I’m in San Antonio – again. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been here: more than 5 and fewer than 100. Everyone seems determined to have a conference here.
But this time I’m visiting with my camera (my new Sony A7RIII!!) and was determined to use it. My mission – should I chose to accept it – was to photograph the missions of San Antonio.
San Antonio is unique in that five 18th-century Spanish missions are set within about a 20-minute drive of the city.
The Alamo is, of course one of the 5 missions, though the military history is what we remember (“Remember the Alamo!”) – I’m not sure I realized that the Alamo was a church and not a fort. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention the first time around.
In fact, let me start with the Alamo – I’m looking at it right now out of my hotel window.
It’s hard to escape the Alamo – or Missión San Antonio de Valero as it was once called – when visiting San Antonio, so my tour of the missions starts here. It’s the oldest mission anyway, built in 1718, so that’s also a good reason to start here. Missions in these days consisted of a church (Catholic) and were usually behind walls for protection.
For the longest time, I actually thought the Alamo was a fort, mainly because it was used by the military in the early 19th century and because of the famous battle in 1836 – spoiler – we lost that battle and everyone dies.
If you haven’t been to the Alamo, you might have the impression that it’s a ruin out in the middle of a prairie somewhere.
Reality couldn’t be more different. The Alamo sits it’s right in the middle of the perpetual traffic jam that they’ve got going in San Antonio. Really, at it’s worst; the traffic here can be as bad as New York City! Don’t think you’re going to find parking either. The Alamo has become the epicenter of some sort of Texas Disney. There are people everywhere!
I asked a park ranger at the Alamo when the down-times were, thinking that I had just been unlucky in my trips to San Antonio and always arrived when there was a major event happening. He scratched his chin for a quite while…. I guess the Alamo is always under a tourist siege.
The Alamo, like all the missions is free to the public. It can be crowded, but there is a reason people like to visit. The grounds are lovely and there is living history inside the walls. But because it is so popular, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees or in this case, the architecture for the people. So, after a sunrise photo shoot – before the tourists arrived by the busloads for the day –I jumped in the car, navigated the complex one-way system (I only had to go around a dozen times or so) and headed out to explore the other missions.
Mission Concepción is the next closest mission to San Antonio. It’s not in the best area of town, but the church and the park in front of it seemed to be ok. Wiki tells me that the full name is Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña – but whew! Mission Concepción it is.
Wiki also tells me that there was a battle here just months before the Alamo, but I didn’t see any evidence of this on my visit. I guess one Alamo is enough. No one ever said “Remember Mission Concepción!” so we don’t.
This mission’s major claim-to-fame is that it is the oldest unrestored church in the States. The small church still holds services and faded frescos are evidence of a much more colorful past.
In fact, all of the missions except the Alamo are currently active churches and hold weekly services.
There was a very knowledgeable guide giving a tour when I arrived. When I say “tour” I mean that he was standing in the middle of the church pointing at the important elements. Did I mention that the church was small?
The church closes at 5 p.m. – as do most of the other missions, but there is no wall around this mission so the façade is available for viewing any time. There is a nice grassy area in front of the church making this a popular spot for wedding and quinceañera photos.
The church faces west, so sunrise is the best time to visit if you want to try for some color behind the church.
Mission San José
The Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo is a few miles further outside San Antonio. This was my favorite mission – even including the Alamo. Mission San José is closer to the vision you may have had of the Alamo – alone on the plains of Texas. Well, mostly – there is a sizable parking lot for visitors.
I drove here, but I could have hiked or biked or kayaked here from Mission Concepción. In fact, the Mission Trail links all the missions – even the Alamo. There are even bike rentals available at each site.
I visited Mission San José during a particularly busy week (spring break), but the complex is large so that it wasn’t too hard to enjoy the architecture amongst the other tourists.
The church is larger than the other missions as is the walled gardens. The complex also contains ruins of an old mill and the living quarters of the Native Americans who built the mission set into the walls.
I returned later to capture sunset but really had only one vantage point from outside the closed gates. The walls built for protecting the mission in the 18th-century still very much protect the mission from the prying eyes of visiting photographers!
Mission San Juan Capistrano
The last two missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada, are fairly close together and are about a 20-minute drive south of San Antonio.
Mission San Juan Capistrano may not be called the “white mission” but it very easily could be. The white adobe walls really set this church apart from the others, as does the bell tower. It looks like the church may have gotten a recent coat of paint based on some of the photos I’ve seen online. Currently, it’s fairly fresh and shiny!
The small church wasn’t open when I visited, though it seemed from the reaction of the other visitors, that this was unusual.
I really didn’t connect with this mission since I didn’t get to interact with anyone connected with the site. Maybe next time.
Mission Espada (or the Mission San Francisco de la Espada) is the furthest mission from San Antonio and probably the smallest complex. One of the guides at the Alamo made it a point to tell me about this mission – “Everyone forgets about this one”.
There is a lovely carved door leading into the small church and one of the rooms built into the mission wall houses a small Native American crafts museum.
Both the Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada are more secluded than the other missions and should be accessible for sunset and sunrise. The parking lots look like they are gated at night, but it’s not a long walk into the complexes. I didn’t have a chance to try this out because the weather wasn’t cooperating during my last visit. So if you get a good pic, share it in the comments!
My tour of the San Antonio missions gave me a glimpse into American history, 18th century art and architecture and most importantly got me out of the tourist center of the city. Walking the walled complexes and seeing unrestored churches helped connect me with an American history that I sometimes forget about.