Travel: Colonial churches in San Antonio still attract the faithful
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Everyone remembers the Alamo.
The former Spanish mission and fort where William Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett fought and died for Texas independence is one of the most visited attractions in the southwestern United States.
Discerning visitors, however, should not miss four more beautiful late 17th- and 18th-century mission churches along the San Antonio River just south of the Alamo and downtown San Antonio.
The Alamo was built in the 1720s as the mission San Antonio de Valero and became a military post after it was secularized in 1793. Today it’s a much-revered state historic site.
The other four sites make up the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And unlike the Alamo, those missions still function as working Catholic parish churches — places of history and of enduring faith.
The national park’s visitor center is located adjacent to Mission San Jose. The center offers exhibits about the missions, which brought Spanish culture and religion into the region when Texas was part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain from 1690 until 1831.
The missions, operated by Franciscan priests, were small communities unto themselves, offering homes, farmland and instruction in trades to Catholic Native Americans. The walled missions also provided a measure of security against hostile tribes such as the Apaches.
The mission system was abandoned in the early 19th century and the missions were secularized. Some were abandoned for a time. But in the early 20th century, the city and the Archdiocese of San Antonio recognized the cultural and historic significance of the sites and worked to preserve and reuse them.
At Mission San Jose, known as the “Queen of the Missions,” the ruins surrounding the central church give visitors an impressionistic glimpse of 18th-century mission life and the melange of Spanish and Native American traditions that helped make San Antonio the multicultural city it remains to this day.
A protective stone wall, partially restored in the 1930s, contained a granary and quarters for resident Native Americans and a small contingent of soldiers. Behind the church is a lovely arched portico, the remains of the “convento” that offered a home for priests and lodging for mission visitors.
The magnificent mission church, completed in 1782, was also restored in the 1930s. An elaborately carved stone frame for one of the church’s windows is regarded by some historians as the premier example of Spanish colonial ornamentation in the United States. Other beautiful exterior carvings include saints, angels and decorative symbols.
Sunday is a great day to visit the missions. All have Sunday morning Masses, and Mission San Jose offers daily services. On my visit, the congregation (and visitors) overflowed into the courtyard during a Sunday service, emphasizing the enduring importance of the site and offering a kind of spiritual link to San Antonio’s earliest history.
I found more worshippers at the church at Mission San Juan. The gleaming stucco exterior makes it look much newer than it is, but the traditional Spanish Colonial architecture, including an iconic three-bell tower, attests to the small church’s true age. Visitors will also see typical Romanesque stone arches at the mission’s gate, just a few paces from the old trail that still brings visitors to the site.
The missions are connected by the scenic Mission Road and Mission Parkway. Visitors also can opt to hike or bike between the missions on the Riverwalk Trail, extending from San Antonio’s famous downtown Riverwalk to Mission Espada, the southernmost of the San Antonio missions.
Espada, the oldest of the mission sites, was established in 1690. Although Mission Espada is just a few miles from downtown, it feels remote and isolated. Visitors will find more ruins there as well as another small, picturesque church built in the late 18th century.
Espada also has the best preserved original stone irrigation system among the missions. Visitors can see the stone arches that once were part of the “acequia” system, which used dams and aqueducts to channel scarce water to mission cropland.
The oldest remaining mission building, and perhaps the most beautiful, is the church at Mission Concepcion. Outside, the stone church looks much as it did in the mid-18th century with soaring twin bell towers and a domed roof above the central sanctuary. Inside, recent restoration work uncovered tantalizing traces of original colorful frescos. The hints of ochre, burnt sienna and indigo attest to the artistry of the mission’s Native Americans, who were taught frescoing as a trade.
Said one Franciscan priest who visited in 1778, “No one could have imagined that there were such good artists in so desolate a place.”
So remember the Alamo, of course. But don’t forget the others.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.