Five Spanish mission churches were built along the San Antonio River during the Eighteenth Century. Everyone knows The Mission San Antonio de Valero as The Alamo. The remaining four missions, where Catholic mass is still said, are part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. All five missions have been designated as a World Heritage Site.
World Heritage designations are given by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage Sites can be natural, cultural or both [natural and cultural]. The San Antonio Missions are one of eleven USA cultural World Heritage Sites.
2018 is San Antonio’s tricentennial year making this the perfect year to visit. Much of San Antonio’s rich history, culture and heritage are centered around the San Antonio River including The Missions.
Interested in Hispanic history and culture going back 500 years? See the Teas Historical Commission Guide for Heritage Travelers “Hispanic Texans Journey from Empire to Democracy.”
To Get There, Start Here
The Alamo is easy to find. In the downtown area, nearly every street corner has a sign pointing the way to the Alamo. The (other) Missions can be a bit trickier to find. The best way to start a Missions tour is to start at the National Park Service Website – Visitor Center at Mission San José.
GPS and Smart Phone Apps
When using smart phone apps like Google Maps, care must be given to choosing the correct entry in search results. For example, the first search result below will navigate the user to the nearest intersection where Mission Espada Road crosses.
Routing to Mission Espada Road may place the user a mile or more away from the place Mission Espada (the second entry shown below).
Road signs pointing to the different missions are only present on major routes. Mapping software will tend to find shorter routes without the requisite signage. Recovery from bad directions can be time consuming and become a source of irritation.
The Alamo stands alone. Of the five missions, it is the only one owned and managed differently than the others. The State of Texas owns The Alamo and the Texas General Land Office, by statute, cares for The Alamo. The Land Office has partnered with The Alamo Endowment to manage operations at the site (Alamo Mission in San Antonio).
Symbolically, The Alamo is the shrine of Texas liberty and is hallowed ground. Visitors are expected to adhere to the Rules of Reverence and instances of inappropriate behavior are uncommon. Do not take pictures (camera or phone) inside the Alamo
As a building, The Alamo itself is uninspiring. It is the heroism and sacrifice embodied in The Battle of The Alamo that gives meaning to the building. Visitors line up, sometimes for hours during peak times, to enter the shrine. Official Alamo photographers take pictures of parties entering the Alamo at the front door. These pictures are nicely packaged and available for sale in the gift shop. The gift shop is well stocked with Texas and Alamo themed souvenirs.
The other missions are jointly owned and operated by the US National Park Service and the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio. The National Park Service takes care of and maintains the grounds and The Church manages the inside. This arrangement between church and state enables each of the four remaining missions to continue to serve as active Catholic Parishes at the same time being part of a National Park system.
The Missions Visitor Center
The Visitor Center at Mission San José is the best starting point for touring The Missions. An information movie plays every 30 minutes that explains The Missions’ past and present social and cultural context. The movie answers the who, what, when, where and why of The Missions. Maps are available showing all five missions, roads connecting them, The Mission Reach portion of the San Antonio River Walk and other mission related sites along the San Antonio River.
Individual brochures for The [four] Missions are available at both the Visitor Center and each of The Missions. These provide additional historical information and site maps that help identify the different mission features.
Mission themed keepsakes are available for purchase in the Visitor Center. The t-shirts are well designed and made from good cotton.
Mission San Jose
Because it is next to the Visitor Center, Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo is the best starting point. Mission San Jose is an active parish church. The church may be inaccessible to visitors during special ceremonies like weddings, baptisms and funerals.
This is the only one of the four mission churches where the parish priest has asked visitors to refrain from taking pictures inside the church. Surprisingly, the interior is not ornate, but rather tastefully simple in a style consistent with other parishes in the area.
The Convento, originally intended to be for housing missionaries, was never completed and today appears to be in ruins.
Every August 15, the faithful gather for an evening mass to celebrate The Assumption of Mary in order to witness a recurring miracle. The church interior is built in the shape of The Cross. The center of the church dome is directly over the center of The Cross. The center of the cross represents Jesus. Above and behind the alter is a huge portrait of Mary.
Through the windows, the low sun shines brightly illuminating both Jesus and Mary. Jesus at the center of the church cross and Mary on her portrait.
The light illuminating Jesus comes from the small round window above the doors at the back of the church.
The window illuminating Mary is built into the dome. The double illumination occurs on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary (August 15) at 7:30 PM.
A National Park Service docent enlightens visitors with stories about the double illumination and other interesting bits of information throughout the day.
Mass is held Sundays at Mission Concepcion.
Mission San Juan
Small, simple and intimate, the church has the feel of a warm tight knit parish. Rustic rough-hewn lumber forms the ceiling. The pews and kneelers are small and close together welcoming congregants to the new world.
This church feels personal in scale. Above, Joseph to the left of the alter and Mary to the right are life sized. Three or maybe four adults can sit together in a pew.
Inside the church, quiet reigns. Mass is held Saturdays, Sundays and Holy Days at San Juan Capistrano Mission.
Mission Espada has the classical Franciscan Church front.
A low building addition juts out from the left side of Espada. The building houses the parish Gift Shop.
The gift shop isn’t always open.
Inside the church, similar to Mission San Juan, the ceiling is rough-hewn. There is more room inside than San Juan but not much more.
On the Mission San Francisco De La Espada parish website, mass times are posted.
This is an active parish.
The mission churches are not fancy. But they were initially constructed in the eighteen century and continuously active New World North American churches of this vintage are rare. Their story is our story. A story that starts with the first wave of immigrants – Spanish immigrants.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!