San Antonio has more than just The Alamo — ‘Mission Trail’ offers fascinating look at history
We had planned to be a tour guide of sorts, since we had visited the southern Texas city several times, including a visit only several months ago.
She, on the other hand, had not been to San Antonio for decades and among the places we knew she would want to revisit was the improved River Walk — a must for San Antonio visitors.
But after the obligatory dinner on the river, she opted to spend most of our only free day visiting “the missions.”
What missions, we asked?
We knew there was The Alamo, which had been founded in 1718 and was the first mission on the San Antonio River.
Were there other missions?
There certainly were and the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which operates the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, has done an excellent job of bringing them all together in a “Mission Trail.”
As the Auto Club tour book notes, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park includes four missions, in addition to The Alamo.
And you can reach them by walking or biking along a ten-mile Mission Trail that begins at The Alamo and runs south to Mission San Francisco de la Espada.
A great idea for the healthy among you or those who wish to be.
Problem is, you also have to hike or bike back the same ten miles to return to downtown and The Alamo.
For the rest of us, there is a drive that is fairly well marked with those familiar brown National Park Service signs.
But watch carefully, because the Mission Trail takes you on city streets that wind through an urban area south of San Antonio that at times is so interesting that you find yourself gawking at everything but the Park Service brown directional signs.
The route does jig and jag, turning from one somewhat narrow San Antonio street to another, often with little notice.
There is also the problem that the missions are a lot farther apart than you would anticipate.
For us, it seemed like the signs would say “mission just a mile or two away” and we would drive for what seemed like three or four miles, always assuming we had missed the mission of the moment.
But, we didn’t miss a one.
One of the nicest aspects of the Mission Trail is that after you leave the urban part of southern San Antonio, you come into some interesting neighborhoods, some with old houses that look as though they’ve been there for centuries.
Also, the rural parts of this area are very tranquil.
And then suddenly you find yourself near an airport.
Obviously, people have settled around the missions, mostly dating to the very late 1600s and mid-1700s.
Frankly, for those who have been to Baja California and other areas of early Spanish settlement, some of the San Antonio missions seem rather like newcomers.
And some seem smaller than missions in San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara and other areas up and down the California coast.
Still, when the weather is as nice as we stumbled upon Sunday, an afternoon among the San Antonio missions can be absolutely delightful.
Especially when you’re lucky enough to arrive just in time for a Mariachi Mass at Mission San Jose y Miguel de Aguayo or a quindecennial ceremony at Mission San Juan Capistrano for a couple of little beautifully decked out young ladies who had reached that magic age of 15.
Yes, The Alamo is a must-see and it is full of important history, but each of these four little missions offered a quieter, more leisurely opportunity to enjoy the history without the mobs of tourists one gets at The Alamo.
MISSION CONCEPCI”N — The first mission south of The Alamo is Mission ConcepciÛn, which dates to when the Mission of Nuestra Senora de PurÌsima ConcepciÛn was transferred from East Texas in 1731.
Mission officials say the church now looks about the same as it did in the mid-1700s, when it served as the center of the mission’s activities.
The Park Service says missionaries here tried to replace traditional Indian ritual with religious festivals that taught Chris- tian beliefs.
Some of the original interior paintings remain. Some are said to be religious and others to be decorative.
The church has two towers and is still being used for services. Weekly services, which are attended by good Catholics in the neighboring community, were just ending as we arrived.
One older gentleman we found told us he brings his wife to mass here every Sunday and then sits in his truck and reads the Sunday paper. Hmm. This arrangement may explain why the couple has stayed together so long.
Next door to the church is a wonderful visitors center operated by the National Park Service, where you can pick up a great map of the Mission Trail.
There are also some wonderful books on Texas and the history of the area.
MISSION SAN JOSE — Down the trail a few miles is Mission San JosÈ y San Miguel de Aguayo, said to be the best of the Texan missions.
The church sits inside a huge courtyard, which itself is full of interest.
Because of its size, this mission was said to have been the center of community life in the region.
Although the courtyard and complex seem huge, the church itself was small and narrow.
But the strong walls and high ceiling gave the mariachis and the parishioners who joined in song a wonderful sound.
As visitors entered for the noon mariachi service, one of the assistants asked where each visitor was from. Before the service began, the various locations were read off, with each visitor asked to rise as his or her home state or country was announced.
It was obvious that a full two-thirds of the visitors had come from areas other than Texas, many from Europe and other foreign locales.
This mission also had a wonderful information center and book store, with even a larger collection of Texas and historical books and cards available for purchase.
MISSION SAN JUAN — The third mission along the Mission Trail is Mission San Juan Capistrano, hardly as impressive as our San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, but worth seeing nevertheless.
This mission was originally established in East Texas but moved to its present site on the banks of San Antonio River in 1731.
By the mid-1700s, the mission had accumulated rich farms and pasturelands and was a regional supplier of agricultural produce, Park Service officials said.
This rural feeling continues today, as the mission is still adjacent to what looks like some pretty rich farmland.
Visitors are told that this mission did well, with orchards and gardens outside the walls producing peaches, melons, pumpkins, grapes and peppers.
Corn, beans, sweet potatoes, squash and even sugar cane were grown in irrigated fields, the Park Service brochure says.
Some 3,500 sheep and nearly as many cattle also were reportedly part of the mission’s herds.
This mission is near a 15-mile water distribution system that was said to include five dams and several aqueducts along the San Antonio River to ensure continuous water.
Today, a lovely, green parkway lines both sides of the river and although some of the area is off limits to the public, there are many picnic areas and public parks nearby.
The San Antonio River is interesting in itself.
Along the River Walk downtown, a series of five gates to control the flow of the water have been built to prevent a repeat of the disastrous flooding in the 1920s that killed some three dozen.
But out here along the Mission Trail the river at times seems rather anemic.
But there are signs warning hikers and bikers to watch out for flash flooding, when the raging river can apparently become dangerous indeed.
MISSION ESPADA — The final and most southerly mission was founded in 1690 as San Francisco de los Tejas and was the oldest of the East Texas missions.
In 1731, the mission was moved to the west side of the San Antonio River and renamed San Francisco de la Espada.
This mission was said to be the only one that used brick and the church looks as though it might tumble over at any moment.
In the mid-1700s, this mission was also busy trying to develop a solid economy in the neighborhood, teaching Indians specific vocations.
Men learned to weave cloth and they learned blacksmithing to help repair farm implements.
Today, there seems to be less activity at this mission than at the others we visited.
Adjacent to the typical tall church tower with two church bells side by side and a third perched at the top, there is an arcade of arches similar to those at San Juan Capistrano in Orange County.
Someone is living in quarters behind the arches and visitors are advised to observe their privacy.
One has to make an effort to get the church’s heavy front door open and is soon greeted with several signs reading:
“Please close the doors and keep out dust and cats.”
We found no one inside the church and at the narrow end of the church visitors were stopped by a rope and another sign indicating that visitors were prohibited from the “religious end” of the church.
EXPANDING NORTHWARD — The Park Service reminds visitors to the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park that the string of these four missions forms “the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America” and were an attempt by Spain “to extend its dominion northward from New Spain (present-day Mexico.)”
The Park Service historians note that Spain first built its missions in East Texas as an effort to hold off French encroachments from Louisiana.
What is described by the Park Service as “a failed mission on the Rio Grande” was transferred to the San Antonio River in 1718 and the mission was renamed Mission San Antonio de Valero and later was called The Alamo.
For those of us who enjoy learning about American history but have not spent much time in the wonderful history books that are available, an afternoon on The Mission Trail makes for an easy and interesting way to learn more about an important region in our country.
We recommend the Mission Trail to everyone.