San Antonio is a well known tourist destination. It attracts visitors from around the country and the world with the Riverwalk, Six Flags, Fiesta Texas, Seaworld, friendly citizens and a dedication to showing guests a good time. Virtually everyone who comes to the city takes an inspiring walk through the premier Texas shrine, the Alamo, but far too few realize that this sacred battleground was once part of a network of five missions that were built along the San Antonio River in the early eighteenth century. All of them remain standing even to this day and are easily found just south of downtown. They are a treasure that all too often goes unnoticed but one rife with history.
The missions were the work of Franciscan priests who travelled from the centers of power and commerce in Mexico to the northern reaches of the country to spread the Catholic faith and secure the land for Spain. The missions resembled Spanish villages in Europe, centering life around the church. The priests encouraged the local native people, who had traditionally been hunters and gatherers, to settle down with the offer of food and lodging. Because living off of the land was wrought with difficulties not the least of which were attacks from other tribes, many were attracted to the seeming generosity of the padres.
Of course the real intent of the priests was to convert and change the people. They considered it God’s work to baptize those who were willing to accept their religious beliefs, learn the Spanish language, and be trained to perform various jobs. Much of the labor that built the churches, buildings and walls around the missions was done by the local people whose culture quickly changed under the tutelage of the priests. They learned how to plant and grow crops. They helped to create aqueducts that directed water from the river to the village. They herded cattle and sheep and even became experts at making cloth. They became stonemasons and artisans. In fact the people of each mission were generally so self sufficient that they even had excess supplies of food that they often traded for goods from Mexico City.
Mission Concepcion is perhaps the best preserved of all of the San Antonio historical landmarks and is the closest to the present day center of downtown. Its church is much like it was back when it was an active center of daily living. Even the wall decorations are just as they were back then. The church boasts the Moorish influence seen in many Spanish edifices. It sits along an intersection of busy streets where passersby are moving so quickly that they seem not to even notice this jewel that shares its space with a seemingly forgotten neighborhood. At one time the St. John’s Seminary was next door to the mission but it was abandoned at the end of the twentieth century and is now a spooky mix of rotting buildings scarred with graffiti and neglect. Somehow the entire area is a mix of incongruous contrasts but Mission Concepcion remains gloriously beautiful in spite of the brutal passage of time.
Further down the mission road, which is actually Roosevelt Boulevard, is Mission San Jose which is a massive property that includes the official Visitor Center for all of the missions. It provides a glimpse into what the daily routine might have been for the priests, nuns, military and native people who once lived there. The remains of the wall that surrounded it as well as many of the original buildings are still intact. The church is active to this very day with priests living at the site and providing daily masses and other services for the parishioners.
Next is Mission San Juan located near a present day airport but still somewhat hidden from the view of modernity. It is a quiet place where the spirit of what happened in the long ago feels much more real. It is easy to imagine the gathering of people carrying out their routines of salvation and existence. The work must have been hard and relentless under the hot San Antonio sun. Everyone including the children had jobs to do. Sometimes there were raids on the food supplies and livestock from the Comanche who refused to join the white men who came to the land wearing strange robes and preaching of a God so unlike their own. Here there is a graveyard where many of the people were buried when they lost their lives to disease, violence and old age. It is a sacred place that lies quietly under trees that might have once shaded the very same people when they were alive.
The most rural of the missions is Mission Espada. It stands in a more remote field than any of the others. It was the farthest outpost and the only one that features bricks in its architecture. Like the other missions its purpose was to bring a measure of spiritual and political civilization to an untamed area of Mexico. The efforts were supported by both the government in Mexico and the king in Spain. As the European world colonized north and south America the Spanish government had claimed more land than any other country and missionaries were always part of the efforts to bring the Spanish culture and beliefs to the native people in what was then known as New Spain.
Texas eventually saw an influx of settlers who had come with the promise of a new start in life. When they believed that the Mexican government had reneged on those guarantees they fought for and gained independence from Mexico. The missions lost their importance and faded into history. Somehow in spite of progress all around them they remained as reminders of a forgotten time. They were saved from total destruction by the National Park Service which now serves as the protector of this amazing collection of history.
It takes most of a day to explore all five of the San Antonio missions but it is time well spent. They provide a glimpse into an era long before there was a Texas or a United States of America. They are monuments that remind us both of our human strengths as well as our failings. Visiting them is much like going on a spiritual journey back through time. They should be at the top of the “things to see” list for anyone who chooses to travel to San Antonio.
We learn much about ourselves by studying history. Discovering how those who came before us did things reveals mankind’s mistakes and complexities. The Spanish missions were part religious, part political, part business much as most things are today. We might debate whether they helped the native people or hurt them. Perhaps it is impossible to ever really know the full ramifications of what happened so long ago. The only reality is that the missionaries came and we are lucky enough to be able to view the remains of their days in places like San Antonio. It is a gift to us to be able to glimpse the past, a destination that we all should seek.