The Historic Importance of the San Antonio Missions

Mission San José, San Antonio, Texas. Photo credit: NPS

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in San Antonio, Texas, consists of four missions built in the early 1700s by Spanish Catholic priests. The purpose was to establish settlements in the territory claimed by Spain. The priests spread Catholicism and established local communities with the indigenous people known as Coahuiltecans. In addition to religious instruction and ceremonies, these missions grew crops, kept livestock, became cultural centers, served as buffers against French encroachment, and provided protection against warring tribes. From farming practices to architecture, these four missions, plus the Alamo which is designated separately, offer an early look at the region when it was part of New Spain.

The first mission in San Antonio was established in 1718 and moved to its present location in 1724. That was the Mission San Antonio de Valero, later named the Alamo. The four missions that comprise the national historical park soon followed. The first one was the Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, established in 1720 and named after St. Joseph and the governor of Coahuila and Texas. San José, as it was called, was built a few miles from the Alamo on the banks of the San Antonio River. It became known as the “Queen of the Missions” for its physical appearance, its large community, and as a thriving social and cultural center.

Rose Window at Mission San José. Photo credit: NPS

Within the Mission San José compound were living quarters for the 350 Indians who worked on the property. Some tended the livestock, others worked as weavers, farmers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. The mission had sleeping quarters for the workers, grazing land for livestock, gardens, a granary, gristmill, workshops for carpentry, weaving, and blacksmithing, and housing for the priests. The famed Rose Window in the sacristy is considered the finest example of Spanish colonial ornamentation anywhere in the United States. No one knows exactly who created it but one popular legend is widely accepted. Supposedly, it was crafted by sculptor Don Pedro Huizar and named in honor of his fiancée who died at sea on her voyage from Spain.

Following the success of San José, three more missions were established along the San Antonio River in 1731. Mission San Francisco de la Espada, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña were all self-sufficient communities with elaborate irrigation systems called acequias. Each mission is also architecturally unique from the others.

Mission Espada acequia. Photo credit: NPS

Mission Espada’s acequia is the oldest one in the nation in continued use, regularly irrigating local crops as it has done since the 18th century. Espada’s arched doorway is known for its unusual shape due to the stones either being the wrong size or in the wrong position. Mission San Juan Capistrano’s significant features are the chapel and bell tower that are still in use, and a nature trail that goes to the river. Mission Concepción’s church is the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. It was built on solid bedrock and has 45-inch thick walls with colorful frescos showing the Moorish, Native American, and Spanish influences.

All four missions plus the Alamo were named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Mission Espada’s acequia is a National Historic Landmark. The four mission churches continue to be active Catholic parishes.

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For more information:

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

San Antonio Missions – World Heritage