In the middle of the busy Texan city of San Antonio you can find five Spanish colonial missions still standing. One is the Alamo, more well-known for the battle that took place there during the Texas Revolution than for its history as a mission built during the Spanish colonization of what is now the Southwestern United States. The other four missions are perhaps less popular as tourist attractions, but fascinating historic structures. It is these four missions which together make up the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
The park consists of four different missions, listed from north to south: Mission Concepcion, Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Espada. Each mission is about 2.5 miles from the next mission and can be reached by following Mission Road. You can drive to and from each mission with available parking at each. You can also bike or hike along the trail that connects the sites.
The mission system was devised by the Spanish as they colonized North America and staked their claim on different territories. Missions served many different purposes for the Spanish colonizers. They were miniature towns inside stone fortifications, a combination of church, military outpost, school, and living quarters. The work of the missions was to convert indigenous people not only religiously, but also culturally; to make the native people into Spanish citizens. These newly converted citizens helped the small number of Spanish priests, soldiers and others to grow in number and be able to maintain and hold their territory.
Indigenous people entered missions for many reasons. There were often dangerous conditions outside of the missions as different indigenous groups fought one another. The Spanish promised food and safety which pulled people into the Mission. However, within the missions, there was forced conversion and forced labor, with indigenous people being the very ones who built the stone walls of each of the four Missions.
When I visited the National Park, I set out first thing in the morning in an effort to beat the San Antonio heat, already reaching over 80 degrees in April. I went in geographic order, beginning with Mission Concepcion.
Mission Concepcion was dedicated in 1755 and is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Like all of the Missions in the park, it is still in use for church services, including English, Spanish, and bilingual services. Also, some of the original frescos, murals, and other art is still visible on the walls and ceilings, showing that this grey stone church would have once been colorful and bright.
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was up next, the largest and most restored mission in San Antonio. It was largely restored as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Founded in 1720, it was a model for other later missions and was a social and cultural center of colonial Texas. According to the Park’s website, at the height of the San Jose Mission 350 indigenous converts lived within its walls, worked in its fields, and tended cattle. The restored site includes the church, the granary, the convento or convent, which was the residential space for missionaries, and the walls into which was built rooms for the indigenous people who lived at the Mission. It was definitely the most complete stop on the tour owing to its restored exterior buildings which give a better idea of the more complete life of the inhabitants, not just their religious life. The site also includes a 1794 grist mill, fueled by the acequia and used to process wheat, the preferred grain of the Spanish, that began to replace the indigenous corn.
The last two missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada were less restored than San Jose and at Mission San Juan the church was closed to visitors when we visited. However, these buildings were the most architecturally beautiful to me. An interesting tidbit about Mission San Juan is the incomplete larger church. The project halted as the population declined. Near Mission Espada is the Espada aqueduct used to irrigate the farmlands surrounding the Missions.
These four historic sites were among some of the most interesting and powerful sites I’ve ever visited. However, it is important to note that there is little interpretation in the missions themselves. Mission Concepcion had a short exhibit, while the visitor centers at Mission San Juan and Mission San Jose had more information. There is little in the way of text, panels, or artifacts overall. Largely the ruins remain as they are with the areas used by existing congregations being the only furnished spaces.
Overall, these sites are so important for understanding the history of San Antonio, Texas, the Southwest and ultimately the United States. As in many other places in time, several cultures converged.
Location: Visitor Center at Mission San José, 6701 San Jose Drive, San Antonio, TX 78214
Hours: All parks open dusk till dawn, every day, year-round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Visitor centers and contact stations each have set hours. See site for details.
Guided tours are offered if staff is available.
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Beth Nevarez is a public historian and museum professional. She currently works as an independent consultant for museums in Eastern North Carolina, working on collections projects, exhibits, and outreach. She has her master’s degree in public history from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.