Inspired by Chasing Unicorns I recently visited San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in San Antonio. There are five Spanish missions in San Antonio and the National Historical Park encompasses the four you’ve probably never heard of. I visited these four on a day trip recently and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t visit the Alamo because it is touristy, and crowded, and I have been there several times already.
On the left is a map showing the string of missions that run roughly north-south in San Antonio following the San Antonio River. You can hike or bike from one end to the other if you are up to it, but I drove.
The missions along with many others across the southwest were basically a joint effort between the Spanish Empire and Catholic missionaries to establish Spanish society in New Spain beginning in the 17th century and convert the indigenous tribes to good Christian Spaniards. Spain was in a heated competition with France for domination of this part of North America and many of the mission in east Texas failed due in part to these struggles and had to be relocated to San Antonio.
Some of the Indian tribes embraced the missions and the security and way of life they offered and others didn’t. While this failed in many parts of Texas and many of those missions are lost to history, the San Antonio missions had some success and endure to this day.
The missions of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and the Alamo, which is managed separately, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This also includes some associated ranches and aqueducts that you can tour as well. The Alamo is owned by Texas and is managed by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (of which my grandmother was a member).
The four missions of this park are also co-managed in cooperation with the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio as some of them are active churches with regular masses. But the churches are quite small, as you’ll see, so they can’t really host a large community.
The first mission on my itinerary was Mission San Francisco de la Espada or just Mission Espada for short. Mission Espada began in East Texas near present day Nacogdoches as Mission San Francisco de los Tejas in 1690, but between disease, drought, and the French it was abandoned within a few years. They attempted to reestablish it two more times in other parts of east Texas with the same result. Eventually, in 1731 it was relocated to where it sits today.
Below is a diagram from the park brochure showing the layout of the mission. Basically a walled community for protection against raiding Indians with a church, living quarters, various workshops, and in this case, an aqueduct system.
If you know me, you know that I brought a camera and took photos. The image below is of the church at Mission Espada with the well in the foreground. This church has a really unique archway above the door that nobody seems to know the story behind but I saw a similar design at another mission. Also, this mission was in an area that had brick-making materials so you will see a lot of bricks here but not so much at the other missions.
The close-up of the bells below shows you the local bricks.
My understanding is that only the façade is original (from 1740ish) and that most of the church behind it has been rebuilt and restored over the centuries, which explains the air conditioning and electric lights inside I suppose. This building was originally intended to be a sacristy with another larger church built nearby, but that church didn’t last and now only the smaller sacristy remains as a church.
The picture below shows the interior of the church. It is small as I stated above. You might get a mass of 60 people here if they don’t mind being cozy. I assume the statue above the altar is of the eponymous Saint Francis judging by the name of the Mission and the stigmata on his hands. Also, note that the tabernacle mimics the door arch. This was a dark indoor shot taken at ISO2000 and I like the way it turned out.
As I mentioned, they built a larger church, actually a converted granary, but all that remains is an outline of the walls that I think have been restored. I think that most of the rest of it was looted for building materials long ago.
The living quarters around the walls, seemed to be two-room apartments with thick stone walls and a fire place for cooking I suppose. I saw a similar set up at Mission San Jose with the living quarters intact mostly from a restoration project.
I suppose they were cozier and safer than sleeping in a lean-to or teepee or whatever. I think at its peak, a few hundred people lived here between the Coahuiltecans and Spaniards and practiced farming, ranching, weaving, brick-making, etc.
There is also an aqueduct nearby connected with the mission. It is the oldest such structure in the United States and still works. I didn’t spend a lot of time here as I was concerned about getting to all of the missions in time, but it is impressive.
That was my first Mission of the day. I had three more to visit on this clear blue-sky day and I will follow up with the other Missions in a few days or so. I am having a lot of fun reading about them. This some of the oldest remaining (European) architecture in the United States and it is fascinating to see.