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San Antonio's Missions Poised For World Heritage Recognition

San Antonio’s Spanish Missions may soon be named to a prestigious list that includes Machu Picchu, the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids of Giza. This Sunday,  a United Nations commission could designate the Missions a World Heritage site.

On San Antonio’s South Side, a concrete path leads visitors past a row of 40-foot palms and a stone well, to a limestone church built nearly 300 years ago. On the other side of its massive, carved, wooden doors mariachi music fills a sanctuary that’s overflowing for Sunday mass.  

Father David Garcia—everyone calls him Father David—is the director of the old Spanish Missions for the Archdiocese of San Antonio. 

“People love to feel that and be able to touch that and be immersed in it," he said of the mariachi mass.  "Because then they can experience the whole experience of what the San Antonio Missions  are all about, and what they were, and what they’ve been doing for 300 years."

The Missions' History

The ancient stone church is Mission Concepción, one of the city’s five original missions. All of them were built during a 65-year period,  beginning with the Alamo—originally known as San Antonio de Valero.  It was founded in 1718.  San Jose was begun two years later.  Missions Concepción, San Juan, and Espada followed. 

They’re all located within an eight-mile stretch along the San Antonio River where local agencies have invested more than $250 million to restore natural areas. 

"No other place has so many missions in one spot.  We have the largest concentration of Spanish Colonial buildings in the United States," said Father David.

In addition to churches, the Mission builders constructed living quarters for priests and American Indians, water wells, ovens and granaries. Some were surrounded by tall walls and had hundreds of acres of crops.

Spanish Colonization

Father David says the Missions were a central part of Spain’s plan to colonize Texas and expand its territory in the new world. And as Father David explained, Spain was in a race with France.

“In the early 1700's the French in Louisiana began to look towards the west, and actually landed on the coast of Texas to start little settlements. Well, that alarmed the Spanish and so they knew they were going to have to settle Texas in order to keep it,” he said.

Susan Snow, the Missions National Park Archeologist, said Spain built the missions so they could control the territory. 

"And the way they controlled territory, unlike the British way of bringing folks from Europe to settle, was to train indigenous people to be a part of the Spanish system, and hence, become Spanish citizens,”said Snow.

In 1983 the missions and 960 surrounding acres became a national park. Through an agreement with the U.S. Park Service the Catholic Church oversees activities inside the buildings and continues to hold religious services. 

Almost a decade ago the San Antonio Conservation Society began the process of gaining international recognition for the Missions by seeking a World Heritage designation from UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Now, after a lengthy and expensive application process, UNESCO is considering the Missions and 36 other sites for World Heritage designations.

World Heritage Nomination

Snow says the World Heritage program models the U.S. National Parks Service but on an international scale.  

"It recognize those cultural and natural properties of international or global significance.”

The Missions already draw about three million people each year, with most going to the Alamo. New San Antonian Kristin Connor brought her Chicago father to Mission San Jose.

“We said ‘let’s go out and check out some Missions.’ We had no idea we’d end up at mass. It was perfect!”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff says a World Heritage designation would bring a bigger and more international crowd.

“We did a study that the county paid for that shows eventually that over a period of years that it would have an economic impact of some one hundred million dollars a year.”

The Missions tell the story of a people and events that shaped South Texas. San Antonio’s World Heritage delegation believes that’s a story that ranks the Missions among the most important cultural sites around the world.

They hope UNESCO agrees. 

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii