The Missions

In San Antonio, Texas, four well-known historical sites still host thriving religious communities.


By Mike Thomas


England and France weren’t the only world powers snapping up tracts of vast North American land in the late 17th century. Spain, too, laid claim to real estate along the fertile and flourishing banks of the San Antonio River in what is now South Texas. The native peoples who populated these areas were required to become Catholic as a prerequisite to eventual Spanish citizenship. At the center of the mission communities where indigenous Indians lived and toiled were Catholic churches, four of which remain active parishes inside the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. (The most famous mission, San Antonio de Valero—better known as the Alamo, a shrine to the Texas war of Independence—is owned by the state of Texas and operated by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, not the Park Service.)

Starting in 1720, Mission San José became something of a template for three other missions that followed a decade thereafter—San Juan, Concepción, and Espada. Each has its own flavor and unique background. Mission Concepción, closest to the city of San Antonio, has the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States and the largest concentration of original preserved frescos. Missions San Juan and Espada are the farthest from the city and still retain their rural charm.

Each, as in centuries past, is operated through a partnership of the sacred and secular—now, it’s the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the National Park Service. Their joint efforts have allowed these historical treasures to survive after decades of neglect and disrepair. Those who spearhead the preservation efforts must oversee costly restoration work and raise millions of federal and private dollars to make it happen. turn the page to meet four of the main players.

Susan Chandoha
Executive Director, Los Compadres

Since 1984, Los Compadres has raised more than $3.8 million for park projects, including restoration and upkeep of the missions. This private funding supplements the annual funds provided to the Park Service by Congress.

Biggest challenge: Constantly reminding the public that this is a partnership between the archdiocese and U.S. government. While the missions are part of a national park, they are still active parishes, and the parish churches themselves are managed and maintained by the Archdiocese, not the Park Service.

“When I got here [22 years ago], the Park Service had no staff at the two smaller missions, intermittent staff at Mission Concepción, and permanent interpretive staff at San José only,” Chandoha recalls. “There was no visitor facility. By 1989, we had raised the funds for the first capital improvement project in the park, a small contact station at Mission Concepción. Then, through advocacy, we acquired federal funds to build a major visitor’s center at Mission San José, which was completed in 1996. We now have interpretive staff at each of the four missions, and guided tours are available on a daily basis. The improvements over the years are just incredible. Visitation is at an all-time high.”

Rev. Tony Posadas
Pastor, Mission San José

Posadas leads the parish, a community of more than 400 people. Last Christmas, he baptized the great, great, great grandson of one of the mission’s founders.

Biggest Challenge: Reminding visitors that they’re in a mission, not a museum.

“People are always surprised to see me here during the day, taking care of things, and they’ll ask, ‘Is it still a church?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, it’s still a church—it very much is a church.’ We have masses here every Sunday, and it’s a living community.”

Even so, there is no limitation on when tourists can visit. San José opens at 9 a.m., and the doors are locked at 5 p.m.

One challenge of running an active parish within a high-profile national park, Posadas notes, is balancing the claims of outside groups. “I call it the blessing and curse of the missions,” he says. “They’re well loved, but everybody wants their time in the sun with the missions. Trying to balance the needs of so many groups can be an uneasy thing.”

Scott Bentley
Superintendent, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

The Park Service assumed responsibility for the Missions in the late 1970s, but it took several years to work things out with the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which operates the missions as historic sites and active churches.

Biggest challenge: Making sure the Park Service doesn’t spend federal dollars that would benefit the church directly.

“The missions wouldn’t be here today had the Park Service not come in,” Bentley says. “The structures were falling into great disrepair. The state of Texas was attempting to maintain Mission San José, but the cost was just extraordinary. Although the legislation was passed in the late ’70s, we didn’t actually start operations until 1983. That’s because it took five years for the Department of Justice to figure out how it was going to work [with] the church and state issues.”

“The missions, from a historic standpoint, are phenomenal resources, sort of like Colonial Williamsburg. San Antonio grew out of these missions, and so it [represents] the birth of not only the city of San Antonio but of this entire Tejano culture that really permeates the entire southwest United States. And it’s our link to Spain.”

Rev. David Garcia
Director of Old Spanish Missions for the Archdiocese of San Antonio

Employed by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Garcia helps maintain and restore the mission churches, some of whose congregants are direct descendents of the mission’s American Indians; Garcia is a descendent as well.

Biggest challenge: Raising sufficient funds to do the highly specialized work properly. The “very long, tedious” and ongoing restoration process includes in-depth study of the structure in question, determining the proper course of action, getting necessary permissions from the Texas Historical Commission, and hiring the right architect and engineer who know how to work with buildings that are nearly three centuries old.

“In San Antonio [the partnership between the church and government] works as well as I’ve ever seen it anywhere in the United States,” Garcia says. “Because in San Antonio, I think we understand that our history was that church and state worked together from the very beginning. And even though, legally speaking, we’re not part of Spain anymore, where church and state were kind of the same entity, we still have a lot of the heritage of that cooperation between church and state.”

“We’ve got to make sure that all of this continues, because this is who we are.”

Mike Thomas is a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. His last article for National Parks magazine profiled Great Smokies photographer George Masa.

This article appears in the Winter 2010 issue.

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