San Antonio Missions — a National Historical Park

Bells at Mission San Francisco de la Espada

“The chain of missions established along the San Antonio River in the 18th century is a reminder of one of Spain’s most successful attempts to extend its dominion northward from New Spain (present-day Mexico). Collectively they form the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America,” (San Antonio Missions pamphlet, National Park Service – NPS).

Although the Spanish originally came to the New World looking for wealth, as did most others, once those dreams faded they focused their efforts on spreading the Catholic faith among the native Indians. “the mission was the vanguard of the spiritual conversion of the Indians. . . For the Indians the missions offered sanctuary from their enemies,” (NPS).

“The American Indians who lived in the San Antonio missions came from a number of hunting and gathering bands known collectively as Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tekens),” (NPS)

The missions flourished between 1747 and 1775. “After 70 years the need for the missions diminished due to the effects of European diseases, acculturation, and intermarriage. By 1824 the San Antonio missions were secularized,” (NPS)

The Mission San Antonio de Valero, more well known as the Alamo, was the first mission on the San Antonio River. You can see read more about it in an earlier post, Three days in San Antonio — part 2: Remember the Alamo. It is now a State Historic Site under the care of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and has been turned into a historic park in downtown San Antonio.

A map showing the locations of four missions along the Mission Trail in San Antonio, TX.

The Mission Trail runs along the San Antonio River, south of downtown where travelers can still see four remaining missions that look nearly the same in their remote locations as they did during the height of their activity.

Mission San Francisco de la Espada

Mark and I drove to the southern end of the Mission Trail and worked our way back north.  Mission San Francisco de la Espada is the southernmost mission, although its roots lie in east Texas where it was founded in 1690. “Along with several others it served as a buffer against French encroachment from Louisiana,” (NPS). After relocating several times because of illness, floods, fires, enemies and limited supplies, Mission San Francisco de la Espada was finally established here along the San Antonio River in 1731.

Indian quarters are built into the surrounding wall.

The missions typically consisted of a church, convent, workshop, granary, soldiers’ barracks, and indian quarters, all surrounded by a stone wall. The living quarters for the people of the mission were built along the inside wall. In the above photograph you can see the size of the living quarters where the wall has broken away.

“The missions functioned primarily as religious centers and training grounds for the rudiments of Spanish citizenship. Indians were taugh obedience to the Crown along with the vocational skills needed for economic self-sufficiency,” (NPS).

Mission San Francisco de la Espada chapel
Rear view of the Espada chapel

Espada began the process of secularization, or transformation to a church-based community, in 1794 . The land was divided among the 15 families who remained at the time. The supplies and equipment were shared. Disaster struck in 1826 when a band of Comanches raided the corn fields and killed livestock, and a kitchen fire destroyed most of the buildings. The chapel survived. Even so, people continued to make their home here. (NPS).

Mission San Francisco de la Espada
Chapel at Mission San Francisco de la Espada

“The Indian neophytes’ days were highly structured. At sunrise, bells called them to morning Mass . . . Daily training and tasks were accomplished by the timing of the mission bells ‘which clang out three times a day . . . startling in the still country air.'” (NPS)

Outdoors Stations of the Cross at Espada.
Outdoor Stations of the Cross at Espada.
Outdoor Stations of the Cross

Today a small community of mission descendants continue to worship here.

Mission San Francisco de la Espada
Mission San Francisco de la Espada

“Espada’s ongoing legacy lies in the blending of Spanish and American Indian lifeways on this sacred ground, creating a new people and culture,” (NPS).

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano lies just a little north of Espada. We were touring on a Sunday morning and we arrived there just in time to see the priest and servers entering the chapel for Mass. Although it was nice to witness the present-day use of this historic buildings, the downside to touring on a Sunday was that we were unable to go inside of most of the missions while Mass was being celebrated.

While walking around the exterior of the chapel, we saw this statue of a woman.

Like Espada, Mission San Juan was originally established in East Texas and then was moved here in 1731. Mission  San Juan is located in rich farmland and became a regional supplier of agricultural produce. “The San Antonio missions were self-sufficient, and they supported area settlements and the nearby presidio (fort). In good times they traded surplus goods to others,” (NPS).

Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo fresco
Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo fresco

Relative to the first two missions our third stop, San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo, was a massive and decorative structure.

Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo fresco
Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo fresco

We could immediately see why San Jose has the reputation of being “Queen of the Missions.”

We actually came upon the mission from the back and first saw this beautiful arched walkway.

You can see how this structured once held two levels.  The massive stone walls of the mission reflect its defensive role.  “The Indians’ struggle for survival against European disease and raiding Lipan Apaches led them to the missions and to forfeit their culture. Everything changed for them: diet, clothing, religion, culture—even their names. They were required to learn two new languages, Latin and Spanish, as well as new vocations,” (NPS).

We worked our way around to the side of the chapel that holds the legendary Rose Window, or Rosa’s Window.

San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission Rose Window
San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission Rose Window

The window “demonstrates the high craftsmanship of the artisans who worked on the missions. . .  (and is ) known as the premier example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in the United States,” (NPS).

The front facade is another example of beautiful craftsmanship. Because of its size, and model organization, San Jose was a social center during this time period, (NPS).

Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo fresco
Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo fresco

This small section of remaining fresco leads one to imagine how magnificent the interior of the chapel might have been in its early days.

Mariachi musician
Mariachi musician practices outside before Mass.

We timed our tour and our visit to Mission San Jose to coincide with the Mariachi Mass that is regularly celebrated there.

Mark and I have attended Mass in various locations from a small gathering in the woods or on a retreat, to inside magnificent cathedrals in large cities here or abroad.  But this Mass in what, by our standards, was a small intimate chapel in a relatively remote area of Texas with the lively music provided by the Mariachi musicians was truly a unique experience.

The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion
The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion

Our last stop on the Mission Trail was the mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion. It is closest to the city of San Antonio and lies just outside the intersection of routes 10 with 37.  We approached the mission from outside the side wall.

The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion
The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion

The two towers you see beyond the wall are the front of the chapel.

The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion
The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion

Like the other missions, Concepcion was transferred here from East Texas in 1731. “The church looks essentially the same as it did in the mid-1700s. . .,” (NPS).

For some reason arched walkways have always appealed to me.  It looks inviting, doesn’t it?

This stairway reminds me of ruins we visited in Ireland, Italy, and even Japan. I think it has to do with the stone, and the narrow passage.

The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion fresco

Again, the remains of frescoes inside the buildings lead one to imagine the glory of past days.

This is a large well in front of Concepcion.

The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion
The mission of Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion

If you ever find yourself in San Antonio, set aside some time to visit these relics of the past and keepers of current culture. Whether you are interested in architecture, the settling of this country, the attempts to acculturate or assimilate native peoples, or the role of the Catholic church in colonizing America, the missions in San Antonio are well worth the visit.

For more information visit:

National Park Service – San Antonio Missions

For other posts about San Antonio, see  San Antonio, Texas.

Three days in San Antonio—part 2: Remember the Alamo

I always imagined the Alamo as a small square structure built out of logs located somewhere in an unpopulated field or prairie in the southwest. Imagine my surprise at finding a relatively substantial stone building situated on a corner among the high-rise office buildings of downtown San Antonio. If I’d paid better attention in my high school history classes I might have known better.

The Alamo entryway structure is a modern addition to the historical park.

The last stand of the Alamo actually occurred in what was originally the chapel of the Mission San Antonio de Valero. This Spanish mission was established in 1718 by a Franciscan missionary to be used as a combination religious and trade school for Indians, as were all Spanish missions. The mission complex once covered as many as four acres of ground and in addition to the chapel held a convent for the priests, a granary, workrooms, storerooms, and Indian housing, all of which was surrounded by a wall.

Now many of the structures have been reconstructed into a large historical park complete with costumed soldiers and pioneers.

The mission was later used as a church for soldiers and between 1806 and 1812 it functioned as San Antonio’s first hospital. It gained the name of  “the Alamo” when a company of calvary was stationed there during the 1800s.

Texans most like to remember the Alamo as the place where the tide turned in the Texan revolution. At that time it was used as the headquarters for the Mexican General Martin Perfecto de Cos who was preparing for a Texan assault in late 1835. This confrontation ended with de Cos’ surrender to the Texan army.

After the surrender, a small group of Texan soldiers held the Alamo, refortifying it, until Mexican General Santa Anna initiated a siege on February 23, 1836. On March 6 the Mexican army climbed over the walls and attacked the Alamo killing all or almost all the defenders who had barricaded themselves in the buildings. The last building to fall was the chapel. When the end wall of the chapel fell (and if I’m not mistaken it’s pictured above) it was the end for the last defenders who had been firing cannonballs from inside.

In this picture you can see modern buildings in the area surrounding the Alamo.

The story of the Alamo is one of the larger-than-life accounts of history I grew up with without ever knowing the full details. It was fascinating to visit there.

We had taken a bus from our B&B in the King William’s district to the downtown location of the Alamo. Following our tour, we walked down a nearby stairs to enter the River Walk where we had lunch at Joe’s Crabs.

Then we took a ride on a water taxi.

You can see the bus on the city street above. The River Walk is an ideal place to cool off and relax.

I’d go back here again in a heartbeat. And I’d do it in winter again.

Next up: part 3 of 3 – The Spanish Missions.
Find links to complete series at San Antonio.
Information on the Alamo from

Three days in San Antonio—part 1: The Oge House on the River Walk

Our first stop in San Antonio was the historic King Williams district with its beautiful stately mansions that make you feel like you cruised up the San Antonio River and stepped off the river boat in the mid-1800s.

The King Williams Historic District is a 25-block area near downtown on the south bank of the San Antonio River. In the late 1800’s it was considered the “most elegant residential area in the city.”

Even the more modest homes carry a quiet dignity settled in among the arching trees and behind stone walls and decorative wrought-iron railings.

We visited San Antonio at the end of February in 2008, four years ago today on February 29th. You can see that some places are beginning to green-up for the spring. We were expecting temperatures in the upper 40s to mid-60s, and packed accordingly.

We were staying in the Oge House in the King Williams’ District. (There should be an accent on the ‘e’ in Oge, but I don’t know how to put it there and don’t want to spend the time figuring it out.) Owned by a pioneer Texas Ranger, cattle rancher and businessman, Louis Oge, this historic mansion was built in 1857.

Breakfast was served every morning in the formal dining room.

I imagine once the trees fill out with a shady canopy, this garden behind the Oge House, beside the river, would feel like a little piece of heaven.

My tour director, guide, and husband, decided it would be nice to take a walk along the river to the central area of town on the River Walk, since it was only a short distance away. And I will admit it was a beautiful walk, albeit a bit longer than I had anticipated in my heavy clothes, not particularly walking-friendly shoes, and extra sweater.

Here’s the view of the Oge House from the River Walk.

We left the stately mansions and beautiful gardens of the King Williams District behind as we got closer to the downtown area where the walls of buildings line the walk. Here you see spare river taxis moored along the walk.

We are about to enter the entertainment district of the River Walk in the downtown area, for which it is most famous. As you can see, Mark has removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves for the unseasonably warm temperatures San Antonio was experiencing during our stay.

As we stood there, likely discussing where I was going to buy a lighter weight shirt and flip flops for my feet, this fully-loaded touring river taxi cruised by.

The River Walk is built one story below street level where cars cross over on bridges. This section appears to be mainly hotels or possibly apartments.

Now we’re talking. Shops ahead.

Newly dressed in a short-sleeve t-shirt, wearing flip-flops and carrying a bag of shoes and discarded clothes, I was ready to explore the cafes, restaurants, and shops of this entertainment district with it’s lush landscaping that included waterfalls and charming pools.

The best part of the River Walk is that this beautiful area of rest and refreshment is a short flight of stairs from the downtown area above, which we took full advantage of on our second day in San Antonio, when we visited the Alamo.

Information on the King Williams’ District, the Oge House, and the Riverwalk comes from the following sites you might like to visit: and