Last week, a United Nations committee named the San Antonio Missions a UNESCO World Heritage site. That brings the total number of sites to 1,031 in 163 countries scattered about the globe, and places our only Texas site right up there with the Statue of Liberty and Yellowstone National Park. According to the UN website, a World Heritage designation recognizes a place as having outstanding universal value, a value that must be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. According to the National Park website, the five San Antonio Missions were established by the Spanish in the eighteenth century as Indian towns, where native peoples gathered for protection and were educated to become citizens of Spain.
All Texans, and most Americans, remember the Alamo. However, the Alamo is but one of the five extant missions and the only one located in downtown San Antonio. The other four, lesser-known missions: Conceptión, San José, Espada, and San Juan Capistrano, are operated by the National Park Service and are located south of downtown. Those four missions are all still active Catholic churches. Each has its own special set of characteristics. After the Alamo, San José was the earliest, built in 1720. Its Rose Window is considered to be one the best examples of baroque architecture in North America. Conceptión is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. San Juan is known for a dam and a series of amazing irrigation canals. Espada brought important skills to the Indians, and was an important influence on early San Antonio.
The four southern missions lie along the expanded Mission Reach section of the San Antonio River Walk. A fantastic hike-and-bike trail links all four to one another and to the river. Visitors can picnic or enter the 8-mile trail at all four missions. Each has a B-Cycle station where bicycles can be rented. The river can be explored by canoe and kayak. There is also a cool visitor’s center at Conceptión, the first one you come to on the Mission Reach.
I am fortunate to have lived in all the major cities of Texas. By far, my favorite was San Antonio. San Antonians not only celebrate the Mission culture – in many ways, they still live it. There is a rich sense of family, community, and openness toward visitors. Be sure to make the missions a part of your future travel plans. Considerate the visit a way to honor past generations who made this recent distinction possible. Take along someone from the younger generation to help them understand the importance of preserving a remarkable gift of culture, one that helped make Texas what it is today.
Michael Brown is an education consultant and former teacher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.