Friday, May 6, 2016

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

Mission Espada

Almost every American remembers the Alamo, but who among us can recall Mission Concepcion, Mission San José, Mission San Juan or Mission Espada?

Yet, those four, linked in a chain with the Alamo, just a ox-cart distance away from one another along San Antonio River, illustrate the history of the missions better than the infamous Alamo.

Collectively, the five, each a presidio (fort) and settlement, form the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America, earning them the designation as a World Heritage Site.

San José Mission

Tim and I had heard that San Antonio Missions National Historical Park was the place to begin a tour of San Antonio.  After all, there are NPS rangers at each mission who are more than willing to tell the story of the Spanish conquest of South Texas.  An added bonus is free admission to all four sites.

San José Mission

So Tim and I showed up early at the Mission San José's Visitor Center on our first morning in San Antonio to watch the movie, stamp our NPS Passport and attend the ranger's talk.

Park Ranger Miseal told us of the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan priests whose two-fold objective was to conquer and convert the Coahuiltecan Indians, thus moving the empire of New Spain further north.

San Juan Mission

The mission system sought to bring Indians into Spanish culture by concentrating the scattered tribes in church-centered communities.

Mission Concepcion

Many Coahuiltecans, staggered by famine, imported diseases and enemy tribes, opted for the protection and steady food supply of the missions.

Inside the tower at San José Mission

Under the direction of the Franciscans, the Indians built the missions and irrigation systems that watered the crops and livestock that the Indians, now farmers, laborers and cattlemen, produced.

Mission Concepcion

Not every tourist tries to visit all five of the missions, but we'd planned to devote the day to following the San Antonio 11.5-mile segment of El Camino Real, retracing the route of the ox-carts which delivered supplies and traded goods along the way.

The construction of each mission followed a similar pattern, a rough rectangle bounded by quarters for the soldiers and the Indians, with the church and convent inside.

One of the aqueducts

We found the irrigation systems built by the Indians an incredible feat of engineering.  As the park brochure says, "The success of any mission depended upon their crops.  Sparse rainfall and the need for irrigation made it a priority to create seven gravity flow ditch systems, called acequias.  Five dams and several aqueducts along the San Antonio River ensured the flow of river water into the system.  The 15-mile network irrigated about 3,500 acres of land."

Another aqueduct

Mission Espaça has the best-preserved acequia system.  Farms still use the system today.

Mission Espada

Each of the four churches are active parishes and so mass is held at various times throughout the week.  Tim and I plan to attend the Saturday evening mass at the San José Mission.  We need to get up early Sunday if we're going to make it to our next Habitat for Humanity construction site in Hobbs, NM.

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