San Antonio Missions National Historical Park | MISSION ESPADA

Mission Espada church, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission Espada church, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

LOCATION

10040 Espada Road
San Antonio, Texas 78214

There are two parking lots at Mission Espada. The parking lot on Espada Road is inside the mission’s west gate and at first glance appears to be for mission employees. This is not the case. Anyone can park here. If you keep driving, just around the corner is another parking lot outside the south gate.

MISSION HISTORY

In the late 1600s, the Spanish were trying to stop the French in Louisiana from moving farther west, so they built seven missions in east Texas near Nacogdoches between 1690 and 1717 in an effort to colonize the area. Mission Espada, originally called San Francisco de los Tejas, was founded in 1690 between modern-day Augusta and Mission Tejas State Park, making it the oldest of the Spanish missions in that area. It failed rather quickly and was abandoned in 1693. Twenty-three years later in 1716, a second attempt was made to establish the mission, this time on Bowles Creek ten miles to the east of the original location. The new name was Nuestro Padre San Francisco de los Tejas. This failed as well after the French drove the Spanish out of the area in 1719. A third attempt to establish the mission was made in 1721 at the same location, this time under the name San Francisco de los Neches. However, the results were no different, and by 1729 all of the east Texas missions had failed for various reasons: drought, flooding, disease, lack of interest from the local Indians, Apache and Comanche Indian attacks, etc. Three of the seven were moved west to the banks of the San Antonio River in 1731 (Espada, San Juan Capistrano, and Concepción). Mission San Francisco de lost Neches was renamed San Francisco de la Espada. It was the southernmost of the San Antonio missions.

The purpose of a Spanish mission—which refers to the entire community, not just the physical buildings—was to convert local Indians into Catholics and tax-paying Spanish citizens. The lure was the security of a steady supply of food obtained through 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 (brick making was taught at Mission Espada, and it was the only mission in San Antonio were bricks were made). 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.

Mission Espada consisted of a church building, a granary, a convento (housing and workspaces for the Spanish friars and mission guests), a multi-acre yard used for living and working space, and a defensive wall that surrounded the entire property. The mission also owned additional land for farming and grazing outside the walls.

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.

Mission Espada was secularized in 1794. With the Spanish government no longer backing it, the buildings slowly deteriorated into ruins. Today, very little of the original mission buildings remains. The façade and entrance of the church and some fragments of the defensive walls are original, but that’s about it. Most of the church and convento were rebuilt in the late 1800s. The rest of the buildings and nearly all of the wall around the mission property are complete or partial reconstructions from the 1950s. All reconstructions were done on top of the original foundations, so they are in the correct place.

Example of a partially reconstructed building foundation at Mission Espada, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Example of a partially reconstructed building foundation at Mission Espada in San Antonio

The original structures at Mission Espada were jacales: buildings made of cedar posts, mud walls, and thatched roofs. Construction on stone buildings began in the early 1740s. A defensive wall that encompassed the entire mission was one of the first construction projects. Starting in 1756, an inner wall was built parallel to the defensive wall, and the gap between the two was roofed over to form small apartments for the Indian residents who were still living in jacales. There were people living in some of the stone apartments up through the 1930s.

Remnants / reconstruction of a dwelling at Mission Espada, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Remnants / reconstruction of a dwelling at Mission Espada in San Antonio

Partially reconstructed wall at Mission Espada, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Partially reconstructed wall at Mission Espada, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

There are some original wall fragments in the western wall (on your left when you enter from the west gate parking lot), but I don’t believe it is possible to spot them. The reconstructions were done using the rubble from the original wall ruins, so all the stones look the same. There are two archways in the south wall (near the south entrance parking lot) with red bricks that may date back to somewhere between 1826 and 1831.

Archway in the southern wall at Mission Espada may have bricks from the early 1800s

Archway in the southern wall at Mission Espada may have bricks from the early 1800s

A dwelling on the southeast side of the mission was rebuilt in 1932 for use as the Espada School, which operated until the 1960s. Today it houses an exhibit area that is open to the public starting at 10 AM. Inside is a collection of spurs, farming tools, and a working loom. On select days of the week (usually Tuesday afternoons) visitors can see the loom in action.

Exhibits inside the reconstructed Espada School at Mission Espada in San Antonio

Exhibits inside the reconstructed Espada School at Mission Espada in San Antonio

Exhibits inside the reconstructed Espada School at Mission Espada in San Antonio

Exhibits inside the reconstructed Espada School at Mission Espada in San Antonio

What is now used as the church at Mission Espada was originally the sacristy for a church that was never completed. Both were started around 1740, but only the foundation of the church building was ever laid (this area is now mainly the west gate parking lot). As a result, the sacristy became the church and was used as such up until 1773.

Layout of Mission Espada in the 1770s

Layout of Mission Espada in the 1770s

The population of Mission Espada always fluctuated as Indians came and went. A census taken in 1737 reported a population of 103. The highest recorded population was 207 in 1762. As the population of the mission grew, the sacristy / church became too small. In the mid-1770s, a much larger granary located within the defensive walls was converted into a church. However, no sooner was this done than the mission population began to decline. By the end of the decade, church services returned to the sacristy / church. What exists today of the old granary / church is one of the 1950s reconstructions.

Reconstructed walls of a granary used as a church in the 1770s at Mission Espada in San Antonio

Reconstructed walls of a granary used as a church in the 1770s at Mission Espada in San Antonio

The ruins of a second granary (c. 1775) extend outside the wall, though the entrance was within the complex. As with the first granary, what you see today is a partial reconstruction from the 1950s. From the south entrance parking lot, these are the ruins you see before entering the mission complex.

Reconstructed walls of the second granary at Mission Espada, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Reconstructed walls of the second granary at Mission Espada in San Antonio

The convento is the structure attached to the left side of the church (when facing the entrance) with multiple arches. It was built between 1745 and 1756 and was originally two stories. The convento was renovated and enlarged throughout the 1760s and 70s. The upper level was where priests, friars, and guests of the mission lived. The bottom floor had offices, an infirmary, dining room, and kitchen. Today it houses, among other things, a gift store.

Convento at Mission Espada, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Convento at Mission Espada, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Exterior foyer of Mission Espada's convento, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Exterior foyer of Mission Espada’s convento, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Most of the church and convento that is standing today at Mission Espada was built by a French priest named Father Francis Bouchu starting in 1867. Bouchu, who lived at the mission until his death in 1907, purchased the buildings and did the restorations with his own money. While he rebuilt on the existing foundations, he did not necessarily attempt to create an accurate reproduction of the former structures, which would be the goal of historical reconstructions done today. He first worked on the convento, which aside from a few rooms that he lived in, was in ruins. Work on the church took place between 1884 and 1887. The only original section of the church is the entrance façade and doorway, which was built around 1763. The bell tower was added in 1790. What you see today is a reconstruction.

Entrance façade and doorway of the church at Mission Espada

Entrance façade and doorway of the church at Mission Espada

West side of the Mission Espada church at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

West side of the Mission Espada church at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), an organization that put men back to work during the Great Depression, helped stabilize the ruins in the 1930s. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that a thorough reconstruction project was undertaken by the Catholic Archdiocese and architect Harvey Smith Jr. to restore the church, convento, and sections of the defensive wall. Renovations included a new roof for the church, reconstruction of a well, and the partial rebuilding of the defensive walls. Smith was the same man who oversaw the WPA’s complete reconstruction of Mission San Jose.

Reconstructed well at Mission Espada, San Antonio National Historical Park

Reconstructed well at Mission Espada, San Antonio National Historical Park

Today Mission Espada is an active Catholic church. The buildings—church, convento gift shop, Espada School—are typically open to visitors daily from 9 AM to 5 PM. The church itself may be closed at anytime for church services, weddings, funerals, and other functions. The mission grounds are open daily from sunrise to sunset. No tours of the mission are given, so exploration is on your own. A Ranger or park volunteer is usually on hand to answer any questions, and there are wayside exhibits placed throughout the grounds that explain the mission’s history. Allow up to an hour for your visit.

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

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

Alter of the Mission Espada church at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Alter of the Mission Espada church at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

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Last updated on June 17, 2022
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