San Antonio’s Mission Trail

After seeing the Alamo, head to nearby Missions National Park to see four additional historic Spanish missions, all still active churches.


Article by Byron Browne

Remember the Alamo? Well, along with that veteran icon of downtown San Antonio are several other historical and captivating missions in nearby San Antonio Missions National Park. Beginning a couple miles south of downtown San Antonio, four 18th-century missions sit along what the National Parks Service refers to as “Mission Trail.” My wife and I recently toured these demi-cathedrals one afternoon and were amazed at the relative seclusion and magnitude of the relics.

The park and each mission are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and close only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is free. All four mission churches still hold regular services that are open to the public, except for special services, such as weddings and funerals. The park’s visitors center is located adjacent to Mission San José (6701 San José Drive). Visit the National Park Service’s Web site for additional information.

Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña

Like most of the Spanish missions south of San Antonio, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, usually referred to simply as Concepción, was relocated to south Texas from east Texas in 1731 to escape the threat of encroaching French soldiers from Louisiana. The mission’s sacristy is a wonderful design of beauty and purpose with twin bell towers framing a single, central entranceway to the church’s nave. Concepción draws many visitors due to its proximity to the city’s center, the mostly extant condition of the building and its original fresco decorations still on display.

Once inside, you’ll notice the frescos sketched over in pencil by a new hand; a necessary step before restoration of the works begins next year. These frescos illustrate an interesting duality of Catholic and Indian religiosity—a rare example of Franciscan friars’ attempts to indoctrinate the indigenous population into the faith without the prototypical heavy-handedness.

The space the mission’s sites occupy is unusually large and spread out since one of its original purposes was to house the Spanish friars and soldiers, as well as some of the local population of Coahuiltecan Indians. The acreage was necessary for worship, housing, gardens, workshops, granaries and cemeteries. The land is bordered with the remnants of stone walls, which provided protection from the hostile Apache and Comanche Indians.

Mission Concepciòn, 807 Mission Road. Docents are on site as is a small bookstore. Church services: Sundays 10 a.m.

San José y San Miguel de Aguayo

A little farther south on “Mission Trail,” San José y San Miguel de Aguayo exhibits stunning architecture and relative opulence. San José, termed the “Queen of the Missions” some 270 years ago, was reconstructed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Now restored to much of its former glory, it’s the most popular of the missions along the route, so expect longer lines and wait times for ideal photographic opportunities.

La Ventana de Rosa, the Rose Window, is one of the mission’s many attractions. Considered one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in the United States, legend claims the carpenter, Juan Huizar, carved the window for his fiancé, Rosa, lost at sea on her way to San Antonio from Spain. Also, a few reconstructed Indian Quarter’s rooms line the interior perimeter of the mission’s walls, providing a glimpse of the living conditions inside the fortress.

Mission San Josè, 6701 San José Drive. Docents are on site as is a small bookstore. Church services: Saturdays at 5:30 p.m (English) and Sunday at 7:30 a.m (Spanish), 9 a.m (English), 10:30 a.m.(English) and noon (bilingual).

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Third on the trail, Mission San Juan Capistrano was originally commissioned in 1716, again in the woods of east Texas, and moved to its current location in 1731. Sparse and somewhat remote, this presidio more resembles an architectural site than its relatives. The church’s tower stands atop a thin, mostly reconstructed wall and is crowned by a trinity of bells, a markedly different appearance than Concepción or San José.

A fragility here suggests a degree of spartanism. However, in reality the land within and surrounding this mission was so fertile, due in part to 15 miles of aqueduct meandering throughout the countryside, it frequently had surplus food with which to supply neighboring churches and communities. Sadly, on the day that we visited, the church’s nave was closed.

Mission San Juan, 9101 Graf Road. The information center also houses a small museum of native artifacts. Church services: Saturdays at 5 p.m. (bilingual) and Sundays at 10:45 a.m. (bilingual).

San Francisco de la Espada

The fourth and final mission along the route, San Francisco de la Espada, also had its beginnings in east Texas. Unlike its sister communities, Espada dates to the 17th century; initially founded in 1690, it’s the oldest mission on the trail. The façade is remarkably well preserved and, like San Juan, displays a triangle of bells above its original doorway. Even in mid-November, the courtyard radiates with fresh flowers in full bloom. During our visit, soft ecclesiastical music hummed from an outdoor speaker system. While an active convent hasn’t existed here for nearly a century, we were told a Franciscan brother regularly tends to the flowers, bird-feeders and a pair of healthy-looking cats.

Mission Espada, 10040 Espada Road. A small museum in the visitor’s center is operated by very helpful docents. Church services: Saturdays at 6 p.m.(English) and Sundays at 10 a.m. (Spanish).

Together, these four missions along the “Mission Trail” offer an extraordinary glimpse at an often overlooked past. So, don’t forget the Alamo; just remember these other monuments as well.

Destinations: San Antonio

Themes: Historical Vacations

Activities: Museums

User Comments

Great Article I am with the local CVB and just read your article, very well done. For anyone going to San Antonio, the city has a visitor center right across the street from the Alamo and offers free maps, guides and discounts for visitors. San Antonio was voted one of the most affordable cities in America by Travel & Leisure readers two years in a row.

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