The sound of church bells at Mission San José echoes across grassy fields on a damp and chilly November day and lifts my spirits.
Mission bells also assured the Coahuiltecan Indians who helped build this fortress-like church more than two centuries ago. They were fleeing for their lives from their traditional enemies. I'm here to escape the crowds of tourists and traffic downtown for a little while.
I want to get a closer look at the four beautiful 18th-century Spanish churches that grace San Antonio's Mission Trail. The well-marked driving route stretches south for 9 miles from The Alamo along the San Antonio River. The world remembers The Alamo as a heroic battleground, but the other missions are tranquil shrines where the Spanish planted the seeds of San Antonio. The National Park Service administers the grounds, organizes tours, and operates visitors centers at each site. All four have active churches.
When I step inside the thick stone walls of the grassy compound at San José, it's easy to understand how seminomadic tribes were thankful for the safety they found here. They joined Franciscan friars to help build the missions because Apache and other enemies were threatening them.
Missionaries taught the Coahuiltecans farming skills and gave them religious instruction. Before the Spanish came, there were no horses in Texas and no gunfire, except for the raiding Apache. A vast frontier had never been touched by a wheel or felt the blade of an iron ax. The missions evoked a powerful presence to American Indians.
Music and Marriage
The mission churches are still an important part of daily life for parishioners. "This is our neighborhood. I can see the top of the church and hear the bells from my house," says Robert Perez. He's here to attend the marriage of his granddaughter, Mary Solis, and Edward Aguilar. During the ceremony, a guitarist plays Spanish songs and, following the Spanish custom, Father Ed Boren drapes an ornamental lasso over the shoulders of the bride and groom to join them as one. Pointing out that almost 50% of marriages fail, he encourages them to "build your house on a rock." Like this church.
"Brides come from all over the city to have their pictures taken here. On any given day, you'll see two or three," says Dr. Rosalind Rock, National Park Service historian. Mariachis play for the noon Mass on Sunday when visitors arrive an hour early to get seats. "Tourists come, and they get tears in their eyes," says Alfred Schwab, a retired airline pilot and volunteer docent who leads guided tours at San José.
Among other contributions, the missions planted the roots of ranching in Texas. Indian vaqueros tended huge herds of cattle, goats, and sheep. They marked stock with branding irons like the ones used in Spain and Portugal as early as the 10th century.
A Shining Example
Cream-colored limestone walls gleam in the afternoon sun at San José, but remnants of paintings at Mission Concepción show some of the vivid colors that once adorned the churches. "Concepción is the best preserved and least altered of the missions," says Rosalind. Next year marks the 250th anniversary of its dedication.
Pews are decorated with pink ribbons and flowers for a wedding yet to come, but on this late afternoon, it's a place of timeless tranquillity. I linger to watch candles flicker on soft walls in the fading light of a church built before America was a nation.
Outposts on the Trail
Early on Sunday morning, I drive out to see Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. At the two rural sites, I get a sense of how remote they once were. In 1836, Jim Bowie and James Fannin took refuge here not long before the fight at The Alamo was lost.
Under missionary supervision, the Coahuiltecans grew crops in rich fields along the river. They built dams and waterways called acequias for irrigation. I stop at Espada Aqueduct to watch water splash through a stone trough. Constructed in 1745, it is the oldest Spanish-built aqueduct still in operation in the United States.
When I slip inside the church at Espada this morning, it's standing room only. About 90 parishioners sit listening to a priest recite the Mass in Spanish. Little girls with red bows in their hair sit beside their mothers. Young men stand politely at the back.
The words are as strange to me as they were to the Coahuiltecans. But I understand the message. In the busy rush of the holiday season, I'm thankful for the trail that led me here. For more information: Contact Park Headquarters at San Antonio Mission National Historical Park, 2202 Roosevelt Avenue, San Antonio, TX 78210-4919; (210) 534-8833 or www.nps.gov/saan.
Where To Start: Mission Concepción heads the trail, but it's a good idea to stop first at the main visitors center, located in the 3300 block of Roosevelt Avenue at Mission San José, about 4 miles from downtown. Pick up a trail map, and take time to view an informative 23-minute film to get an overview of the Coahuiltecans and the missions. Join a guided tour. (Don't miss Alfred Schwab's entertaining tour if you're there on a Monday.)
"Discover San Antonio's Mission Trail" is from the November 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.