Humble and Glorious: San Antonio’s Five Historic Missions
by Canadian Traveller
October 9, 2019
Amid spring-fed rivers and rolling hills, San Antonio’s rich historic legacy can be found in the humble – yet glorious – San Antonio Missions.
The region boasts the largest collection of Spanish colonial architecture in North America, which includes five 18th-century missions and the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the U.S.
In the 18th century, Franciscan priests from Spain established these missions along the San Antonio River, primarily to extend Spain’s dominion northward from Mexico, but also to convert the Indigenous population.
Not only are these buildings incredibly beautiful, but they give you a glimpse of what life was like in the days when colonial Spain was converting Native Americans to Christianity — an act that forever changed the face of North America.
San Antonio’s missions have been permanently etched into the annals of American history, which explains why they have achieved World Heritage status.
Downtown San Antonio
Originally established as a mission in 1718, the Alamo – or Mission San Antonio de Valero – is the most famous of the San Antonio missions, known for the 1836 battle where 189 defenders of Texas freedom held the mission against more than 4,000 Mexican soldiers for 13 days during the Texas Revolution.
The most famous of the defenders, Davy Crockett, died fighting overwhelming odds for freedom. As a result, the Alamo became an inspiration and a motivation for liberty during the Texas Revolution.
In the mid-1950s, Disney’s King of the Wild Frontier helped to cement Davy Crockett’s place in popular culture, and in 1960, the story of the Alamo became larger than life when John Wayne starred as Davy Crockett in a movie about the battle.
Today the Alamo continues to be a symbol of liberty; for its act as a courageous, self-sacrificing last stand.
San Antonio River Walk
The Franciscan priests went on to build four other missions south of the Alamo with the help of the Indigenous population, each five kilometers from the next. These walled compounds were self-sustaining, a hive of farming, ranching, crafts and trade. They include Mission San José, Mission Concepción, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada.
Today the missions are linked by the San Antonio River Walk and Mission Reach trail, which is just perfect for walking and biking. It’s well worth taking the time to visit all of the missions on the trail. All four of them are still active Catholic parishes, so the best time to visit is during a colourful Sunday mariachi mass.
While these churches have not been in continuous operation since they were established, many of today’s parishioners are direct descendants of the people who built the churches.
Mission San José
The “Queen of the Missions,” San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, was established in 1720. Its grand stone walls, bastions, granary and magnificent church took some 62 years to complete. Spanish designers, directing workers from the local Coahuiltecan tribe, built this mission using Texas limestone and brightly coloured stucco.
At its height Mission San José provided a social and cultural community for more than 300 people, and was surrounded by acres of fields and livestock herds.
Among the four missions which stretch out along Mission Reach, Mission Concepción has the reputation of being the best-preserved in its construction; the structure you see today is roughly 70 per cent original. It did undergo some interior renovations in 2010, which returned the church’s interior walls their original rich colours. The mission’s exterior was originally decorated with geometric designs painted on the façade. These exterior paintings have faded, but inside you can still see original frescos in some of the rooms.
Mission San Juan
Established in 1756, Mission San Juan Capistrano’s generous fertile farmlands allowed it to be a completely self-sustainable community, while its surplus crops helped to supply the region with produce. The original chapel and bell tower at Mission San Juan are still in use.
The southernmost mission is Mission San Francisco de la Espada, where you can see the best-preserved segment of the acequia, an irrigation system that was used to bring water to the fields. Today, part of the acequia operates the Espada aqueduct and dam.
This mission was established in 1731 and included a blacksmith shop, a kiln for baking brick and workrooms with looms and spinning wheels.
Mission visit travel tips
- It’s easy to spend one or two hours visiting each mission.
- The missions are operated by the National Park Service. Guided tours are free, as is admission.
- More than 180 species of birds have been seen in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, where native habitat is abundant. Walk the nature trail at San Juan to discover what the river and vegetation looked like when the missions were first established.
- The Mission Reach section of the San Antonio River Walk includes an eight-mile hike and bike trail from Lone Star Boulevard to Mission Espada. It brings users to all four missions except the Alamo (which is located downtown San Antonio.)
- Rent a classic or electric bicycle to explore Mission Reach. A good place to start is Blue Star Arts Complex. Just download the SWell Cycle app, then rent, ride, return and repeat. Single trips totalling less than 30 minutes cost $3.25 USD; day passes are $12.99 USD. There are stations located near each of the mission so users can “pause” their rental.
- Canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are allowed on a 1.6-mile stretch of the San Antonio River from Mission.