I am a big fan of anything administered by the U.S. National Park Service. As a small child living in New Jersey, my parents, my brother and I used to head west in my parents’ 1969 Plymouth Fury to explore national parks across the country. Anytime I visit a national park, I am reminded of childhood vacations.
In San Antonio, Texas, tourists can experience a taste of the Spanish empire at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. These missions were founded by Franciscan brothers who were teaching and converting the Coahuiltecan Native Americans. Four missions, all within a reasonably short drive or bicycle ride of each other (bikes can be rented at Mission Concepcion or Mission San Jose), let tourists experience life on the Spanish frontier. The missions are located south of downtown, with the first mission normally being Mission Concepcion. I got a little confused in my directions so I will start in the order that I visited the four park missions. All four missions have active congregations and on Sundays, mariachi Mass is celebrated at both Mission Concepcion and Mission San Jose.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
On a cool, clear day in the last remnants of Texas’ spring, I began at Mission San Juan which is a vibrant white against the blue, sunny sky. The mission, which was moved to this location in 1731, includes a convent, a nature trail along the San Antonio River, ruins of the first stone church and a burial ground. Only a portion of the buildings that were a part of the mission are above ground today. Tourists can visit the simply but beautifully decorated church and photographs are permitted.
It is hard to imagine that in the past this mission had fields dedicated to corn, sheep and cattle. With signs posted around the mission to provide visitors with a history, it was interesting reading that this mission was a stop on the commerce trail with Mexico City, as mule trains, loaded with goods, would stop at Mission San Juan. The mission would export goods like foodstuffs and hides.
Life on the frontier was hard and missions had to rely on herbal remedies like wild onion for coughs and colds, desert holly for fevers and upset stomachs and prickly pear cactus for burns, cuts and insect bites. Missions sadly also suffered from epidemics from European diseases like smallpox and measles.
Be careful walking around the grounds of this mission as there are an abundance of fire ants. I even heard two tourists commenting about the size of the insects.
While Mission San Jose is generally the most popular mission, personally, Mission Espada was my favorite mission of the four. Mission Espada is the most southern mission and served as vital link in the mission chain. This mission was founded in 1690 (and moved to this location in 1731) but was vulnerable to attack by both Apache and Comanche tribes because of its location.
Mission Espada includes the remains of a bastion and visitors can visualize the grim existence of battles on the frontier. Education was a tradition of Mission Espada and the small museum on site includes pictures from the parochial school in 1941, as a school was on site starting in the 1800s up until the 1960s.
The mission was also actively involved in cattle ranching and the small museum includes exhibits of scary spurs (which look very dangerous!) as well as branding irons.
What I liked best about Mission Espada is the simplicity of the church along with the lovely, colorful flowers outside the convent, as well as the ruins of the first church, granary and a bastion scattered about the grounds. Looking just outside the mission is a small neighborhood and a regional airport (Stinson Municipal Airport) is also close by. It’s a startling contrast of the old and the new.
Mission San Jose
This mission, which was founded in 1720, appears to be the most popular and is packed with tour groups and school classes. Mission San Jose’s church was central to the mission community and the ornate carvings, as well as the famous rose window, have resulted in the nickname “Queen of the Missions”. Unfortunately, the rose window was undergoing some renovation while I was visiting, but visitors could still explore the beautiful church interior as well as the substantial grounds. Tourists will also get an idea of the stone walls needed for defense in such a hostile environment.
This mission also includes a large visitors’ center, including a film on the first inhabitants of South Texas, as well as frequent ranger tours.
Walking around the grounds, visitors can see remnants of some of the wall art and what original frescoes must have looked like. The wall art served a variety of functions including teaching Catholicism to the Coahuiltecans, hiding construction flaws and usage as decorations.
The grounds at San Jose are the largest of the four missions and I tried to imagine what life must have been like during the 1700s.
Visitors to Mission Concepcion will immediately notice the large amount of stonework and how well this mission has maintained its past. Mission Concepcion included a quarry which was a source of the stone for both this mission and parts of Mission San Jose.
Be sure to visit the gardens on the left side of the church grounds which are reserved for private prayer. The quietness and pretty, minimal decorations, add to the mission’s effect.
Mission Concepcion was moved to this location in 1731 and is the least altered, best preserved mission. The walls inside the church are similar to what they looked like in the 1700s, including wall art and frescoes in oranges, blues and yellows. On entering the church, be careful of the door heights, which are very short. I actually saw one tourist hit his head.
Also be sure to explore the two chapels in the back of the church which are elegant in their simplicity.
It seems strange that just over the fence of this mission is a residential neighborhood with apartments and homes just over the fence. It’s another mix of history and the modern world.
Admission to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is free. While it can be a little confusing driving between the four missions (be sure to have a good map—a map is available at any mission location), brown signs direct visitors through south San Antonio. Visiting the park is almost like being outside the United States with the unique Spanish architecture.
Keep in mind that the missions were far more than churches. These missions were actually fortified villages that helped Spain keep control of the Texas frontier and their remnants provide visitors with a spectacular window into Texas history.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
2202 Roosevelt Avenue (Note: This location is the headquarters at Mission San Jose)
San Antonio, Texas 78210