San Antonio Missions




San Antonio Missions

Site Information

Country: United States of America
State: Texas
Location: 29° 21' 46" N - 98° 28' 49" W
Field Documentation Date(s): January 20th, 2010
Project Release Date(s): February 28th, 2012
Time Range: 1718 CE - Present
Era: Colonial
Culture: Spanish, Native American
Site Authority: National Park Service
Heritage Listing: U.S. National Register of Historic Places
world map with location

3D point cloud of the Rose Window, created from photo-textured laser scan data

Site Description

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Located along the San Antonio River in Texas, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park encompasses four 18th-century Spanish Colonial missions and an elaborate infrastructure: Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña, Mission San Francisco de la Espada, Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Mission San Juan Capistrano, the Espada Aqueduct and Dam, and four acequias, or irrigation ditches that transported water. A mission trail extends eight miles along the San Antonio River and connects the chain of missions. Today, the San Antonio Missions represent the largest collection of Spanish Colonial missions in the United States. These historic sites became the foundation for the city of San Antonio. The missions were designed to be defensive, with residences and gates forming the protective enclosure around the central quadrangles. All of the missions were centered around grand churches and conventos. Their elaborate façades were designed in Spanish Colonial, Late Baroque, Moorish, Renaissance and Romanesque architectural styles.
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HABS photograph of Mission San José

History

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What is now Texas and the Mexican state of Coahuila once supported hundreds of hunter-gatherers called Coahuitecos or Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tekens). They were nomadic and moved seasonally following herds of migrating animals. They hunted bison, deer, javelina, turkey, opossum, and rabbit. The Coahuiltecans did not live in permanent structures or settlements. Their belongings consisted of simple tools and weapons, baskets, and very limited clothing made from animal skins. This group was threatened by the Apache and the Comanche, who had a slight advantage during the 1700s after taking control of herds of runaway horses from Spanish settlements.

As far back as the 1600s, early Spanish pioneers began to explore north of the Rio Grande in search of water, timber and game. Already being encroached upon by the French coming from Louisiana, the Spanish began to colonize the area north of the Rio Grande as early as 1690. The Spanish Crown expanded their empire in this area by funding the Franciscan missions and presidios which were designed to serve both Church and State: the mission system converted the Native Americans to Christianity and expanded and protected the Spanish empire’s northern frontier. The first missions were situated in East Texas near the Sabine River but due to disease, drought, and diplomatic relations, the missions were moved to the San Antonio River.

Many Coahuiltecans were willing to become part of the mission system for a number of reasons. The irrigation system supported a more continuous food supply because it allowed for agriculture in a relatively dry climate with little rainfall. Additionally, this group had become devastated by the diseases brought by Europeans, making them vulnerable and dependent on the mission system. The missions also offered much greater protection from rival Native American groups.

Catholicism was the religious mandate in Spain and all Spanish territories. Conversion to the Catholic religion was encouraged when living in the missions, and required in order to become Spanish citizens. The Franciscan friars at the San Antonio Missions believed that they were creating “civilized and responsible citizens” of Spain through the teaching of Catholicism and Spanish morality. The mission community was itself founded on the Catholic sacraments of baptism, communion, reconciliation, and marriage. Daily life was centered around the church; its bell towers summoned the inhabitants to worship and prayer, the fields, the workshops, and the classrooms where the Spanish language and Latin were taught.

The Franciscan friars at the San Antonio Missions acted as spiritual guides, teachers, and community leaders. The Franciscans were devout and determined men who followed the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and were trained in Franciscan colleges in central Mexico. They committed themselves to a life of celibacy, obedience, and poverty. Within the San Antonio Missions, the friars established a Spanish system of self government. They settled disputes, made duty assignments, cared for the sick, and devoted their life to the mission community.

The mission system created a very regimented life style for the Native Americans. Men and boys learned new skills like farming, ranching, carpentry, weaving, blacksmithing, and masonry. The missionaries actually relied on these native populations to learn these skills so they could build their new community. The friars also hired master masons and carpenters who oversaw building constructions and taught the Native American men various trades. Stone structures, tools, furniture, agricultural fields, and cattle were collectively owned by the occupants of the mission. The Native American men within the mission defended their community against raids by the Apache and Comanche, using bow and arrows as well as firearms provided by the mission.

Native American women foraged, gathered, cleaned, ran the camps, and prepared food. Once in the mission, everyone helped harvest crops. Crops included corn, beans, chile, squash, melons, cotton, and sugar cane. Orchards produced apples, peaches, grapes and other fruits. Mission women also foraged outside the walls in search of dewberries, yucca, pecans, roots and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus native to Texas. Women and children cleaned and picked cotton that the men then spun and wove into blankets and clothing.

Some native traditions were incorporated into Catholic ceremonies. Both men and women continued to engage in their own ritual celebrations known as mitotes, which involved ritual dancing, because it resembled Spanish fandango. By the 1800s, the Coahuiltecan civilization had become completely absorbed into Spanish society.

The missions flourished between 1747 and 1775. After this period the mission system became less important to the Spanish Crown and by 1824, the San Antonio Missions became secularized, meaning that the lands were no longer communally owned by the mission and instead were redistributed amongst its inhabitants. Ultimately, the mission system along the San Antonio River became the foundation for the city of San Antonio.
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Point Cloud perspective of the chapel at Mission Espada

Project Narrative

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In the spring of 2010, CyArk and the National Park Service collaborated to digitally preserve San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The first phase of the Digital Preservation Project of the five sites included field documentation, during which laser scanning and photography were used to create a digital record of the missions. CyArk partner Critigen performed the laser scanning and panoramic photography completed during the field documentation. The digital information gathered during the field documentation phase was then used to create media for physical preservation work, education, and virtual tourism. All of the media created is showcased on CyArk’s website and is being used at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park for the continued preservation of the missions, as well as the creation of educational interactive learning tools and lessons for school age children. This project could not have been possible without the support of NPS, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and Los Compadres de San Antonio Missions, and the commitment of several key individuals: Tom Keohan, Greg Kendrick, and Christine Whitacre of the National Park Service; Al Remley, Susan Snow, Valerie Medrano, and Christopher Castillo of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park; Daisy Mendoza of Highlands High School of S.A.I.S.D.; John Brown, Brad Oswald, and Roy Castillo of Critigen; and Justin Barton, Elizabeth Lee, and Kristina Sturm of CyArk.
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3D model of Mission San José, created from photo-textured laser scan data

Preservation

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The historic buildings of the San Antonio Missions fell into decline after the missionaries left in 1824. In the 1930s restoration began by the federal government. Under the direction of historic preservationist Harvey Smith, Jr., the Works Progress Administration (WPA) restored many of the mission buildings and walls to their 1768 condition. The San Antonio Conservation Society and the Catholic Church have also taken great measures to preserve and restore the San Antonio Missions. The content created through CyArk’s Digital Preservation Project will be used for continued physical preservation work at the five sites. Today the four missions within the park are active parish churches, and all five sites are open to the general public under the stewardship of the National Park Service.
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Area Descriptions

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Espada Aqueduct
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña
Concepción Church & Convento Interior
Mission San Francisco de la Espada
Espada Administration & Museum Interior
Espada Chapel & Convento Interior
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo
San José Church & Convento
San José Church & Convento Interior
San José Granary Interior
San José Indian Quarters Interior
Mission San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Church Interior

Espada Aqueduct

Espada Aqueduct Description:

The Espada Aqueduct was part of the irrigation system that supplied Mission Espada and its agricultural fields with a reliable source of water. This system transported water from the San Antonio River along nine acequias, or irrigation ditches. The Espada Aqueduct was built circa 1745 to specifically supply the Mission Espada fields. The structure was midway along the Espada Acequia, at the point where Piedras Creek meets the acequia. It is supported by two cut stone arches that span across the Piedras Creek. There are low retaining walls to the northwest of the aqueduct. The water channel also features several sluice gates that help control water levels. The Espada Aqueduct is still in use today and is the only remaining active Spanish aqueduct in the United States.


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Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña Description:

Mission Concepción is the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. It is the northernmost of the San Antonio Missions and is located along the east bank of the San Antonio River. Established in 1716 in east Texas but relocated to San Antonio in 1731, the church was designed in the Spanish Colonial architectural style and took nearly twenty years to build with the help of the Native Americans residing at the missions. The mission was the center of many religious festivals and events. The main façade of the Mission Concepción church was once covered in painted frescoes much like the ones preserved inside the church and convento. Religious services are still held at the mission. In fact, it is one of the oldest continuously operating Catholic parishes in the United States.

The church is cross-shaped in plan, with a vaulted roof and dome. It is constructed of limestone most likely quarried from just outside the mission walls. A master craftsman would have directed the natives how to cut and stack the stones. The stonework exhibits a strong Moorish influence. The church also has two bell towers, which are weathered and stripped of most of their original paint. The bells set the daily schedule for mission residents.


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Concepción Church & Convento Interior

Concepción Church & Convento Interior Description:

The interior of Mission Concepción church contains the greatest concentration of frescoed wall art of all four missions. Inside the convento, or priest’s quarters, are brilliant ornamental frescoes that were restored in 1988. During restoration, the library revealed the “Eye of God” fresco, a sunburst and face that are believed to either be a Spanish medallion or religious symbol. In 2010, further conservation efforts also revealed original frescoes in the church sanctuary and nave.

Frescoes helped the missionaries teach Catholicism to the Native Americans. To produce them, pigment was applied to wet lime plaster, which absorbs the color. As the plaster dried it hardened and the colors became permanent. Limestone and goat’s milk were used to bind the color to mission walls. Four distinct colors can be found on mission churches: yellow and red from ochre found in clay and sandstone, black from carbon and blue from the indigo plant.

The convento also served as the office and residence of the Mission Father President, the local field coordinator and administrator in charge of all of the missions along the San Antonio River. The interior wall paintings in the convento were mainly created during the early mission period and depict religious symbols and geometric patterns.


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Mission San Francisco de la Espada

Mission San Francisco de la Espada Description:

Mission San Francisco de la Espada is the southernmost mission and is located along the west bank of the San Antonio River. It was the first mission to be established in east Texas but was later relocated to San Antonio in 1731, as was Mission Concepcion. Mission San Francisco de la Espada means "St. Francis of the Sword'. The church was named for St. Francis of Assisi who founded the Franciscan order. Mission Espada is an exemplary mission through its surviving buildings, complex and infrastructure; its surrounding farm land is still in use today and the Espada Acequia still supplies water to the area. After the secularization of the missions in 1824, the Espada church laid in ruins until 1885 when it was rebuilt based on the original plan. The façade and arched entryway are the only surviving portions of the original church. During the construction of the entryway, it is believed that architect Anthony Tello had to leave the mission unexpectedly. The stone cutters had to finish the arched entryway on their own, creating the trefoil arch that exists today rather than the intended true arch. The mission also features a granary, convento, Indian quarters, other residences and barracks.


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Espada Administration & Museum Interior

Espada Administration & Museum Interior Description:

The Espada Administration and Museum are located at the southeast corner of the mission compound. The building has exposed wooden ceilings, plastered stone walls and floors of wood, concrete and dirt. The structures were originally residential dwellings and were later converted into a barracks by the Mexican army. A circular bastion with sandstone walls was also added in 1825. The entire mission compound was then used by James Bowie, William Travis and the Texas army as a stronghold against the Mexicans during Texas's struggle for independence until they relocated the garrison to the Alamo to better protect the village of San Antonio. In 1884, the barracks was converted into a schoolhouse. The building now houses museum exhibits.


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Espada Chapel & Convento Interior

Espada Chapel & Convento Interior Description:

The chapel and convento at Mission Espada are both located along the west end of the mission compound. The chapel features a nave, sanctuary and sacristy. It has quarry tile floors and stone plaster walls. The convento features several offices, dwellings, and storage rooms all accessed by a convento corridor. The corridor has a single arcade made from round arches. After the secularization of the missions in 1824, the Espada church laid in ruins until 1885 when it was rebuilt based on the original plan. It features a transcept that was added during this time. The façade and arched entryway are the only surviving portions of the original church.


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Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Description:

Also known as “Queen of the Missions”, Mission San José is the largest and most famous of the San Antonio Missions. It was built several miles south of the earliest mission, San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) along the west bank of the San Antonio River. It was founded in 1720 by Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus and was a major social and cultural center. It is famous for its Rose Window, which is a fine example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation. Like the other missions, the compound was also designed with defensive walls.

The acequias that brought water from the San Antonio River to the fields also powered the San José gristmill that is located just north of the church. It was built when inhabitants began to eat more wheat than corn. The upper mill stone of the grist mill was used to grind wheat into flour. Both corn and wheat were grown in the fields outside the mission walls but experts believe that this mill was only used to process wheat. The gristmill operated from 1794 to 1809. It was reconstructed in the 1930s and then re-dedicated in 2001 as the oldest operating mill in Texas.


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San José Church & Convento

San José Church & Convento Description:

The church and convento of Mission San José form the north end of the mission compound. Together they were the focal point of community life at Mission San José. The church was one of two churches to be built on this site by mission inhabitants. It was completed circa 1782 and restored in the 1930s. It is famous for its Rose Window, which is a fine example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation. Additionally, one of the most notable structural features is the two-story arcade of the convento, composed of round and lancet arches.

On the main façade of the church are six Saints. Over the window is Joseph, patron of the mission with his son, the baby Jesus. To the right of the window is Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the missionary order. To the left is Saint Dominic, a contemporary of Saint Francis. The saints on either side of the door are Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Over the door is Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas.

The original plan for the church called for two bell towers, but only one was actually constructed. During construction, the second bell tower was stopped at the roof line and a fake cannon platform was built on the top. As a result, the church’s main façade looks asymmetrical with only one bell tower. The bell tower and its dome collapsed in 1928 and were rebuilt a year later by concerned citizens of San Antonio and the archdiocese intent on preserving their heritage.


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San José Church & Convento Interior

San José Church & Convento Interior Description:

The interior of the church at Mission San José, completed in 1782, features a nave, altar and sacristy. The sacristy is famous for the Rose Window, which is a fine example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation. The sacristy also has a unique roof composed of three domes.

The two-story convento was used as the living quarters for missionaries, lay assistants and visitors. It was first completed circa 1755 but several additions were made later. The convento has several two-story arcades composed of round and lancet arches. It houses a community storeroom, kitchen, refectory, small prison, and office once used by the Father President (Chief Administrator) of the Texas Missions, all connected via two main corridors. Some of the rooms feature lancet windows and doors. It is adjacent to a cloister courtyard with a lush garden.


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San José Granary Interior

San José Granary Interior Description:

The granary functioned as a warehouse and surplus storage area for grains that were created at the mill. It is located west of the church. Flying buttresses support its east and west sides. The granary has a vaulted ceiling, walls made from stone and plaster and a floor made of flagstone. It was completed around 1755 and restored in the 1930s.


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San José Indian Quarters Interior

San José Indian Quarters Interior Description:

The Native American families at the missions lived in apartments and small adobe style dwellings called jacals. These small dwellings were typically composed of two rooms. Outside the homes were hornos, or ovens, where food was cooked over fires. At this mission, the quarters partially formed the protective walls around the entire compound. They were completed circa 1755 and restored in the 1930s.


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Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano Description:

Mission San Juan Capistrano is located along the east bank of the San Antonio River. Mission San Juan was a self-sufficient community with rich farm and pasture lands that supplied produce throughout the region. The mission was originally established in east Texas but was later relocated to San Antonio in 1731, as were Missions Concepcion and Espada. Mission San Juan underwent several building periods. In its final state, the mission is arranged around a central quadrangle surrounded by defensive walls.

The current church at Mission San Juan was built between 1786 and 1824 and was preceded by two other churches whose foundations are still present today. Buttresses were added to the church in 1968 to support its eastern and western walls. On the mission grounds are a convento, Indian quarters, Post-Colonial house, granary foundation, and well. In 1775, construction of a new church began but was never completed. It was designed to have a octagonal sacristy but only foundations and partial walls remain. Today, a museum of Mission San Juan is located inside the convento.


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San Juan Church Interior

San Juan Church Interior Description:

The current church at Mission San Juan was built between 1786 and 1824. This was the third church to be constructed at the mission. The foundations of the two older churches are still visible today. The interior contains a nave, altar and sacristy. The sacristy is separated from the rest of the church by a small, wooden partition wall.


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Credits:

more     - Greg Kendrick
            Intermountain Region Heritage Partnerships Program

     - Thomas Keohan
            Intermountain Region Heritage Partnerships Program

     - Christine Whitacre
            Intermountain Region Heritage Partnerships Program

CyArk
     - Taline Ayanyan
            Production Supervisor

     - Justin Barton
            Technical Services Manager

     - Elizabeth Lee
            Director of Projects and Development

     - Scott Lee
            Production Supervisor

     - Myasha Nicholas
            Graphic Support and Content Creator

     - James Situ
            Content Creator

     - Kristina Sturm
            Project Manager

     - Jean Xiao
            Content Creator

     - Daisy Mendoza
     - Tom Castanos
     - Christopher Castillo
     - Valerie Medrano
     - Al Remley
     - Susan Snow
     - Roy Castillo
     - Brad Oswald