Echoes of faith and fortitude in the San Antonio Missions

The Alamo © Aleney de Winter

Exploring San Antonio’s faith and fortitude, with a side of mariachi and margaritas, in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The midday sun casts long shadows across the dusty courtyard of Mission San José. The air is thick and soupy with humidity, and the weight of almost 300 years of Texan history. Reverentially, I stroll along its buttressed granary walls and soak in the sight of the famous Rose window on the exterior of San José’s church sacristy.

Mission San Jose San Antonio

By the time I reach the stone arches of what remains of the historic convent, I can almost hear the echoes of centuries-old footsteps and what sounds suspiciously like… a mariachi band! Wait, what?

Lured by a different kind of sunshine, this time radiating from within, I edge closer to the carved wooden entrance doors of the church. Inside, a gathering of the faithful congregates between whitewashed walls. I watch intrigued as a girl, adorned in a dress that cascades prettily around intricately patterned cowboy boots, finds her seat in the pews, followed by a couple of tourists, easy to identify in their shorts and sneakers.

boots and all at Mission San Jose San Antonio. Mariachi Mass

I’m stunned out of my reverie as a mariachi ensemble springs to life, and voices rise collectively. Their soaring vocals are in Spanish, but the soulful sounds of their faith transcend language barriers.

I’ve stumbled, with typical lack of grace, into the mission’s famous Mariachi mass, a cherished tradition that infuses the Catholic ceremony with the rich musical heritage of Mexico.

On a mission

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo

Founded in the early 1700s, the Franciscan mission, originally known as Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo and frequently described as the “Queen of the Missions,” is the largest of the frontier missions dotted between old neighbourhoods and cactus-studded farmlands along the San Antonio River.

The relationship between Spanish missionaries and the Indigenous groups referred to as ‘Coahuiltecan,’ who originally lived in the region is filled with profound complexities and contradictions. The Franciscans, as part of a broader effort by colonisers. sought to spread Christianity and integrate native Indigenous groups into Spanish colonial society, but their methods were deeply problematic and undeniably harmful. Conversion efforts often involved coercion, not only eroding the Coahuiltecans’ cultural identity but exposing them to devastating European diseases which led to widespread depopulation. The Franciscan mission system also relied on forced Indigenous labour, stripping the Coahuiltecans of autonomy and suppressing their traditional practices, despite some missionaries advocating for better treatment.

Mission San José

But the Franciscans would soon face a harsh reality. Famine, disease, and conflict with other tribes took a toll, leading to the secularisation of each mission by 1824. Governance of the missions was then transferred from religious authorities to secular or civilian authorities. Despite this shift, the missions continue to serve as active places of worship today, some even welcoming descendants of the original mission communities.

While it’s tempting to view the history that occurred in the weathered walls of these missions through a romantic haze, visitors should instead observe each through a critical lens, acknowledging that while the early missionaries undoubtedly intended to bring about positive change, based on their own ideologies, their methods had a devastating impact on the Coahuiltecan people, leaving them culturally vulnerable and disconnected from their heritage.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

San Juan Capistrano

My mind already brimming with history and stories, I’m mentally donning cowboy boots and a poncho, and am ready to commandeer a horse to ferry me to the other five missions of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which, along with Mission San Jose, encompass Mission Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco de la Espada, and, of course, the Alamo.

Visitors with time on their side might consider the less dramatic option of exploring by bike along the Mission Hike and Bike Trail, a 22-kilometre loop trail that meanders along the river, connecting the five frontier missions. But you’ll need at least half a day, which I don’t have.

Given my haste and the scarcity of equestrian transport, I instead summon an Uber, which, while lacking a certain flair, does the trick.

Mission Concepción San Antonio

Hidden among the trees, Mission Concepción holds the title of the oldest unrestored stone church in America. This handsome structure took about 15 years to build, with its dramatic twin bell towers, arched doorways, and geometric designs showcasing the artistic skills of its builders.

Vibrant frescoes once adorned both the exterior and interior, and traces still linger in several rooms of its time-weathered interiors. Between the trees, there’s also a delightful grotto adorned with ethereal statues and smattered with offerings.

The grotto at Mission Concepción

With the clock ticking, we skip through Mission San Juan Capistrano, recently restored to its original lime-washed eggshell white state. Smaller than the previous two missions, its chapel and its surroundings speak of simplicity and resilience, and I make a mental note to come back to pay my respects before my stay in San Antonio comes to a close.

It is just past closing time by the time we reach pretty Mission Espada, the most remote of the San Antonio missions, protected by ramparts and a bastion with cannon holes at the base and musket holes. Despite its diminutive size, the resilient Mission Espada survived decades of relentless raids by Apache and, later, Comanche tribes.

Mission Espada

As we enter the eerily deserted grounds, my companion, the Uber driver, and a spotty duck who seems to have taken a wrong turn at the Espada Aqueduct, are the only signs of life. But I feel eyes on me. Could it be the duck? He looks a little suss. Or perhaps the spirit of a larger-than-life Spanish conquistador said to roam the grounds in full regalia (no way he’d have settled for an Uber). Maybe it is the ghostly Spanish soldiers who have been seen galloping on haunted horseback across the courtyard, or even the lost soul of a converted Native American who has been seen at prayer at the altar. My overactive imagination is off and racing, sprinting through a maze of thoughts and possibilities.

Mission Espada

But with my hair on end and every image on my camera distorted by orbs, I decide not to hang around to find out and instead leap into my trusty Uber to gallop back into town like the coward I am.

Of course, there’s still one last mission to meet, but I must wait until dawn for that privilege.

Remember the Alamo

The Alamo, originally known as Mission San Antonio de Padua

We arrive at the Alamo, originally known as San Antonio de Valero, before the first blush of dawn, two rangers standing silent guard. A soft lavender bleeds into the inky blackness, sharpening the silhouette of the mission church and long barracks. The colours deepen, streaks of pink turning the clouds to cotton candy as they chase the night away. Here, at the heart of a legend, these first rays of sunlight take on a deeper meaning. It’s a new day, breaking over a place where history was forever etched.

Standing in the very place where torrents of blood were shed, my head is crowded with the shouts of soldiers, the thunder of cannons, and the cries of the fallen. The sound of my growling stomach interrupts the imagined chaos. With the Alamo’s gates still firmly closed, I park my wagon at the Alamo Plaza Coffee Shop & Bar at the Crockett Hotel, easing the rumblings with brekky burritos and coffee until opening time.

It’s worth the wait. Originally established in 1718 as a mission like its siblings in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, The Alamo began as a peaceful haven where Spanish missionaries hoped to convert the area’s indigenous peoples to Catholicism, with daily life centred around religious services and learning. Fast forward to the early 1800s. Texas was a simmering pot, with tensions bubbling between Mexico, which controlled the territory, and American settlers eager for independence. The mission, by now a military outpost, found itself smack dab in the middle of the brewing conflict.

In 1836, as the Texas Revolution erupted, a small band of Texan rebels, which included James Bowie, William B. Travis, and legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett, sought refuge within the Alamo’s walls. Facing a much larger Mexican force under General Santa Anna, they knew they were outmatched. But they were determined to make a stand.

The ensuing 13-day siege was a pivotal moment in Texas history. Despite facing overwhelming odds, the defenders held firm, defending the mission until the early morning of March 6, when Santa Anna’s forces breached the walls and overran the compound.

The Alamo may have fallen, but its legacy soared. The battle became a rallying cry for the Texan fight for freedom. “Remember the Alamo!” echoed through the land, a potent reminder of the sacrifices made in the pursuit of independence.

Exploring within these weathered walls is a visceral experience that slams you in the chest.

The Alamo San Antonio old oak

I take a self-guided audio tour through the Alamo Church and the pecan oak-shaded Alamo Gardens, the Long Barrack, and Cavalry Courtyards before stopping at the Alamo Exhibit at the Ralston Family Collections Center.

This stunning new museum takes a more diverse approach to history than Hollywood’s romanticised tale of the Alamo’s American-born Anglo defenders. Among the hundreds of artefacts on display are Spanish colonial and Goliad ceramics, Bowie knives that gleam with cold ferocity, and parchments that plead for reinforcements that never came.

Then there’s the astonishing Phil Collins Collection—yes, that Phil Collins—which includes a rifle and leather shot pouch once owned by Crockett and a sword used by Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

With the Alamo often depicted as a battleground between Mexican-Americans and American settlers, the Alamo Exhibit diversifies the narrative, shedding light on the Tejanos (Mexican Americans), free blacks, and slaves who stood alongside the defenders, as well as the historical injustices suffered by the Native American populations in the broader context of the mission system and its aftermath.

Mission accomplished

After completing my Missions mission, I’ve acquired a thirst, so stroll across the street to the Menger Hotel Bar, all brooding dark wood, bevelled mirrors, brass spittoons, and giant stuffed moose heads.

The Menger Bar once served as the makeshift headquarters for Teddy Roosevelt to recruit his volunteer cavalry

The oldest continuously operated hotel west of the Mississippi, the Menger once served as the makeshift headquarters for Teddy Roosevelt to recruit his volunteer cavalry, the Rough Riders, for the Spanish-American War. Teddy, in a display of cavalier charisma, is even said to have ridden his horse directly into the bar on at least one occasion.

Sightings of the many spirits reported to still reside in the Menger Bar, including Teddy himself, have earned it a reputation as one of the most haunted spots in San Antonio. No offence to Teddy, but I’m not keen on bumping into him… or his horse. I’m barely coping with the moose that seems to be peering down its sizeable nose at me as I order a drink at the bar.

Happily, the only spirit I encounter is the tequila in my Menger Margarita, which I raise to the extraordinary people and history of San Antonio.

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Hey, I’m Aleney! A mum, award-winning travel writer, magazine editor and gallivanting glutton. He’s Raff, the “boy” in boyeatsworld, and a fearless foodie, adventurer and eco-warrior. Along with his all-singing, all-dancing, all-adventurous sister, Sugarpuff, we’re exploring the world’s colour, culture and cuisine on a food safari for the junior set.

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