San Antonio and its environs are home to four of the early Spanish missions — or at least, what remains of them. From an historical preservation standpoint, the centuries have not been kind.
Yesterday I had a chance to visit two of the four missions, San Jose and Concepcion. San Jose is the most complete mission, with its outer wall intact and the small rooms where Indian converts and visitors lived available for a look. They are spartan, but practical — about what you would expect in a development that was intended to be an outpost of civilization in an untamed land. Some of the outbuildings and outdoor ovens also may be found there, as well as the ruins of a convent.
The centerpiece of the missions, of course, was the cathedral, and the church at San Jose Mission is striking — with a beautiful facade that features statuary of the saints and renderings of hearts, shells, and other meaningful symbols. I wasn’t able to see the interior of the cathedral, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. At one time the church was covered with brightly colored tile that must have presented a dazzling sight for weary travelers on the dusty Texas plains, but most of the tiles are gone and the church now stands as a stone monument.
Mission Concepcion, which is found in the middle of a neighborhood, is much less complete. It consists of a church, a well, some ruins, and a prayer area. The church itself is simple, and what you would expect to find at a Spanish mission, with whitewashed interior walls. Some signs of the former frescoes in the church may be seen, but for the most part the church interior has been decorated with modern paintings and furnishings.
The two missions must be popular wedding options. When I visited yesterday, both were busy hosting nuptial ceremonies — which is why I was unable to see the interior of the church at San Jose. That was disappointing, but I found myself feeling good about the fact that the churches were still being used as churches. A lot of work went into building these missions, which served as agents of colonialism but also as a testament to the power of religious faith. It’s nice to see that, centuries later, that part of the mission is still being served.