The four southernmost Spanish colonial missions—Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada —are included in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which officially opened in 1983. These four missions, along with the Alamo, have been named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO). Land for the Historical Park was donated by the city, county, state, Catholic Church and San Antonio Conservation Society. The missions are walled compounds encompassing a church and buildings where the priests and local Native Americans lived and worked.
The park’s Visitor’s Center is in Mission San José, where you can view Gente de Razon, which tells the story of life in the missions during the 1700s. The film is shown every 30 minutes. Mission San José also has a museum and bookstore. All four mission churches still have active Catholic parishes that hold regular services. The churches are open to visitors during regular park hours, except in the case of a wedding or a funeral.
Now you can explore the Missions along the River Walk’s new Mission Reach. The Mission Reach is an eight mile stretch with recreational trails, picnic and seating areas, pedestrian bridges, pavilions and portals to four Spanish colonial missions—Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada.
San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, the “Queen of the Missions,” is the largest mission in San Antonio, established in 1720 and completed in 1782. Spanish designers, directing workers from the local Coahuiltecan tribe, built the mission using Texas limestone and brightly colored stucco. At its height, it provided sanctuary and a social and cultural community for more than 300 Indians, and was surrounded by acres of fields and livestock herds. The mission had its own gristmill and granary, which have been preserved.
In 1874, San José’s church dome and roof collapsed. In 1928, the church tower collapsed. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) almost fully restored Mission San José to its original design in the 1930s.
When visiting the church, look for flying buttresses, carvings, quatrefoil patterns, polychromatic plaster and the famed “Rose Window,” a superb example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation that was sculpted around 1775. Explore the stairway that leads to the belfry and choir loft; all 25 risers were hand-hewn from a single log and assembled without the use of nails or pegs.
Mission San José underwent a $2.2 million historically accurate renovation that was completed in the summer of 2011. Interior domes and walls were repainted to match the original colors and hues. Work also included restoration of the “retablo,” or altar backdrop, which frames sacred statues of St. Michael the Archangel, St. Francis, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. The latter two statues are hand-carved and date to the Spanish colonial era. The St. Joseph statue was originally in the possession of Father Antonio Margil de Jesús, the mission’s founder, and had not been used in the church for decades.
The beautiful church at Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña looks much like it did in 1755 when it was first dedicated. Interior renovations in 2010 returned the church’s interior walls to the rich colors of 255 years earlier. The church’s exterior was originally decorated with geometric designs painted on the façade and iron crosses and weather vanes were placed atop the two towers. The exterior paintings have faded, but inside you can still see original frescos in some of the rooms. The church stands as the oldest unrestored stone church in the U.S.
Mission San Juan was established in San Antonio in 1731. The church, priest’s quarters and granary were completed in 1756. The mission’s fertile farmlands allowed for a self-sustainable community, and its surplus helped supply the region with produce. The chapel and bell tower are still in use. Note the typical Romanesque archway at the entrance gate and the remains of a half-completed, more elaborate church that was begun in 1772 and abandoned in 1786 when the mission’s population declined. Guests can also tour a self-guided nature trail that leads to the river.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada, the southernmost of the four in the park, contains the best-preserved segment of the acequia (irrigation system) that was used to bring water to the fields. Today, part of the acequia operates the Espada aqueduct and dam. Also noteworthy are an unusual door and stone archway.
The mission was established in San Antonio in 1731. The priest’s residence was completed in 1745 and the church in 1756. Inside the mission compound were a blacksmith shop, kiln for baking brick, and workrooms with looms and spinning wheels. Corn, beans, melons, pumpkins and cotton were grown in the irrigated fields adjacent to the mission.
A fire in 1826 destroyed most of the mission buildings at Espada, with only the chapel, granary and two of the compound walls remaining.
Espada’s ranch, Rancho de las Cabras (Ranch of the Goats) was located 30 miles south of the mission, near what is now the town of Floresville. Part of this property containing the ruins of the ranch compound was acquired by the National Park Service in 1995. Guided tours of the property are available on the first Saturday of the month.
Travel Tips & Facts
Use a map of The Mission Trail to direct you.
You can easily spend two to four hours visiting the missions.
Guided tours are free, as is admission to the park.
Don’t miss the grist mill at Mission San José, and the 270-year old Mission Espada acequia (irrigation system) containing a dam and aqueduct.
More than 180 species of birds have been seen in the park, where native habitat is abundant. Walk the nature trail at San Juan to discover what the river and vegetation looked like when the missions were first established.
The Mission Reach section of the River Walk is now open. This section includes an eight-mile hike and bike trail from Lone Star Boulevard to Mission Espada.
Six B-cycle bike rental kiosks are located from Roosevelt Park to Mission San Jose.
Canoes and kayaks are allowed on a 1.6 mile stretch of the San Antonio River from the Mission Road street connection to Padre Park.
To learn more about the history and culture of the San Antonio Missions, visit the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park website.
Learn more about settlement along the San Antonio River.