In the heart of San Antonio’s cosmopolitan downtown area sits one of the most famous images of American history—the mission Alamo. Within a few miles of downtown San Antonio and the Alamo are four additional missions, all of which at one point were connected by a road and water delivery system. This concentration of historic missions is now referred to as San Antonio’s Mission Trail.
In addition to the Alamo, there are missions San Jose, San Juan, Conception and Espada. All five missions are now designated as national landmarks and are managed by the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and the National Park Service. As national parks, all are open to the public and there is no admission fee.
Collectively, these missions represent histories of Spain, the Republic of Texas and Mexico. Constructed under the direction of the Spanish Catholic Church and overseen by local friars, the missions were primarily built by Native Americans and Mexicans who were brought into mission life as a means of outreach and in an attempt to immerse them into Spanish society. When fully occupied and operational, San Antonio’s missions represented the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America during the early 1700s.
Native inhabitants of the area were exposed to what some may refer to as a cultural cleansing. They were brought into the missions for physical protection but were also encouraged to abandon their native languages, rituals and religious beliefs in an effort to convert them to Catholicism and expand the Spanish cultural domination in the New World northward from Mexico.
Originally founded in 1716 in eastern Texas, Mission San Juan relocated in 1731 to its present location. In 1756, the stone church, a friary and a granary were completed, which helped to make the mission a self-sustaining community. Within the compound, Indian and Mexican converts produced iron tools, cloth and items made of hides. Orchards and gardens outside the walls provided fruits and vegetables for the inhabitants and were watered by the irrigation system that connected the four missions.
Mission San Juan is by far my favorite of the five. Surrounded by stone walls that were originally erected both for protection and enclosure, the complex within the walls is amazingly beautiful and serene. Upon entering the compound, one sees an environment that appears to have changed little in almost 300 years. Still standing is the main chapel with its ornately carved moldings and doors. In front of the living quarters are the remains of kivas (rock and stone baking ovens) that were used by the original inhabitants.
The beautiful Mission Concepcion is regarded as the best preserved of the missions. An extensive restoration of the chapel was completed in March 2010. The chapel is also still an active church with services held every Sunday. On the grounds visitors may view the remains of a quarry where much of the stone used to construct the missions was mined. Ironically, in what is now a very arid place, this land was once under water and many stones used in the construction and still lying on the grounds contain fossilized sea creatures and have the appearance of volcanic rocks.
Mission Espada is the most remote of the missions but contains the best-preserved segment of the acequia irrigation system that was used to bring water to the fields. Officially named Mission San Francisco de la Espada, it was also built in 1731, and was originally located in East Texas. It was later relocated to the San Antonio area. It also contains the Espada Dam, an example of the Franciscan designed dams on the San Antonio River that are still in use today.
Mission San Jose, founded in 1720, was named for Saint Joseph and the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, the governor of Texas at the time. It was built on the banks of the San Antonio River several miles south of the Alamo. As is the case with the other San Antonio missions, Mission San Jose is also an active parish and visitors are welcome to attend Sunday mass.
Most accommodations in downtown San Antonio are convenient to regularly scheduled tour buses that offer transportation within the downtown area as well as to the missions. For additional information, visit www.visitsanantonio.com or www.nps.gov/saan.