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San Antonio's Mission Trails - Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisma Concepcion de Acuna
Historic Preservation Blog from PreservationDirectory.com -
Contributed By: Jason Scott
Email The Author: jaycescott92@yahoo.com

If I had visitors to the great state of Texas and they wished to witness the rich
culture combination of Texan and Mexican, I would have to say San Antonio is
the place to go.

The eighth largest city in the U.S., San Antonio boasts a booming tourist industry and a cultural, art scene unique to the country.

And no better place to observe the combination of Anglo-Hispanic contributions to history is a trip to see the multiple Spanish missions located in the city. One in particular is Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisma Concepcion de Acuna. The oldest Catholic still in use in the entire Western hemisphere. How’s that for important?

Its rich past encompasses Spanish colonialism, Mexican influence, and intrusion into the Native American populations, the Anglo Alamo and eventually the American
experience. The latter is still evolving.

Established in 1731 as adobe structures and finally completed after many phases in 1755 with limestone and mortar, the mission is a wonderful example of a combination of styles from Southern Mexican and Central and South American termed “Ultra Baroque.”

The limestone-constructed buildings are now in the trust of the San Antonio Missions National Parks System and are still retained in ownership by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. For their age and unique history as mission, battlefield, army warehouse, barn and national park, the buildings are in a remarkable state of preservation.

When the mission was established, this site afforded many advantages to the friars, soldiers and Native American occupants. The site is exactly one-half mile from the San Antonio River and sits upon a raised knoll where, at the time of occupation, the entirety of the river valley would have been in view from North to South. Mission Concepcion represents only one of a chain of missions strung along the San Antonio River which were established between 1718 and 1731 to spread the Catholic faith and the values of the Spanish government and their conquistador forefathers not only to just the immediate region but to the entirety of the Texas or Tejas region.

Historical documentation and archaeological data recovered from a variety of 20th century surveys and excavations have brought to light many of the distinct phases of Mission Concepcion’s construction and life as a center for commerce, government and habitation. Over the years, starting from the Depression era WPA activities to university-led excavations, surveyors have uncovered artifacts and building structures from all phases of the sites occupation.  

Findings suggest that although Concepcion is in a remarkable state of preservation partly due to the quality of limestone used in its construction, the present day stone church went through several major phases in order to keep it structurally sound while many of its fellow missions suffered from decay.

The present day church was built in the traditional shape of a holy cross with a Spanish/Moorish dome hovering above the altar and two bell towers at the base of the cross in which the belfries are still in working order. Research indicates the present site of the Mission was actually used before its establishment as the grounds for the Mission San Francisco Marques or “lost mission.” This portion of the San Antonio River is strung with five Spanish missions that were constructed at various points in the 18th century. This mission road was not only to serve to colonize the area, convert the Native Americans, but to also serve as a buffer zone to French encroachments on the Texas and Louisiana borders during the off-and-on again Franco-Spanish hostilities of the 18th century. The friars of the missions thus served both church and the crown.

The Concepcion site was rededicated in 1731 and for many years consisted of adobe (clay, water and straw mixture-dried in kiln or in the sun as bricks) and wooden huts called jacals. The construction of the main stone church and out buildings, including the complex’s surrounding palisade, was begun in 1735. During the meantime, soldiers and missionaries lived in one or two story adobe conventos, while their Indian counterparts/converts lived in the wooden jacals. Construction was completed on the majority of the surviving stone buildings in 1755, but not without its share of setbacks, dramas and being 14 years behind the Spanish Crown’s time line.

Although friars might bring with them knowledge of salvation and the Catholic faith, their skills in stone or masonry construction were somewhat limited. For Mission Concepcion, a master mason by the name of Antonio Tello was brought in from Zecatecas, Mexico, to continue to the friars’ work. Tello arrived at the Mission in 1738 and immediately began a redirection of the friar’s original plans. Quarrying limestone and travertine from a quarry location just outside the Mission grounds, huge stones were cut using Baras de fierro para sacar piedre and mazos, quarrying bars and large hammers. Once faced, these stones were incorporated into Tello’s plan. Construction was moving along well and it appears at this point based on archaeological and documentary evidence that the mission was 50% complete including one of its two bell towers, the sacristy and arched stairwells. In 1744, Senor Tello disappears from history and construction comes to a halt.

In 1751, a new master mason, Hieronymo Y’barra, also from Mexico, was brought in and work was finished in 1755 more or less on the church we see today. By 1756, the site was surrounded by a stone wall and further buildings were constructed including a granary, a friary and convento. The earlier adobe structures were then presumably demolished as the new stone sacristy and church were now in use. Just as Concepcion was near complete in construction and at its height, the decline was soon to follow. Work changed from building more complex arched ceilings to flat roofed construction and at the same time populations of the mission decreased dramatically due to disease, Apache raids and general decline of Spanish interest in the area, in 1794, when the Mission was partially secularized, there were only 38 Indians living in the complex.

Since its completion the story of Mission Concepcion is very similar to many Spanish Colonial buildings and communities in South Texas. Times of disease, prosperity and Indian raids were the norm. As Spanish influence in the region waned, the financial backing for maintaining a mission community for commerce or the saving of souls also declined. When Mexico achieved its independence, the government in 1823 instituted secularization of all the missions in the area, selling off lands to local buyers.

Later during the Texas Revolution of Independence, the mission was the site of the Battle of Concepcion, one of the many that led to eventual occupation of the famous Alamo mission just north by Texian forces. Concepcion maintained itself as a house of worship and a religious school off and on until finally becoming a hay barn. In the later part of the 19th and early 20th century the U.S. Army used the mission complex as a supply depot.

Finally recognized for its historic and archaeological significance and with Federal restoration and research work beginning in the 1930’s, the mission was brought back to life. This led to its eventual listing as a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and its incorporation into the National Parks System in 1978. Still, it is hard to shake the image that by the 1880s the area outside had also been adapted to farm use and even a tin roof erected for animal shelter and garage for a horse drawn buckboard.

The facade of the church, which faces almost due west according to legend allows for the solar effect of the setting sun on August 15th of each year to beam directly onto the altar. This coincides with the Catholic festival of the Feast of the Assumption. These limestone columns load-bear a simple and steep pediment in which projects a carved niche. Within the niche is a carved coat of arms still bearing the inscription: “A su patrona, Y Princessa con estas armas, atiende esta mission, y defieende el punto de su pureza” or translated as “This mission honors its patroness and princess and defends with these arms the doctrine of her purity.” The columns, pediment and total front façade still bear pigments of black, red and yellow markings from the time when this was a brightly lit symbol of Catholic faith and Spanish imperialism in an otherwise wild country.

Mission Concepcion served a variety of purposes during its three hundred year existence. Beginning as a complex of adobe and wooden shacks, it became the resplendent focal point of Spanish missionary activities in the area only to fall into disuse and eventually “rediscovery” and preservation of those past phases. Mission Concepcion, as seen today, has relatively changed very little in the past 100 years. Sure, the small additions made in order to make the park accessible to guests, but the over all structure is still intact. It was the previous two centuries during the upheavals of nations such as Spain, France, Mexico, Texas and the United States, not to mention the native peoples of the region that brought about the greatest archaeological changes to the site.

Sadly, most of these changes were not for the betterment or preservation of the structure. Reaching its heights in the mid 18th century when all buildings were composed of either stone or a combination of stone and adobe, the complex steadily declined. The surrounding palisades, cells, blacksmith shops, granary and many other important and outlying structures were either demolished or scuttled for the stone. More than likely most of the stone is probably is used in nearby structures, possibly at neighboring missions. Recent excavations of the area have turned up the entirety of the wall foundations as well as many of the outlying buildings. Ongoing excavations hopefully will shed light as to their form and function.

Mission Concepcion was envisioned as a center point and centrifuge of Spanish Culture and the indigenous peoples of the area. As place of commerce, government and religion, Mission Concepcion with her line of sister missions forms a cultural landscape unique to Texas and the Southwestern United States as a whole. The ingenious schemes, the successes and failures of the Spanish mission policy in the New World are reflected in the archaeology of Mission Concepcion.

Mission Concepcion is not in any immediate danger of collapse. Still there are a number of problems that beset the structure as it approaches its fourth century of use.  Most importantly the continued deterioration of pigmentation of the original paintings on the interior and exterior walls and central façade are in constant threat to the elements and human touch. Rising humidity within the church has seen its effects on the plaster ceilings as well. Additionally, holes in the roofing have allowed rainwater to seep into interior and enclosed roof members. Improper rainwater runoff outside is eroding foundation stones. Finally, while not as old as the mission proper, exterior wood elements are suffering termite and fungal infestation.
 
My recommendations are to replace and repair elements to ensure the waterproof ability of the roof structure, channel rainwater flow off into proper channels, stabilize and repair current plasters, controlling internal humidity levels and human access to the frescoes and removing the infestations from wooden elements.

As for the stone used in its construction, the porous limestone was quarried meters from the site. The depression of the digging in the quarry can still be seen as well as the stone masons’ marks made with the escoplos para la piedra or stone chisel. At first my impressions were that time had made a mockery of the outside facing stones, turning it into a coral complexion of holes and pores. Yet, these stones, despite their ugly appearance, have structurally stood the test of time while smoother and easily faced limestone works of nearby missions have begun to crumble and buckle under the pressure. Where later work was done at the mission using adobe fill for the core, the walls have since disappeared or are well on their way to disappearing. The quarry location had to be convenient for the masons, yet they were either lucky or very astute in choosing the limestone outcrop they used to quarry and build this monument to their God in a land on the edge of their known world. 


Posted: July 21, 2013
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