Texas: San Antonio Missions

This site consists of four Spanish missions: Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada. All four are prime examples of Spanish Mission architecture as adapted for use in the New World. The construction of these historic missions was a joint effort of skilled craftsmen from Spain and Mexico and the local Coahuiltecan Indians.

Site Offices:

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park


2202 Roosevelt Avenue

San Antonio, TX 78210

ph.: (210) 534-8833

Visitor Center

6701 San José Drive

San Antonio, TX 78214

ph.: (210) 932-1001

Web site: www.nps.gov/saan/

The Spanish conquests in the New World were accomplished by both political and religious means. The mission was instrumental in the achievement of both of these goals. Once an area was conquered by the military, the Catholic Church followed immediately. While the Spanish withdrew, some 140 years after they arrived, the work of the church continued, and its influence is still felt today.

The Franciscans

The San Antonio Missions were all established and maintained by members of the Franciscan order, who countered the sometimes brutal military treatment of the Native Americans with respect and concern. This attitude caused the conversion of a high percentage of Native Americans to Catholicism, a result highly applauded by the Spanish rulers.

Each mission was a nearly self-contained community usually consisting of a church, a school, stores, and small workshop areas, along with pueblos in which the natives lived. There would also be a presidio–military base–nearby, for protection as well as soldiers’ quarters, often located inside the mission near the friars’ cloisters. The surrounding area would be primarily farmland, which was worked by the natives under the direction of the friars. The natives were encouraged to govern themselves democratically and were taught farming methods and other skills such as blacksmithing. The missions eased the Coahuiltecan Indians’ transition to European culture and formed the basis for present-day San Antonio.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park consists of more than forty structures, restored and unrestored, which together form the most outstanding grouping of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States. The greatest treasures are in the four missions that stand within the park.

Mission Espada

The oldest of these is Mission San Francisco de la Espada, originally founded in eastern Texas in 1690. It was moved to its current location on the San Antonio River and dedicated March 5, 1731. This name can be translated as “Saint Francis of the sword,” an appropriate name since, as the most exposed of the San Antonio missions, it was often subject to Apache raids.

In a quiet location, Espada suffers little from encroachment of anything modern. Espada’s design is one of massive simplicity though some areas, such as the door, exhibit striking Moorish-style beauty. The mission has been partially restored, and the random use of different stones in its original construction makes for a decidedly rustic appearance.

As is usually the case with surviving missions, the wall that originally surrounded Espada is long gone, but the foundation of the wall is still evident amidst the grass and overgrowth. The original wall was about 350 feet square, and enclosed within it were a granary, monastery, workshops, and sleeping areas for the natives, all of which are now gone. Still standing is a circular wall two feet thick that served as fortification and lookout for the mission.

The primary reason San Antonio was chosen for the site of important missions was the deep, swift, and clear San Antonio River, which was essential for irrigation of crops. Mission Espada in particular was located in an area believed perfect for irrigation. Later, the missionaries found that the river bed was too low for this purpose. Undaunted, the friars designed and built an aqueduct system to solve this problem. This system is still operational today, providing water to neighboring farms.

It was the policy of the Catholic Church to secularize missions once church leaders felt that the friars’ missionary work was completed. For Mission Espada, secularization was complete in 1794. From this point on, the mission began to deteriorate and became home for criminals and transients until restoration began in the 1920’s.

Mission San Juan

Mission San Juan, the second oldest of the group, also was originally founded in east Texas, in 1716. It was first moved to the Colorado River, near Austin, and in 1731 was relocated to its present site on the east bank of the San Antonio River.

San Juan was not as successful as many of the other missions. Much of its failure was due to the lack of sufficient space for livestock and farming. Like Mission Espada, it was also in an exposed area and subject to attack by the indigeneous people. Nevertheless, at its height, 51 families, totaling nearly 203 persons, lived at this mission.

As is the case with Mission Espada, the original foundation of the mission wall is visible today, and some parts of this wall are still standing to their original height of three hundred feet. The restored chapel still exhibits much of its original Moorish and Romanesque effects. The entrance is an early example of “open gable” design common in subsequent Texas missions. The two-foot thick front wall has no bell tower but, instead, has three arched openings (two side by side and one above) in which bells were hung.

The interior rectangle of the chapel exhibits faint drawings on the walls. As described in the last century by a Father Bouchu, these decorations show a mixture of Spanish and Native American styles:

A painted rail about four feet high running around the chapel first attracted the eye, then the elaborately painted Roman arch in red and orange over the doorway. The design of this decoration is decidedly of a Moorish cast with corkscrew and tile work, and pillars of red and orange squares. These pillars are about twelve feet high and support another line or rail of color and upon this upper line are a series of figures of musicians each playing a different instrument. The figures are for some reason more indistinct than their instruments, the latter being accurately drawn and easy to distinguish. One of the figures over the frescoed arch of the door is a mandolin player, the best example of them all, the violin bow and features of his face being distinct: his hair is black, his lips red, face and legs orange, feet black, the body of the violin orange and the rest of him and the bow red. To the right of him is a guitar player dressed in a bluish green color, sitting in a red chair.

Time and the elements have faded these brilliant artworks.

It is said that at this mission, Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna, on his way to the Alamo, staged a mock wedding to a local young woman whom he wished to make his mistress.

This mission began to decline earlier than many of the others in the area, and its population decreased. It was secularized in 1784 and continued its deterioration until the restoration era of the 1920’s.

Mission Concepción

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción was another transfer from east Texas, where it was founded in 1716. Moved to San Antonio in 1730, it is located about two and a half miles south of the Alamo. It was erected on the site of the former Mission San Francisco Xavier.

It took a number of years to build this mission, and, when finished, it included two small chapels, instead of the single standard large one. Mission Concepción is of great interest today because it has received no restoration at all, save some minor cleaning in the late nineteenth century. The architecture is simple but imposing, exhibiting primarily Romanesque styling. The interior walls, however, were anything but plain, and much of the original artwork, though faded, is still evident today. Much of the appeal of the Catholic Church to the indigenous tribes was the pageantry of the ceremonies and the striking beauty of the chapels. These wall paintings, many of them created by the natives themselves, played a large part in the majestic effect that greeted them when they entered the chapel.

The door of this mission is also of great interest. It is six feet wide and ten feet tall, and above it is a triangular arch, representing the trinity. All along the perimeter of the outside of the door is an ornately knotted rope representing the girdle of the Franciscan friars. Over the door is a small scroll which, translated, says “With these arms be mindful of the mission’s patroness and princess, and defend the state of her purity.”

As with the other missions, parts of the exterior wall remain visible. As is usually the case, the living quarters, blacksmith shop, granary, and other nonreligious buildings are long gone.

This mission is the only one, other than the Alamo, that was used as a fort during the Texan battle for independence from Mexico. On October 28, 1835, Colonel Jim Bowie and ninety Texans were surrounded by four hundred Mexicans there. During the fierce battle that followed, the Texans routed the much larger Mexican force and suffered only one casualty. This was the first fight the Texans won against the Mexicans.

Mission San José

The last mission of this group of four to be founded was the Mission San José y Miguel de Aguayo. It became the largest and most successful of the San Antonio missions, and became known as the “Queen of the Missions” because of its extraordinary beauty. It has been carefully restored and, today, is probably the most outstanding old Spanish mission from the viewpoint of the historian or the tourist.

This mission was founded in 1720, two years after the establishment of Mission San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo. It was the second mission located on the San Antonio River and is five miles southeast of the Alamo. This original building, however, is not the one that stands today. A fierce storm in 1768 caused the collapse of the dome of the church. In addition, treasure hunters had dug at the base of the original building to such an extent that the building was now unstable; the friars decided to erect a new structure. The cornerstone was laid late in 1768. The building thus dates from forty to fifty years later that those of the other missions, and that difference in time may well account for the more elaborate and outstanding features of this mission.

The building itself exhibits Gothic, Romanesque, and Moorish characteristics. Though the church has been restored to much of its former glory, we must go to a firsthand description from 1777 by a Father Juan Augustin Morfi to discover how it looked when new:

The convent has two stories with spacious galleries. The one on the second floor opens out on the flat roofs of the Indian quarters and is very convenient. . . . The figures of the facade of the church, the bannisters of the stairway of the convent, and the image of Saint Joseph that is on the pedestal, all were made more beautiful by the ease with which the stone is worked. There are enough rooms for the missionaries and for the convenience of a few guests, as well as the necessary offices for the religious, a large and well-ordered kitchen, a comfortable refectory, and a pantry. There is an armory, where the guns, bows and arrows, and lances are kept . . . in a separate room are kept the decorations and dress with which the Indians bedeck themselves for their dances.

The soldiers’ quarters were located opposite the church. As was often the case, inside the mission was a granary, a carpenter shop, spinning and weaving areas, and also a place where sugarcane was made into brown sugar and molasses. This was the first recorded instance of sugarcane being processed in Texas. The outer wall, in typical fashion, was in the shape of a square. The interior perimeter of this wall was lined with the homes of the native families.

A unique feature of this mission was the two swimming pools, one for the natives, and one for the soldiers. The pools were filled with water by use of a gravity canal that also served farmers as an irrigation outlet.

This largest of the missions boasted miles of fields under cultivation, as well as a ranch with thousands of head of cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals. The native tribes worked the farm and ranch, and prospered accordingly. It is said that the community at this mission was more harmonious than most, with less soldier abuse of the natives than was normally the case.

More so than is the case with the three other missions, an intense effort was made to restore San José. This restoration was accomplished, with mostly positive results, by Harvey P. Smith in the 1930’s. As a result, it is the most rewarding and instructive mission to the historian and the tourist, and shows well how the natives, friars, and Spanish soldiers lived nearly two centuries ago.

The church itself is famous for its beautifully carved portal and rose window, but there are many other glorious sights as well. Among these are the parapet and carved spouts (to carry off rainwater) and the two stairways that lead to the second story of the tower. Each step of the stairway is a hand-hewn block of oak wood. The famous rose window is the crowning beauty of the church and is part of the front facade. The facade has been called the peak achievement of Spanish mission design, and remains stunning more than two hundred years after its construction.

Local Legends

There are two legends surrounding this historic mission. According to one, Pedro Huizar, the young artist who designed and carved the facade, was waiting for his girlfriend, Rosa, to arrive from Spain so they could be married. Just as he was finishing his work, he received notice that her ship had been lost at sea. In memory of her, he created the rose window and, it is said, just as he finished it he heard her calling him and soon afterward he died.

The second legend concerns an adventurer from Spain who was killed by Apaches and buried in the Mission San José. His fiancé, back in Spain, begged to go to the mission to see his burial place, but was unable to do so. It so happened that the bells for the mission were to be cast in her hometown and so, in front of the crowd that had gathered to witness the casting, she threw her ring and golden cross into the molten material. Others in the crowd did the same, and she hoped this would bring her message of love to her dead lover.

Another unusual feature of this mission is an underground chamber which appears to have been partially sealed by bricks and which was decorated with various wall paintings. It has never been determined what this chamber was used for.

Written birth, marriage, baptism, and death records exist at this mission covering the period from 1777 to 1884; it is one of the few missions where such materials survive.

Mission San José was secularized in 1792 and began to deteriorate quickly. As was the case with some of the other missions, the nineteenth century brought mostly thieves and souvenir hunters who damaged the buildings. From 1835 to 1844 Santa Anna used it as barracks for his soldiers, as later did those fighting for Texan independence. The 1920’s and 1930’s brought restoration, and Mission San José stands as a stunning monument to the artistic abilities of the Native Americans and the Franciscan friars.

The Missions National Historical Park hosts festivals throughout the year. Many of these are staged with the help of the local churches. Catholic services are still held in all four of these missions. The first week in August is the annual Semana de las Missiones, the Week of the Missions, which features lectures, performances of dance and music, food booths, and demonstrations of Indian crafts.

For Further Information

  • Ashford, Gerald. Spanish Texas: Yesterday and Today. Austin, Texas: Jenkins, 1971. Provides an overview.
  • Burke, James Wakefield. Missions of Old Texas. Cranbury, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1971. By far the most comprehensive and best presented discussion of these four missions, along with many others. His description of mission life is extremely interesting.
  • Fisher, Lewis F. The Spanish Missions of San Antonio. San Antonio, Tex.: Maverick, 1998. A history of the Catholic Church and its missions in San Antonio. Includes bibliographical references.
  • Haley, James L. Texas: An Album of History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984. This worthwhile text gives a more general overview.