San Antonio Missions National Historical Park | MISSION SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

LOCATION

9101 Graf Road
San Antonio, Texas 78214

MISSION HISTORY

Mission San Juan Capistrano, originally called Mission San José de los Nazonis, 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 Concepción and Mission Espada, it was moved west to its present location on the San Antonio River. At that time it was renamed San Juan Capistrano (referred to as Mission San Juan going forward in this review).

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 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—which is the entire community, not just the buildings—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. Mission San Juan was one of the first to be secularized (1794), and at the time there were only twelve Indian families living at the mission.

With the Spanish government no longer backing the missions, the buildings slowly deteriorated into ruins. Of the four missions that are part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, Mission Concepción has the most original buildings still standing. There is almost nothing original (early to mid-1700s) remaining from the other three missions, though there are sections that were restored in the 1800s (some structures weren’t even built until the 1800s). Almost everything at Mission San José is from a reconstruction done in the 1930s. Mission Espada and Mission San Juan have been partially reconstructed, with work taking place from the late 1800s all the way up through 2013.

When Mission San Juan first moved to San Antonio in 1731, there were no stone buildings. All structures were jacales: buildings made of cedar posts, mud walls, and thatched roofs. Other than the original stone church that was built in the 1750s (and no longer exists), the stone-building construction phase began in the 1770s. However, nearly everything you see today made of stone, except for the current church, is a reconstruction done in the 1950s and 60s. All reconstructions were done on top of the original foundations, so they are in the correct place. Some of the structures were completely rebuilt, while others are partial reconstructions.

Layout of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Layout of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

A paved path circles the Mission San Juan compound and leads past all existing buildings. If you park in the main parking lot, you will be on the north end of the mission. Upon entering, take a right to walk around the compound in the counterclockwise direction, as this will get you to the main buildings the quickest. The first structures you will see are the ruins of the Indian residents’ living quarters. The outer wall served as both a defensive wall and the outer wall of the dwelling. A parallel inner wall was built, and the gap between the two was roofed over to form small apartments. The original walls were built around 1770, but what you see today are partial reconstructions.

At the northwest corner of the mission are three buildings that are not open to the public. One is the parish building and the other two are living quarters for the priest. These are modern structures built in 1967-68 using the stones from the ruins of the former Indian quarters along with fragments of original walls that were still standing.

Parish building at Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Parish building at Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Priest's home at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Priest’s home at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Just past the priest’s home is the main attraction at Mission San Juan, the church. However, this is not the original church at the mission. The original stone church was built around 1750 and remained in use until the mid-1780s. The church extended from the south wall near the modern-day restroom building. Nothing remains of it today other than two small segments of the foundation that are barely visible through the grass. It eventually became part of the convento complex that occupied the southwest corner of the mission. A convento is a building that typically has rooms for the Spanish friars and mission guests, offices, workshops, storage spaces, a kitchen and dining area, and perhaps an infirmary.

Opposite the current church is the ruins of another church that was started in 1775 but never completed. This was most likely due to cost, but a decline in mission population, and thus skilled workers, may also have played a part. The project was abandoned in the late 1780s. Most of the stone was carted off to build other structures in the area, including new houses (in fact, that’s what happened to most of the stone at Mission San Juan). What stands today is a partial reconstruction done in the 1950s.

Reconstructed ruins of the unfinished church at Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Reconstructed ruins of the unfinished church at Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

The existing church was supposed to be temporary, taking the place of the first church that was torn down in the mid-1780s while the church across the compound was being built. It was an existing building (c. 1780s) that had been constructed over an old granary. Since the new church was never finished, this building became the main church, and it is still in use today. It was modified over the years, and by 1824 it had a sacristy and a bell tower (a painting from 1845 shows the church looking very similar to how it looks today). At the time, the stone walls were not covered with white plaster as they are today (this was done in 1984—the back wall is still bare). The interior and roof were restored in the 1960s. The church was further altered during a 2013 restoration.

Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Back side of the Mission San Juan Capistrano church at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Back side of the Mission San Juan Capistrano church at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

The church is usually open to visitors every day from 9 AM to 5 PM. However, since the 1950s it has served as a functioning Catholic church, so the building may be closed at anytime for church services, weddings, funerals, and other functions. The mission grounds are open daily from sunrise to sunset.

Interior of the Mission San Juan Capistrano church, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Interior of the Mission San Juan Capistrano church, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Alter of the church at Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Alter of the church at Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Family shrine inside the church of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Family shrine inside the church of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

At the southwest corner of the mission, just beyond the church, is the convento. It was originally part of a walled complex within the mission, with the convento on the west side and the original church (near the restroom) on the east side. Between the two buildings was a wall with an entranceway on the north side and Indian dwellings built into the wall on the south side. Nothing remains of the convento complex other than the convento itself, and even this is largely a reconstruction from the 1960s that incorporated the surviving sections of the original walls.

Convento at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Convento at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Today the convento serves as the Mission San Juan Visitor Center. A small exhibit area provides information on the mission system in general, not specifically Mission San Juan. Exhibits are comprised of information panels and small artifacts, many of which were found on the mission grounds. It takes roughly 15 minutes to read through all the information if you are inclined to do so.

Exhibits inside the convento of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Exhibits inside the convento of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Exhibits inside the convento of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Exhibits inside the convento of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Exhibit on the church of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Exhibit on the church of Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Just to the left of the convento is an entranceway, and next to that at the very southwestern corner of the mission complex, a restored porteria (originally built around 1759). This is where the gatekeeper lived. The photo below is taken from outside the mission walls. On the left is the convento, and on the right is the porteria. If you are standng outside, there is a .3-mile boardwalk trail (Yanaguana Trail) that starts directly behind the building.

Southwest entrance into Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Southwest entrance into Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Southwest entrance into Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

Southwest entrance into Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio

As you continue around the complex, you will pass the modern restroom, the reconstructed ruins of the church that was never completed, and the last point of interest, a small building that looks like it doesn’t quite belong at Mission San Juan. This structure, the Tufa House, was built in the 1850s, possibly under the direction of Father Francis Bouchu, the French priest who rebuilt Mission Espada in the mid to late 1800s. It is thought to have first been used as a Sunday school. It was later used as a residence by various people up until the 1960s. This is the only intact dwelling built inside a San Antonio mission after secularization.

Tufa House at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Tufa House at Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

No tours of Mission San Juan are given, so exploration is self-guided. There are information panels located along the walking path that explain the history of the mission, and Rangers or park volunteers are usually on hand to answer any questions. Allow up to an hour for your visit.

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Last updated on June 14, 2022
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