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Beyond the Alamo: Touring the Missions of San Antonio

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Everyone remembers Texas’ most famous landmark, but few make their way to the four other colonial churches in San Antonio. Michael Hardy is a man on a mission
Touring the Missions of San Antonio: Mission San José, the “Queen of the Missions." Photo courtesy of NPS.
Mission San José, the “Queen of the Missions,” in San Antonio. Photo courtesy of NPS.

A few minutes after noon on a Sunday, I stand beneath the whitewashed dome of an 18th-century Spanish church in San Antonio, listening to a mariachi band play a traditional Catholic hymn. Two violet banners flank the altar, rippling with air from an unseen vent. When the band finishes, the priest — a bespectacled Franciscan friar wearing a purple surplice and stole — stands up.
“Welcome to the Mission San José,” says Father Rogelio Martinez, smiling and spreading his arms wide as if to embrace the packed congregation. “We come here to celebrate the Mass together. If this is your first time here, we would like to welcome you into our family.”
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, to give its full name, is one of the five Spanish missions established by Franciscan missionaries along the San Antonio River between 1718 and 1731 to convert Native Americans to Christianity and to reinforce Spanish territorial claims. Intended as self-sufficient settlements, each mission housed hundreds of American Indians under the strict supervision of Franciscan priests and the protection of Spanish soldiers. In exchange for food and security from marauding Lipan Apaches, some Native Americans agreed to live in the mission, work on a regimented schedule and receive religious instruction. Last year UNESCO designated the five missions as Texas’ first World Heritage Site.

Touring the Missions of San Antonio: Inside the restored Concepción. Photo by Carol Highsmith/LOC.
Inside the restored Concepción. Photo by Carol Highsmith/LOC.

I’ve lived in Texas most of my life, but the only one of the five missions I had ever visited was the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known today as the Alamo, site of the famous 1836 battle in which the Mexican army slaughtered nearly 200 Texas revolutionaries, including my ancestor Joseph Kerr, whose name is engraved on the grand memorial cenotaph in Alamo Plaza.
Unfortunately, the Alamo is also one of the worst-preserved of the missions. Originally a 3-acre walled compound, it suffered over the centuries from war, neglect and encroaching development. Virtually all that remains today is the church, with its signature curved gable pediment — and even that was only added in 1850 by the U.S. Army to disguise the peak of the church’s new wooden roof.

Touring the Missions of San Antonio: Mission San Juan Capistrano’s open, two-tiered belfry. Photo via TravelPixPro/iStock.
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s open, two-tiered belfry. Photo via TravelPixPro/iStock.

To see how the Spanish missions originally looked, I venture beyond the souvenir shops and photo-snapping tourists of Alamo Plaza to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, created in 1978 to preserve the city’s four other missions, spaced about 2 miles apart along both banks of the San Antonio River, south of the city’s downtown.
I begin my visit at the “Queen of the Missions,” the Mission San José. Thanks to a painstaking restoration carried out by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, it looks much as it did when it was completed in the 18th century. Surrounded by thick, 10-foot-high stone walls to repel Apache attacks, the 8-acre open-air compound was used for cooking and military training. Built against the walls are reproductions of the spare, low-ceilinged living quarters where most of the mission’s several hundred Indians dwelled.

Touring the Missions of San Antonio: San José’s elaborately carved Rose Window. Photo courtesy of NPS.
San José’s elaborately carved Rose Window. Photo courtesy of NPS.

On the north side of the complex are the mission’s most important buildings, the convento, where the missionaries and important visitors lived, and the church, which features a domed nave, a bell tower, and an elaborately carved baroque entrance façade. Built into the south wall of the church is the stunning Rose Window, considered the finest example of colonial Spanish stone decoration in the U.S. Although the church’s dome collapsed in 1873, it has since been fully restored, and San José is now an active Catholic parish that hosts weekly services, including its famous mariachi Mass.
A friend of mine drives down from Austin to join me on my tour, and at the next mission, San Francisco de la Espada, we find a wedding in progress. Of the original five missions, only the Alamo is no longer a functioning Catholic church. In addition to holding regular services, the four missions are popular wedding destinations — so popular that the church is often off-limits to tourists, as today the sanctuary is to us. “I had no idea these missions were even here,” my friend marvels as we walk the peaceful grounds, enjoying the afternoon tranquility. “I thought it was just the Alamo.”
Our luck improves at Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, where we arrived to find a wedding just letting out, the colorfully dressed guests taking pictures of each other in front of the oldest unreconstructed Spanish church in the United States. When the last of the guests finally exited the chapel, we slipped inside, reverently examining the Moorish-influenced architecture that has survived almost 300 years.

Touring the Missions of San Antonio: San Francisco de la Espada. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio CVB.
San Francisco de la Espada. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio CVB.

My final stop is at the unprepossessing Mission San Juan Capistrano, best known for its dramatic white espadaña, an open, two-tiered belfry with room for three bells. Here, I follow a paved trail about a hundred yards down from the mission to a narrow stream marking the original course of the San Antonio River, which the region’s first Native American inhabitants called the Yanaguana, meaning “refreshing waters.” Over the ensuing centuries the river has been repeatedly dammed and diverted to reduce flooding, and later to create the concrete-lined River Walk, where today you’ll find tourists sipping an entirely different kind of refreshing water, otherwise known as margaritas.
But standing above the ancestor river’s much-diminished descendant, listening to the rushing water, it was just possible for me to imagine an earlier, wilder world in which an untamed river meant life and death to San Antonio’s missions — and the courageous souls who dared to make a home there.

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