San Antonio’s River Walk and the Alamo continually attract thousands of visitors. They’re the most visited tourist attractions in Texas. However, many of those who come to the city don’t take the time to go out to the four other missions (besides the Alamo) that make up San Antonio Missions National Park.
Visiting the other missions won’t suit everyone’s taste. There’s no theme-park atmosphere. There’s not a lot of excitement. They’re quiet, peaceful places. But for those interested in the early history of North America they’re intriguing. Missions Concepcion, San Jose, San Francisco de la Espada, and San Juan Capistrano look very much like they did in the 1700s, and all four are still in active use as parish churches with many parishioners descended from Native Americans who went to live at the missions when the region was governed by Spain.
The easiest way to see them is to drive down the Mission Trail Parkway starting at the Alamo and heading south. (With the Alamo having been featured in another article, it won’t be described here.) All of the missions are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. No admission fees are charged, but donations are accepted.
The first stop will be Mission Concepcion located at 807 Mission Road. Like the other missions, Concepcion dates to 1731 when it was moved from East Texas to a more hospitable site near the San Antonio River. Although some might mistake Concepcion for a neighborhood church, it looks very much like it did 200 years ago. Visitors will want to be sure and go inside the surviving rooms of the mission’s Convento where there are remnants of wall and ceiling paintings dating back to the days when the mission was occupied by Spanish friars and Native Americans.
Traveling south along the Mission Trail Parkway, the next stop will be Mission San Jose, the largest and best known of the Spanish missions in Texas and located at 6701 San Jose Drive. The National Park Service’s visitor center is located next to San Jose, and it contains a museum, a book shop, and a theater continuously showing a 20-minute film illustrating what life was like at the missions in the 18th century.
San Jose has been called the “queen of the missions,” and this didn’t originate in the form of Chamber of Commerce hype. The phrase was first applied to San Jose by a visitor who stopped there in 1777. Most of the original mission has been conserved, restored, or reconstructed. Besides the church, with its beautiful carvings, you’ll want to see the Convento, the granary, the grist mill, the living quarters, and defensive walls. The most photographed feature at San Jose is probably its famous “Rose Window” which is regarded as one of the finest pieces of Spanish Colonial architectural ornamentation in the United States.
Proceeding along the Mission Trail Parkway you’ll come to San Francisco de la Espada or, as it is more commonly known, Mission Espada. Near the mission are the Espada Dam and Espada Acequia (aqueduct). Espada Dam was among four such structures built by the Spanish along the San Antonio River. The acequia carries water across Piedras Creek and continues to feed the original mission irrigation system. The dam and aqueduct are considered to be the best example of 18th-century Spanish irrigation work still surviving in the United States today.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
The last stop on the parkway is Mission San Juan Capistrano located at 9101 Graf Road. Of the five missions, San Juan is the farthest removed from urban settings, and its grounds include a self-guided nature trail. Spanish friars planned to build an elaborate church at San Juan, but it was never completed. However, the mission’s chapel, with its distinctive open bell tower, is still in use as a parish church. In 1995, another tract was added to San Antonio Missions National Historic Park – Rancho de las Cabras located near Floresville approximately 30 miles downstream on the San Antonio River. In its heyday, Las Cabras helped support Mission Espada. However, it is still under development and is open to the public on a limited basis.
For more information on the park, go to its official Web site at www.nps.gov/saan/home.htm. When I last tried to access this site, it wouldn’t come up. If you have a similar experience, try the site maintained by Los Compadres (friends) of San Antonio Missions National Historic Park at loscompadres.net/parkinfo.asp.