I step through the stone archway into the courtyard. It is open and empty with a ring of buildings outlining the grass-covered area. A sweep of bright flowers sway lightly in the breeze. Only a few other people walk the perimeter of the grounds, ducking in and out of the buildings that used to serve as homes, storage spaces and school rooms.
Mission Espada, the first of four quiet missions that line strategically up the San Antonio River, is vacant, a shell of something that once was. It feels eerie, decaying and mysterious. A dry well in front of the small church has been covered for safety reasons. Roofs are missing off of many of the buildings. A stray cat wanders around the grounds. At Mission San Juan, a cluster of overgrown cacti have grown up around a large rusted cross.
The missions are barely breathing with activity, though we are told there are still church services on Sunday. Inside, these churches smell just a bit musty and you can see the dust in the air where the light shines in through the foggy windows. The traditional boldly colored Southwestern stripes on the cloth covering the kneelers is worn. The paint is peeling and candle lights have been replaced with electrical stand-ins, but these are still places of worship. The groundskeepers have done an amazing job at keeping the land alive in the face of a seemingly lifeless existence.
That’s the part that confuses me the most. Mission Espada, Mission San Juan, Mission San José and and Mission Concepción were all thriving communities in their prime. Throughout the 18th century these four missions served as the place where the Spanish concentrated their efforts in spreading the Catholic faith in Texas. Vibrant communities formed, and every member in the mission had duties and responsibilities; men worked in the fields and orchards while women tended to the garden, cooked and sewed. But around the turn of the 19th century, the need for the missions had virtually diminished and by the early 1800s, they were all but abandoned.
Most people have never heard of Mission Espada, Mission San Juan, Mission San José and Mission Concepción. Instead, when the footsteps of history are traced through San Antonio, Texas, they walk right through the door of the Alamo, which was the site of the famous bloody massacre in 1836. It is a site remembered for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
A visit to the Alamo today is met by hordes of tourists toting cameras and wearing t-shirts announcing their new-found Texas pride. The church has been stripped of its sanctity so that artifacts laid out in glass cases and a volunteer desk can fit in between the throbbing crowds. There is no courtyard here, and barely even a building that resembles the other mission sites. The few rooms that do still exist have been outfitted with displays and chairs for the 15-minute History Channel documentary that recounts the events that made the Alamo famous.
I understand that the Alamo stands for so much more symbolically than the other missions dotting the San Antonio River, but with the bustle of tourists pushing themselves from room to crowded room, there is little space for the imagination to play out the day-to-day life that actually defined the area’s missions. In 13 days, the Alamo made history, but in the hundred years prior, life in the missions just was, and the people who came and went from these ghost towns barely get a mention.
For a full picture of San Antonio’s mission history—and to wander the grounds of a mission versus being crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors—take the time to visit Mission Espada, Mission San Juan, Mission San José and Mission Concepción as well as the Alamo. They lack the bloody history that makes the Alamo so appealing, but they make up for it in still, natural beauty that comes without the crowds.
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