The Spanish missions in Texas were part of the colonization efforts of Spain into the New World. Spanish missionaries established a series of religious outposts to spread the Catholic doctrine among the Native Americans in the area. The missions introduced European livestock and plants as well as Spanish culture, language and knowledge.
Today the Missions of San Antonio are a valuable part of the history and culture of San Antonio. The Missions are restored and protected as World Heritage sites. Out of the five Missions, four Missions are active parishes and hold Catholic mass. Tourists can explore the Missions along the River Walk’s new Mission Reach. The Mission Reach is an eight mile stretch with recreational trails, picnic and seating areas, pedestrian bridges, pavilions and portals to four Spanish colonial missions—Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada.
History of the Missions
From 1718 to 1731, priests of the Franciscan Order established the San Antonio Missions. The Spanish government and the Catholic Church sent priests to Texas—then part of New Spain—to settle and protect territory claimed by the Spanish Crown. No permanent Spanish settlements existed in the area prior to the construction of the Missions. The priests were responsible for bringing the indigenous people of the region, nomadic hunter-gatherers known as Coahuiltecans, into the Missions to create viable Spanish communities. The priests sought to make the indigenous people into good Spanish citizens or “gente de razón” by conversion to the Catholic faith, teaching vocational skills such as farming, weaving, and masonry, adoption of Spanish culture and language, provide Spanish protection and engage in the construction of mission structures and irrigation systems using water from the San Antonio River needed to support the missions and their farmland.
Each mission was a complex that included a church, sleeping quarters for the families, residences for the priests, a variety of other buildings such as workshops, warehouses and granaries, as well as farms , ranch lands, and irrigation systems. Under the guidance of the priests and master stonemasons, the structures were built over many years by the native people using locally quarried limestone. Construction of the first, the Mission San Antonio de Valero, began in its current site in 1724, while the construction of the other four missions began within the next decade
Each current existing mission was built three mile from the next, and all are close to the San Antonio River. From the river to the missions, irrigation channels, called acequias, were dug.
The missions continued for 60 – 100 years. Spanish officials secularized the Alamo in 1793. Over the next 31 years, the remaining four missions became secularized. The churches became the property of the local Catholic clergy and the mission lands were either sold or divided among those who lived and worked there. The full secularization of the San Antonio Missions was complete in 1824.
Mission San José
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was founded by Franciscan missionary Father Antonio Margil de Jesús in 1720. In 1768, construction of the existing church began and finished in 1782, about 14 years later.
Spanish designers, directing workers from the local Coahuiltecan tribe, built the mission using Texas limestone and brightly colored stucco. The church’s façade and Rose Window are considered the finest examples of Spanish colonial ornamentation in the United States. Viewed as a model of Mission organization, Mission San José was a major social center. The unique architecture of its church and the richness of its fields and pastures led visitors to comment on its beauty. The size of the complex bears witness to San José’s reputation as the “Queen of the Missions.”
At its height, it provided sanctuary and a social and cultural community for more than 300 Indians, and was surrounded by acres of fields and livestock herds. The mission had its own gristmill and granary, which have been preserved.
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña is located approximately three miles south of downtown and was established in 1731. An estimated 300 Native Americans were brought into the mission when it was founded. They constructed the buildings and the acequia (irrigation ditch) as well as prepared the land to farm crops.
Construction of the main church building took 20 years. Workers completed the church in 1755. The Mission compound included a plaza, the church and the convento, which included living quarters for the priests, as well as the refectory and office. Additionally, mission residents built animal pens, a granary, and a well within the protective inner walls. The Mission complex became a self-sufficient, self-contained village surrounded by farmland irrigated by the acequias.
Mission Concepción’s church is considered the best-preserved Spanish colonial structure in the U.S. Brightly painted frescos that decorated the church’s exterior in the 1700s are still faintly visible. The church stands as the oldest unrestored stone church in the U.S.
Mission San Juan
Mission San Juan Capistrano was established in San Antonio in 1731. The church, priest’s quarters and granary were completed in 1756. The mission’s fertile farmlands allowed for a self-sustainable community, and its surplus helped supply the region with produce.
Construction of at least three different church buildings took place at the complex between the 1750s and 1786. In 1756, the first stone church, a friary, and a granary were completed. By 1762, 203 Indians lived at the Mission. Around 1762, the building of second church began. The construction of a third larger church started in 1775 but was abandoned in 1786, when a population decline and lack of labor left the church only half complete. Building of the current church commenced around 1786 and completed between 1790-91.
In the mid-1700s, Mission San Juan was a regional supplier of agricultural produce, including corn, beans, squash, sweet potatoes and sugar cane, grown in irrigated fields outside of the mission complex. In the surrounding gardens and orchards, the residents grew melons, pumpkins, grapes and peppers. San Juan established a trade network with the French settlements in Louisiana, other Spanish missions in Texas and villages in Mexico for its surplus produce. In 1762 the Mission kept approximately 3,500 sheep and the same number of cattle just 20 miles away at Rancho de Pataguilla.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada was the first Spanish Mission in Texas. It was founded in 1690 as San Francisco de los Tejas near present-day Nacogdoches in East Texas. It was renamed as Mission San Francisco de la Espada when it moved to San Antonio in 1731. The priest’s residence was completed in 1745 and the church in 1756.
Inside the mission compound were a blacksmith shop, kiln for baking brick, and workrooms with looms and spinning wheels. Corn, beans, melons, pumpkins and cotton were grown in the irrigated fields adjacent to the mission. Espada’s ranch, Rancho de las Cabras, is 23 miles south of the Mission and had as many as 1,262 head of cattle and 4,000 sheep. The missionaries strove to make life in the mission communities closely resemble that of Spanish villages. They taught mission Indians specific vocations – men learned carpentry, masonry, and stonecutting to construct elaborate buildings. Espada was the only mission to make brick, which is still visible. Mission Espada’s acequia is the nation’s oldest in continuous use. It still uses San Antonio River water to irrigate local crops today.
Mission San Antonio de Valero
Mission San Antonio de Valero was established on May 1, 1718, as the first Spanish mission along the San Antonio River. It was named for San Antonio de Padua, the patron saint of the mission’s founder, Father Antonio de Olivares as well as for the viceroy of New Spain, the Marquis de Valero. The mission later became known as the Alamo.
The building now known as the Alamo was not built until 1744. The mission eventually grew to include a granary, workhouse, and rooms for the priests, native peoples, and soldiers. To protect from frequent Apache raids, a wall surrounded the buildings. By 1744, over 300 Indian converts resided at San Antonio de Valero.
The mission was largely self-sufficient, relying on its 2000 head of cattle and 1300 sheep for food and clothing. Each year, the mission’s farmland produced up to 2000 bushels of corn and 100 bushels of bean, cotton was also grown. The mission served the Coahuiltecan Native Americans until 1793, when mission activities ended.
The buildings later served as a home for a Mexican army unit before becoming a military hospital in 1806. During the Texas Revolution, the buildings served as the site of the Battle of the Alamo. The name “Alamo” came into use after Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821. The soldiers from Mexico stationed at Mission San Antonio de Valero were of the Alamo Company, named for their hometown, Alamo de Parras. “Alamo” means cottonwood in Spanish.