthy are an unusual door and stone archway.
The mission was established in San Antonio in 1731. The priest’s residence was completed in 1745 and the church in 1756. Inside the mission compound were a blacksmith shop, kiln for baking brick, and workrooms with looms and spinning wheels. Corn, beans, melons, pumpkins and cotton were grown in the irrigated fields adjacent to the mission.
According to History.com, Spanish settlers built the Mission San Antonio de Valero on the banks of the San Antonio River. The year was 1718. In addition, they also established the nearby military garrison of San Antonio de Béxar, which soon became the center of a settlement that would later be known as San Antonio. The Mission San Antonio de Valero housed missionaries and Native American converts for nearly a century the late 1700s when Spanish authorities secularized the five missions located there.
In the early 1800s, Spanish military troops were stationed in the abandoned chapel of the former mission. Because it stood in a grove of cottonwood trees, the soldiers called their new fort “El Alamo” after the Spanish word for cottonwood and in honor of Alamo de Parras, their hometown in Mexico. Military troops–first Spanish, then rebel and later Mexican–occupied the Alamo during and after Mexico’s successful war for independence from Spain in the early 1820s. In the summer of 1821, Stephen Austin arrived in San Antonio along with some 300 U.S. families that the Spanish government had allowed to settle in Texas. The migration of U.S. citizens to Texas increased over the next decades, sparking a revolutionary movement that would erupt into armed conflict by the mid-1830s.
It was then the Texians began to exercise their desire for independence, resulting eventually in the articles of independence drafted at Washington-on-the-Brazos, signaling the start to a conflict that would lead to the historic battle of the Alamo. Greatly outnumbered, defenders of the Alamo fell to a large Mexican Army, but a few months later the Texians routed that Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, winning the day and the New Republic's independence.