Five Missions

Between 1680 and 1793, thirty-six missions were founded by the Spanish across Texas. Under constant challenge from the Indians, the French, and the rugged living conditions afforded by the land, only a handful of these survived for any period of time. The most impressive of the survivors are a series of five missions strung along the banks of the San Antonio River within a twelve-mile radius of the city of San Antonio, founded in 1718.

The purpose of the missions was both civil and religious. The principal task of the missionary was to convert the pagan Indians to Christianity. But it was also his charge to raise the natives from what the Spanish considered to be a primitive state of culture to become civilized and responsible citizens of the Spanish empire. The missions were largely financed by the Spanish government but directed by Franciscan friars, an arrangement made possible by the union of church and state in Spain at the time. The sites held more than a church and a priest’s house. They were tiny villages unto themselves with granary, offices, workshops, refectory, storerooms, stables, dwellings for the Indian neophytes, and quarters for a few soldiers all grouped, along with the religious buildings, around a central plaza and enclosed by a fortified wall.

Primarily oriented to the Coahuiltecan Indian tribes, the San Antonio missions were constantly harassed by Apache and Comanche challenges and were never able to congregate as many natives as did the later California missions, where as many as 2,000 Indians might be assembled. The San Antonio missions, even in their best days, never had more than 200 to 350 Indians in each of the five.

The Coahuiltecan Indians, unlike the Aztecs and Zapotecs in Mexico or the Pueblos in New Mexico, had no building techniques or traditions of their own. The sources for the architecture of the San Antonio missions, therefore, lie basically in Spain. Skilled craftsmen were included among the early missionary founders and traveled from one mission to another in San Antonio, teaching the Indians their building methods.

The materials utilized were those readily at hand. San Antonio abounded in rich deposits of clay and building stone, much of which was available on the site or in nearby creek quarries. An impressive array of masonry forms were utilized in the construction of the missions. The rich local clays were baked in the hot sun to make adobe for walls and tiles for floors and caps. Irregular fieldstones of the area made up of granite, sandstone, limestone, and even slate were used in connection with adobe. A mixture of the two materials can often be found running randomly through the thickness of a single wall. Local limestone of two sorts was also quarried in nearby pits. The sandy, porous tufa was very soft and easy to cut but generally required plastering to create a wall impervious to the weather. A whiter, denser limestone, sometimes called Concepcion Stone, was used for exposed facades and stone ornament. It had the very desirable trait of remaining fairly soft for some time after removal from the ground but hardening significantly after exposure to the elements. This stone did not split easily under the chisel, and fairly deep undercutting was possible. These qualities allowed craftsmen to produce the rich, variegated surfaces that so enrich the mission churches.

Wood was sparse in the area, especially when great lengths were required. Local oak was adequate for doors, paneling, stairsteps, and window lintels and frames. But it was more problematic where long spans were required, as in the churches. It was perhaps this inadequacy that provoked the friars to experiment with adobe and to create a new type of concrete made of pulverized stone, sand, and water mixed with adobe, to be used where stress was not intense. The mixture was poured over wooden forms and hardened into monolithic surfaces such as the crossing dome of Mission Concepcion.

Stylistically, the missions reflected two major influences, both of them imported from Spain. In terms of massing, the buildings were dominantly Romanesque with their barrel vaults, buttresses, and solid, geometric, low-lying forms-all expressing the heaviness of their masonry construction. The simple cruciform plan, used in varying forms in the missions, was also a legacy of the Spanish Romanesque.

In terms of ornament and decoration, however, the buildings were not Romanesque, but Moorish. The walls of the missions once abounded with lavish detail and brilliant color, only faintly evident today. Exotic patterns in burnt sienna, red, ochre, and cerulean blue stood in contrast to great stretches of plaster or stone walls left free of ornamentation. Doorways and window openings were favorite occasions for embellishments, as were the church interiors. Zigzag stripes, chevrons, corkscrews, painted tile, and stone patterns, as well as a few literal religious scenes, represented both a kind of decadent Spanish Baroque attitude toward ornamentation and a primitivism which resulted from their filtering through Mexico.

The degree to which missionaries, in a relatively short period of time, created such large and expressive buildings in a rugged new place is impressive indeed. Even in their weathered, remodeled, and unevenly restored state today, the missions still communicate much to us about the dedication, the values, and the lifestyles of Texas’ earliest colonial inhabitants.

NOTE: Mission dates are from A Catalog of Texas Properties in the National Register of Historic Places (Austin: Texas Historical Commission, 1984).

The Alamo
1724 (present location), 1744, 1850, 1920

Mission San Antonio de Valero – the Alamo – is best known as a fortress rather than a church. It was, of course, the scene of the heroic thirteen-day battle in the winter of 1836 during which 188 Texas rebels fought the onslaught of Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his army which ultimately numbered 5,000 men.

The chapel for the mission, which has become a poignant symbol of not only that battle but the entire Texas revolutionary movement, had a battered history even before 1836. Although other parts of the mission were built much earlier, the church in its current location was not begun until May 1744. Destroyed by a storm a few years later, it was not until the mid-1750’s that the structure we know now was rebuilt. The date which can still be seen on the façade is 1757.

But the stone church of Mission San Antonio was never completed while the mission was in existence. When the famous battle was fought in 1836 the makeshift fortress consisted of thick walls which had only been completed up to the cornices. Still, it was a beautiful and well-crafted façade with four fine sculpture niches, one occupied by St. Francis, one by St. Dominic, and two still empty.

Damaged during the battle, the building sat largely untouched until 1849, when the U.S. Army built the familiar upper portion of the chapel façade. Used as a warehouse by the Army until it was purchased by the State of Texas in 1883, the modest stone structure has now become a prominent landmark in San Antonio and a potent symbol of its city and its state.

Mission Espada

The most remote of the San Antonio outposts, San Francisco de la Espada was for much of its history the most vulnerable of the missions. Protected by ramparts and a bastion with cannon holes at the base and musket holes about eight feet from the ground, the tiny compound survived constant raids by the Apaches and, later, the Comanches over almost a century.

The mission is best known today for its irrigation system, which is thought to be the oldest water system in the United States still in use. Its most significant building is the church, which is a simple edifice with little ornamentation. Its one very special glory is the entry portal, which is unmistakenly Moorish, having the shape and lines of the Alhambra.

After the failure of the mission in 1831, the compound’s buildings fell into disrepair and by mid-century were little more than ruins. In 1858 Father Francis Bouchu, a young French priest recently arrived in Texas, took on Espada as his personal mission in life. Finding only the façade and rear wall of the church still standing, he rebuilt the side walls on the old foundations with his own hands. He roofed the structure, plastered and whitewashed the church’s interior, laid a wooden floor, built a choir loft, and even personally crafted benches and kneelers. For almost half a century Father Bouchu bestowed his personal loving care on Mission San Francisco de la Espada and singlehandedly saved it for future generations to know and enjoy.

Mission San Juan Capistrano
1731, ca. 1756 (church)

Accounts of Mission San Juan Capistrano in the eighteenth century describe its church as “neat and in good order, though it does not compare with those described [the churches of missions San Antonio, Concepcion, and San Jose] as far as the building is concerned” (Morti, History of Texas, 1673 -1779). The chapel is very plain and simple in construction and represents a departure from earlier mission designs in Texas. Rather than having a separate tower, the church’s east wall is simply penetrated in the gable by three arched openings wherein bells are suspended. The interior of the chapel is a long, thin rectangle, originally painted with bright Moorish decorations.

Between 1762 and 1789 a new and larger church was begun at San Juan Capistrano on the east side of the compound, opposite the existing chapel. Due to lack of Indian labor, however, construction was stopped and a grander church for the mission was never completed.

Mission Conception
Ca. 1731 (present location), 1740-1755

The Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion contained probably the most complete and traditional church of the five San Antonio missions. Its cruciform plan, twin bell towers, vaulted ceilings with a dome and cupola over the crossing, sacristy, baptistry, choir loft, and attached convent all place it within the best traditions of European church building. The location of the church in the center of the mission compound, surrounded by a plaza and ringed with Indian houses, gave focus and isolation to the sacred buildings.

The church’s thick masonry rubble walls are faced with carefully worked cut stone. Between the towers on the front façade is an elaborately carved portal, and above it a niche originally for a statue of Mary Immaculate. The simple triangle above the portal is matched by simi1arly bold pyramids which cap the two towers. Currently very striking in its plain geometry, the façade would originally have been veiled in painted geometric design in very bright colors.

Mission San Jose
1740 (present location), 1768-1770

Known as “Queen of the Missions,” San Jose is easily the most elaborate of the five San Antonio mission complexes. A visiting churchman of the late 18th century, Friar Morti, noted of its dominant church, “This building, because of its size, good taste, and beauty, would grace a large city as a parish church” (Morti, History of Texas, 1673-1779).

The mission compound was impressive as well. Stone walls enclosed a perfect square 200 varas (611 feet) on each side, with towers at the corners. On each of the four sides was an entry gate. A total of 350 resident Indians inhabited the mission at its peak of population in 1768. There were 84 Indian houses built of stone, with flat roofs and parapets. They were built around interior patios which contained ovens, flowing water from the irrigation ditches, and bathing pools.

Friar Gaspar Jose Solis, another eighteenth-century visitor to San Jose, wrote that “this mission is so pretty and in such a flourishing condition, both materially and spiritually, that I cannot find words or figures with which to express its beauty” (M. A. Halsig, The Alamo Chain, p.94). Indeed, Friar Morti, who had visited all of the frontier missions in America, described San Jose as “the first mission in America, not in point of time but in point of beauty, plan, and strength, so that there is not a presidio along the entire frontier line that can compare with it” (Morti, History of Texas, 1673-1779).