San Antonio Missions National Historical Park | MISSION CONCEPCION

Mission Concepcion at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission Concepción at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

LOCATION

807 Mission Road
San Antonio, Texas 78210

MISSION HISTORY

Mission Concepción was founded in 1716. It was one of seven missions in the Nacogdoches area of east Texas that was established between 1690 and 1717 in an effort to colonize the area so the French in Louisiana would not be able to move farther west (overall, 41 missions were founded in Texas). Like all the missions in east Texas, it failed due to various reasons: drought, flooding, disease, lack of interest from the local Indians, Apache and Comanche Indian attacks, etc. In 1731, along with Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada, it was moved west to its present location on the San Antonio River.

The full name of Mission Concepción is Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña: Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of Acuña. Acuña was Juan de Acuña, the Marqués de Casafuerte. He was the viceroy of Mexico when the mission was moved to San Antonio.

Interior of the Mission Concepcion church at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Interior of the Mission Concepción church at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

The purpose of the Spanish missions was to convert local Indians into Catholics and tax-paying Spanish citizens. The lure was the security of a steady supply of food obtained by farming and the raising of livestock and protection from warring Apache Indians, who hated the missions and the Spanish, and Comanche Indians, who hated the missions, the Spanish, and the Apache. A mission functioned as a typical Spanish village, and those who joined had to learn Spanish and Latin, attend religious services and instruction, and develop skills necessary to build a self-sufficient community. Blacksmithing, farming, weaving, carpentry, stone cutting, and masonry were some of the skills taught at the missions. Keep in mind that not every Indian was itching to get in, and many of those who did join ran off in the middle of the night, so there was always a turnover in the congregation. For most missions, populations were typically between 100 and 200 people at any given time, with peak populations hitting 400.

Once the Indians had become Catholics and loyal Spanish citizens, it was always the plan of the missionaries to turn everything over to them so that they could run their own villages. Called secularization, this process began in 1793 and was hastened along when Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. By 1824, the mission system had come to a complete end everywhere.  Once secularized, the church was run by the local Bishop, the Indians got to keep their apartments and were allotted land to farm, and excess land and buildings were auctioned off to anyone with money.

With the Spanish government no longer backing the missions, most of the buildings slowly deteriorated into ruins. In San Antonio, only the church at Mission Concepción was spared such a fate, and today it is the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. However, this is not to say that Mission Concepción is exactly as it was back in the 1770s, for there are buildings and walls that have collapsed and no longer exist. What can be said is that it’s a miracle that what does exist never fell down, especially considering that the church and convento were no more important and had no more resources after secularization than any other mission building in San Antonio.

The church at Mission Concepción was made of limestone that was quarried on the premises (the limestone was used in the other missions as well). Construction began around 1740 and was completed in 1755. The adjoining convento was finished the following year. What remains today of Mission Concepción is the complete cross-shaped church with its vaulted nave and transepts, two bell towers, and a dome where the nave and transepts cross. A sacristy built onto the south transept is intact. Part of the convento still exists. The convento was comprised of rooms where the Franciscan friars lived, workshops, a kitchen, a library, and storage spaces. It was originally L-shaped, with a long main building and two shorter bars protruding perpendicular to it on the south end (see photo below). The lower bar is completely gone, and the room that was once at the tip of the upper bar is gone. Also, one room on the backside of the main building is missing.

Layout of Mission Concepcion in San Antonio

Layout of Mission Concepción in San Antonio

Mission Concepcion's church and convento, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission Concepción’s church and convento, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Dome of the Mission Concepcion church, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Dome of the Mission Concepción church, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

In addition to the missing sections of the convento, both a granary that shared a wall with the sacristy and another building attached to the granary are gone. And if you’ve been to the other missions at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, you’ll notice that there is no defensive wall around the mission complex at Concepción as there is at all the other missions (granted, the walls at the other missions are reconstructions). These walls once existed at Concepción as well, along with apartments for the Indian residents built into them, but they have long since vanished. As was often the case, local residents carted off the stone for use in new construction projects. There were other buildings not connected to the church and convento that are also no longer standing. The main difference between Mission Concepción and the other three missions is that its ruined buildings and walls were not reconstructed in modern times.

The photo below was taken from the south side of the church and convento (right side in the Mission Concepción drawing above). At the left is the convento. The partial walls of the missing section are clearly visible. On the right is the south transept with the sacristy attached. Again, broken walls of the former granary still protrude from the intact sacristy.

Southern end of the Mission Concepcion church and convento in San Antonio

Southern end of the Mission Concepción church and convento in San Antonio

The church at Mission Concepción has the largest collection of fresco wall art of any of the missions at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. These were created as soon as the convento was finished. However, don’t expect murals that look like they were painted yesterday. Most of what remains are fragments that were restored in 1988.

Frescos inside the library room of Mission Concepcion's convento, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Frescos inside the library room of Mission Concepción’s convento in San Antonio

Fresco inside the Mission Concepcion church's sacristy, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Fresco inside the Mission Concepción church’s sacristy, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Fresco in the church chapel at Mission Concepcion in San Antonio

Fresco in the church chapel at Mission Concepción in San Antonio

There are three paintings hanging in the Mission Concepción church. Above the alter is Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (aka Mary). In the south transept is a painting of St. Francis of Assisi. In the north transept is a painting of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. All were given to the church in 1716 when it was founded, though they have not been hanging on the walls ever since. The painting above the alter and the one of St. Francis were stored away in 1794 and were only rediscovered in 1949. And it wasn’t until they were restored in 1999 that they where reinstalled in the church: Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in 2003 and St. Francis of Assisi in 2004. I do not know the history of the other painting.

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception painting at Mission Concepcion in San Antonio

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception painting at Mission Concepción

Saint Francis of Assisi painting at Mission Concepcion in San Antonio

Saint Francis of Assisi painting at Mission Concepción in San Antonio

Our Lady of the Guadeloupe painting at Mission Concepcion in San Antonio

Our Lady of the Guadeloupe painting at Mission Concepción in San Antonio

There is an interesting solar light show at the Mission Concepción church that occurs every August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption. At precisely 6:30 PM, a beam of sunlight comes through the circular window above the entrance and gradually settles on the floor at the very center of the church, the intersection of the nave and transepts. Moments later a second beam comes through the western window in the church’s dome and illuminates the wall above the alter. The process takes about 25 minutes. The video below shows the illumination.

West end of the Mission Concepcion church nave, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

West end of the Mission Concepción church nave, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Windows in the dome of the Mission Concepcion church in San Antonio

Windows in the dome of the Mission Concepción church in San Antonio

 

Today the church at Mission Concepción is an active Catholic church. It is typically open to visitors daily from 9 AM to 5 PM but may be closed at anytime for church services, weddings, funerals, and other functions. The mission grounds are open daily from sunrise to sunset. A guided tour of the grounds is given by National Park Service Rangers on weekends at 10 AM and 1:30 PM. The tour does not include entry into the church itself, so participants must do that on their own. I highly suggest taking the tour if you can fit it into your schedule. If you do take the tour, plan to spend up to two hours at Mission Concepción. If you are on your own, an hour should do.

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Last updated on June 14, 2022
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