Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Missions of San Antonio

Five missions, within 11 miles of each other, were established along the San Antonio River in the 18th century and formed the largest concentration of Spanish missions in North America. Today, the Alamo is a Texas shrine and is operated by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. The missions Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan and Espada are all active parishes of the Catholic church and operate through a cooperative agreement between the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park of the National Park Service. In these missions, Franciscan friars brought together groups of native people with the hope of converting them to Christianity and Spanish civilization. The natives were taught farming, ranching, masonry, weaving, blacksmithing and other trades. Toward the end of the 18th century, Spain's interest in the missions waned and support was withdrawn. All five missions were secularized by 1800. We saw the modified San Antonio River as part of the River Walk in San Antonio and we saw sections of the San Antonio River being re-worked for flood control or some other purpose. The photo below is one I have borrowed off the internet to show what the river looks like in its natural state.
The Alamo (San Antonio de Valero)
The first mission, San Antonio de Valero, was established in 1718. It was named after St. Anthony of Padua and the viceroy of New Spain, Baltasar de Zuniga y Guzman Sotomayor y Sarmiento, the Marquess of Valero. It was built as a way station for existing missions in East Texas (six were established beginning in 1690) and other missions in Mexico. The location of the mission changed several times until 1724 when it was established at  its current location. The mission complex expanded to cover three acres over the next few decades and by 1744 over 300 Coahuiltecan Indians resided there. 
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The population of Indians fluctuated greatly. In 1778 a new military commander felt the missions were a liability and started to decrease their influence. By 1793 only 12 Indians remained. It was secularized in 1793 and then abandoned. About ten years later it housed the Mexican army group the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras and it is believed he gave the mission the name "Alamo." The Alamo was held by the Mexican army until December 1835 when it was surrendered to the Texan Army after the siege of Bexar. General Sam Houston of the Texans ordered Colonel James Bowie to destroy the Alamo because they didn't have the manpower to hold it. Bowie instead fortified the Alamo. On February 23, 1836 Mexican General Santa Ana initiated a siege. The siege ended on March 6, 1836 when the Mexican army attacked the Alamo and all or most of the Texan defenders, including Bowie and Davy Crockett, were killed. The Alamo is gorgeous at night 
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and is a shrine to  Texas independence. The significance of the battle has overwhelmed the sense of it as a mission. That, the crowding and limited access to some portions combined to make it my least favorite of the missions, except perhaps for Mission San Juan which was undergoing significant renovation. As a boy I loved the name and concept of Davy Crockett 
and the idea of Jim Bowie and his Bowie knives. 
So I was excited to learn a little more about them. 


Concepcion
Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion de Acuna 
was first established in East Texas in 1716, then moved to San Antonio in 1731, about 4 miles down the San Antonio River from the Alamo. 
It still looks much like it did when it was established. 
It is the oldest unrestored church in the U.S. 
It has never lost its roof or walls. 
The exterior was originally covered with geometric designs. They are no longer visible, but original paintings 
and remnants of colorful frescos 
still exist inside. The 30 minute Battle of Concepcion was fought there on October 28, 1835 between Mexican troops and Texans led by James Bowie. It was the first major battle of the Texas Revolution. After Mission San Jose which was my favorite, Concepcion and Espada would vie for second. I loved the massive walls and building 
and the fantastic color 
and high ceilings inside. 
Mission San Jose
The mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo 
was built just two years after the Alamo, in 1720, by Father Antonio Margil de Jesus. 
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It was about six miles down the San Antonio River from the Alamo and a little more than two miles from mission Concepcion which was built 11 years later. 
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It was founded because the Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) had become overcrowded with refugees from the closed East Texas missions. It primarily served the Coahuiltecan Indians. This was by far my favorite of the missions because it was so large and there was so much to see. It was a major social and cultural center and was known as the "Queen of the Missions." A heavy outer wall 
was built around the main part of the mission 
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and rooms for 350 Indians were built into the walls. 
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Its residents supported themselves by raising livestock, tending to vast fields, and running its own gristmill and granary. It also provided the most protection of all the missions against Indian raids. The church was built in 1768 from limestone. The facade has a cross on the top, representing Christ, then St. Joseph (San Jose) holding the baby Jesus, St. Dominic and St. Francis, Our Lady of Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary), 
St. Joachim and St. Anna holding the baby Mary. 
The mission lands were given to the Indians in 1794 and mission activities officially ended in 1824.

Mission San Juan
The mission San Juan Capistrano was first established in East Texas in 1716 as San Jose de los Nazonis, then moved to the banks of the San Antonio River in 1731 and renamed. It is about three miles down the San Antonio River from Mission San Jose. It is named after a 15th century theologian who resided in Italy. It became a regional supplier of iron, wood, cloth and leather goods produced by Indians in its workshops. It was self-sustaining and it had surplus produce which was able to help the rest of the region. In 1765 it had 265 natives living in adobe huts on the grounds and by 1790 the natives were living in stone quarters, 
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but their numbers had dropped to 58. It was undergoing restoration while we were there and the church was closed. The bell tower was being worked on so we did not get a good view of it. 
There is a trail that goes down to the San Antonio River that I would like to have taken, but we were running short of time. 

Mission Espada
The mission San Francisco de la Espada began in East Texas near Weches in 1690 as San Francisco de los Tejas. It was the first mission established in Texas. 
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When it was relocated to the San Antonio River in 1731, as a result of conflict between Spain and France, it was renamed Espada. It is just about 1 1/4 miles down the San Antonio River from Mission San Juan. A friary was built in 1745 
and the church was completed in 1756. 
It was the southernmost of the chain of missions. The front of the chapel at Espada is my favorite with three bells over massive wood doors. 
They remind me of the similar bells at Mission San Gabriel outside of Los Angeles and to me epitomize mission architecture. Because of the compact size of the chapel, 
the wonderful state of repair, 
and the wonderful open surroundings, 
the outside of this particular building 
is my favorite 
of any of the missions I have visited. 

Each of these missions is impressive on its own, but as a grouping, they leave a wonderful window into the Spanish Catholicism of the 18th century and are one of the more wonderful religious monuments to be found anywhere.

2 comments:

  1. As you note, part of the appeal of these missions is their close proximity to each other. It was fun to compare and contrast as we saw them all in a short time period. I also loved that they were so quiet, lacking the glitz, glamour, and tourism of some of their California relatives.

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  2. So interesting! You make me want to visit Texas.

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