If I ever hear anyone say “Oh if you’ve seen one Spanish mission, you’ve seen them all,” I might have to have words with that person. Because nothing could be further from the truth.
San Antonio is rich in Spanish history and features five missions of historical note: The Alamo, which is in the center of town and easy to get to, and four missions along what is called “The Mission Trail” that is part of the National Historical Park system. The Alamo is worthy of its own post, so I’ll save that for another day. Today, I’d like to discuss the value of visiting the other four missions.
The missions were built in the late 1600s-early 1700s for the purpose of a land grab: If Spain could recruit natives to become members of the Catholic Church and citizens of Spain, it could stake its claim on the region. Because the Apaches and Commanches were hostile toward them, the missionaries focused their attention on the Coahuiltecans, a nomadic and peaceful tribe of hunter-gatherers. The missionaries taught them skills in farming, blacksmithing, ranching, textile weaving, etc. Descendants of the Coahuiltecans still make up a good share of the population of San Antonio. So the history of the Spanish missions is still very relevant to the culture of San Antonio today.
There are three primary ways to see all four missions along the Mission Trail:
- Drive yourself if you have access to a car;
- Rent a bicycle and take the Hike and Bike Trail; or
- Take Historic Texas Tours’ Mission Trail Tour*.
If you go to the missions on your own, I recommend taking advantage of the free docent tours at each mission. Otherwise, if you want expert guides to give you the history of the missions, Historic Texas Tours is the only tour company in San Antonio that goes to all four missions. Other tour companies only visit two (San Jose and Concepcion), which are also the two that are accessible by the sightseeing trolley or public bus. But it would really be a shame if you didn’t visit all four.
I didn’t want to rent a car, and I didn’t trust my stamina (or navigational abilities) to go the bike route (no way in hell would I try walking it). So I booked a tour with Historic Texas Tours. My guide, Don Hays, is a local and was a wealth of historical knowledge about the missions. I won’t steal his thunder by repeating everything I learned on my tour, but I wanted to share some photos and tidbits of information to show you just how each mission is unique and worthy of a visit on its own.
Location: 807 Mission Road
Full name: Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña
Mission Concepcion is in remarkably good shape. It has never lost its roof due to weather or age, so it still features some amazing frescoes inside. Like the other missions, it is still an active church with regular services.
Some parents still choose to follow tradition by having their babies baptized in a baptismal basin built into the original stone walls.
My favorite fresco was called “The Eye of God,” because of the story attached to it: The priest painted it there to scare the altar boys, since this was the room where the sacramental wine was stored and he wanted them to know God was always watching them so they wouldn’t try to sneak some wine for themselves. Oh, those clever priests.
Mission San Jose
Location: 6701 San José Drive. The visitor center is located at this mission.
Full Name: Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo
Mission San Jose is in the best shape of the four missions, as it was fully restored by the WPA in the 1930s. Of all the missions, this one gives the best idea of what life must have been like in these communities when they were at their peak. Picture 300-400 people living within these walls, along with livestock, and the courtyard filled with outhouses, storage buildings, etc. There was a grist mill on site (still there). There were outdoor fire pits (see image) where people did much of their cooking. They could roast pigs or turkeys in the oven and make tortillas on the top of it, smearing grease to keep the flour from sticking.
Each corner of the mission wall had a round room with lookout holes. There were always three guards on duty here at any time: one to walk the wall, one who would sleep, and one to maintain the weapons room. (And you thought your job was boring.)
One of the great architectural features of Mission San Jose is its famous Rose window. (This design has been adopted in the city’s logo as well as windows at the Rivercenter Mall and probably countless other places.) While no one can be certain why it was called the Rose window, the popular speculation is that the builder named it for his true love, Rose, who tragically died before they could marry.
Don showed me the bullet holes on the wall of the church where some of Teddy Roosevelt’s naughty Rough Riders used the church as target practice. Later, as President, Roosevelt established the National Park system to preserve such historic national treasures. Clearly, these missions need protecting, as you can see from the multiple scrawls of graffiti carved in the walls in the image below.
And in case you’re wondering, the interior of the church is gorgeous–and has great acoustics.
Mission San Juan
Location: 9101 Graf Road
Full name: Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan was undergoing structural renovations when I visited. For this reason, we couldn’t go inside. (Renovations are done now.) This mission has a much different design and structure than the others. We walked around the grounds to the ruins of a second, unfinished mission. The site also includes a nature trail (I had lunch plans, so we skipped that).
Apparently, there are plans to create a Spanish Colonial Demonstration Farm at San Juan, to showcase colonial irrigation methods and what the farmers would have raised for crops here (sugar cane, corns, beans, squash and fruit and pecan trees). I think that will be very interesting for visitors.
Don told me a story about the cactus at the foot of the cross. I don’t know if it’s true or a tall tale told by a Texan, but it made a great story nonetheless. I’m not going to steal Don’s thunder by repeating the story here, but suffice it to say it was a great example of creative problem-solving by a very clever priest.
Location: 10040 Espada Road
Full name: Mission San Francisco de la Espada
Of the four missions along the Mission Trail, Mission Espada was the one most closely resembling the kind of church I would want to go to if I were religious. It’s run by Franciscan brothers who live in an adjoining residence. They feed the birds and squirrels, grow flowers, blow glass, and maintain the church, among other things. It felt very down-to-earth and homey to me–especially since the mission was still decorated for Christmas a month after the holiday.
The ceiling beams within the church are made of railroad ties. Don told me that there was an incident years ago when the railroad ties started to leak creosote and one of the painted statues was “ruined”. They soaked it to get the creosote off, and in the process, the paint came off too. Much to their surprise, they saw that beneath the paint was gold leaf. Someone had been trying to hide this valuable statue “in plain sight”.
For those of you who aren’t Catholics, the Franciscans take their name from St. Francis of Assisi, who loved animals. Every day on Feast Day, parishioners bring their pets to the church to be blessed. (Perhaps other churches do this as well? I’m not Catholic, so I don’t know.) As an animal lover, I loved that idea. I stood inside the small church and imagined the chaos of dozens of dogs and cats and birds and gerbils waiting for the priests’ blessing. It definitely put a smile on my face.
I hope this gives you a sense of the individuality of the four missions along the Mission Trail. They each come with their own unique histories and stories to tell. At the end of the day, it pays to remember they’re not just about history; they’re active churches with parishioners, some of whom are descendants of the original Coahuiltecans from the missions. They’re still a focal point to their communities the way they were 300 or so years ago.They’re a form of living history.
I’m very excited that the missions of San Antonio (including the Alamo) have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s a long, uphill climb to obtain this status, and a decision won’t be made for another couple of years. But in my opinion, these missions are certainly worthy.
*TIP for booking Historic Texas Tours: Since they reserve the right to cancel if they don’t have four people signed up for the tour, try looking for a tour time where there are already at least 3 people signed up. I got lucky and Don was willing to conduct the tour for one, but I wouldn’t bet on that always being the case.