Restoring Mission Espada: A Tale of St. Francis and a Missing Cat

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The statue of St. Francis of Assisi, whose order founded the San Antonio missions, is keeping watch over restoration work at Mission Espada. Photo by Carol Baas Sowa.

The statue of St. Francis of Assisi, whose order founded the San Antonio missions, is keeping watch over restoration work at Mission Espada. Photo by Carol Baas Sowa.

Pews, altar statues, office furnishings and a Franciscan art glass studio were packed up and moved out shortly after Easter to make way for the current renovations underway at Mission San Francisco de la Espada.

A lone garden statue of St. Francis remains outside in the arcaded corridor, keeping watch on construction activity and on Brother Jerome Wolnik’s garden. Brother James Hickey’s Canticle Hot Glass Studio in the adjoining convento will be reopening soon at Mission San José.

“We’re doing a full exterior and interior restoration,” said Anna Nau of Ford, Powell & Carson Architects. “Luckily we don’t have the same really severe structural issues we did at (Mission) San Juan.” What the church and adjoining convento did have was enough structural movement taking place to form cracks in walls, necessitating structural monitoring by Sparks Engineering over the past two years.

Architectural conservator Anna Nau of Ford, Powell & Carson Architects and Planners and William Pugh of Pugh Constructors are overseeing restoration work at Mission Espada’s church and convento.  Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

Architectural conservator Anna Nau of Ford, Powell & Carson Architects and Planners and William Pugh of Pugh Constructors are overseeing restoration work at Mission Espada’s church and convento. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

Workers for Pugh Constructors have been busy removing plaster from around these cracks as well as preparing the walls for electrical upgrades that will recess wiring previously surface-mounted for a cleaner look. The sound system is also being upgraded.

“We are doing grout injections and stitching of all the walls to tie them together a bit better,” added Nau. This will ensure that when there is soil movement, the walls will move as one, rather than in multiple pieces which creates cracking. Once walls are replastered, they will be painted in the color scheme used at Mission San Juan since there is no record of the original colonial finishes.

Another major problem being addressed is roof leaks. A new roof was installed after the 1998 fire in the church, but it has had periodic leak issues which the present work will put an end to.

Minor adjustments to the church interior include removing the unused 1960s confessionals to give the choir more room and adjusting the steps to the altar to make them less hazardous. New cabinetry in the sacristy and kitchen and some plumbing reconfiguration are also in store for the convento rooms, and sprucing up these rooms is giving the parish the opportunity to rethink their usage.

These rooms, Nau said, were constructed in the mid-20th century by architect Harvey P. Smith on the foundation and wall remnants of the original convento. “Of all the four mission churches, this one has arguably the most complicated construction history,” she said. In fact, the only remaining true colonial aspect of the mission is the portion of the church’s facade with its iconic Moorish door.

Repointing work is being done on the exterior of Mission Espada. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

Repointing work is being done on the exterior of Mission Espada. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

When Espada’s cornerstone was laid in 1744, its original architect, Antonio Tello, had plans for a much larger church that would connect with an already built two-story convento. The seating area of the present church was actually intended to be the grander church’s sacristy. Unfortunately, Tello had to beat a hasty retreat out of town to avoid an arrest warrant for murder, leaving unbuilt churches at not only Espada, but Missions Concepción and San Antonio de Valero. The friars constructed a church simpler than the present one on the sacristy foundations and began using it.

It was not until 1762 that Joseph Palafox and Don Ángel arrived to carry out a major reconstruction and remodeling of the friars’ church, including installation of the present doorway using Tello’s stones refitted for a smaller door. The building was altered further in the latter part of the 18th century by Antonio Salazar, who added its present bell tower and extended its west wall by incorporating the sacristy.

Pews and other furnishing were removed from the church at Mission Espada shortly after Easter to stabilize and repair cracking walls. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

Pews and other furnishing were removed from the church at Mission Espada shortly after Easter to stabilize and repair cracking walls. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

In the years that followed, the mission buildings were said to have been occupied by James Bowie and William B. Travis and their Texian volunteers in 1835 as fortification against the Mexican Army.

All but the wall with the bell tower had pretty much tumbled down when Father Francis Bouchu came on the scene in the mid-19th century and it is thanks to his single-handed efforts that we have the present day church at Mission Espada. Arriving in Texas from France in 1854, he was first assigned to assist at the old church of San Fernando where he was in charge of the ministering to the Spanish-speaking parishioners.

Acquiring land tracts at Espada out of what little money he had, Father Bouchu was later assigned there and set about rebuilding the abandoned church with his own hands. His original plan was to restore it to approximately what it had looked like in 1824, but the reconstructed church, completed by 1887, included touches of his own as well. Father Bouchu also was responsible for building a school in the compound and did much to revive the community as a parish.

Workers prepare a special grout for injecting into the walls at Mission Espada. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

Workers prepare a special grout for injecting into the walls at Mission Espada. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

Following the single-story convento constructed by Smith in the 1950s, the next activity at Espada came in the 1980s, when Ford, Powell & Carson undertook structural stabilization of the convento’s west wall, followed by structural underpinning of the south wall in 2000.

“In a sense, this project is really a continuation of those two earlier phases of structural stabilization,” Nau said. “We’re basically treating all the stuff that wasn’t treated before and kind of reinforcing what was done then.”

Plaster has been removed where large cracks had formed in the walls at Mission Espada in preparation for restoration work there. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

Plaster has been removed where large cracks had formed in the walls at Mission Espada in preparation for restoration work there. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

The present work will be the last of the mission projects funded by the Old Spanish Missions Capital Campaign, which raised $15.5 million, with about half of that earmarked for endowment. With the previously designated restoration work completed for Missions Concepción, San José and San Juan, their next goal, said Nau, is to update the 2003 assessment from which those projects came.

“We’ll be reassessing where we are,” she explained, “prioritizing any potential future projects, especially those related to conservation of the colonial fabric.” This will also include a maintenance plan for the mission parishes.

Work on the church itself is scheduled to be completed by Christmas, with the adjoining buildings taking a month longer. Landscaping and site improvements in the parking lot, which is to be resurfaced with reinforced grass to blend in with the grassy compound, will take additional time.

Meanwhile, the solitary statue of St. Francis will continue watching over the mission compound and keeping an eye out for the expected on-site visit in September by UNESCO for approval of San Antonio’s missions for the World Heritage List.

Missing in Action

Mission Espada cat Dominic, born at the mission 15 years, ago has disappeared since restoration work began at the old mission. He is the pet of Brother Jerome Wolnik, OFM, who tends the mission garden.

Mission Espada cat Dominic, born at the mission 15 years, ago has disappeared since restoration work began at the old mission. He is the pet of Brother Jerome Wolnik, OFM, who tends the mission garden.

When parishioners and visitors return to Mission Espada at the end of the present restoration, they will miss a familiar face — that of Dominic, Wolnik’s feline companion who made his home on the mission grounds for 15 years.

While black and white Dominic’s younger sidekick, orange and white Moses, adapted to Brother Jerome’s move to new living quarters nearby and the noise of the work in progress (even making friends with at least one of the workmen,) the disgruntled Dominic has apparently taken off for parts unknown — with or without assistance.

Brother Jerome surmises that the cat’s normal peaceful residence at the mission having been disturbed, he would have been only too happy to hop into someone’s car and ride off to a quieter one. Still, he is missed and there is always the hope that the affable cat, (long-haired and the size of a large raccoon) will intuitively know when the restoration work is complete and return to his mission home.The statue of St. Francis in the garden will be keeping a light on for him.

*Featured/top image: The statue of St. Francis of Assisi, whose order founded the San Antonio missions, is keeping watch over restoration work at Mission Espada. Photo by Carol Baas Sowa.

This article has been republished with permission from Today’s Catholic.

Related Stories:

Spanish Missions on Track for World Heritage Site

Solar Illumination at Mission Concepción

San Antonians ‘Get Outdoors!’ at Mission San José

San José Restoration Award is Eighth for Old Spanish Missions

4 thoughts on “Restoring Mission Espada: A Tale of St. Francis and a Missing Cat

  1. I enjoyed visiting the church and when the opportunity presented itself? I would sit on one of the pews and pray. It is a great feeling to have the church to yourself.

    Whichever, in visiting this church it reminds of my younger days when I lived in South Texas. My grnadparents have land in Webb County and I recall when we would go feed their livestock. ANd one of my F.F.A. calves when I was in high school. The entrance (sendero) to their property had an adjoining ranch belonging to a family from Laredo, TX. Either way, this family adjoining my grandparents poperty a Capilla. Spanish for Chapel. The Capilla was smaller than Mission Espada. Yet, it had somewhat of the same resemblence in its interior. The capilla had no bells much like the Mission. Yet, it did have a steeple. My grandmother mentioned that some ranches in South Texas had capillas to give homage to God. Mainly built when the mexican families settled there on their properties. So I was surprised to hear or see this on family held property. I was just expecting to see corrals, houses, horse barns and so forth. Then my grandparents would take me from time-to-time to other ranches in South Texas. And some of the older places that had an absent ownership ( much of the land in South Texas is pretty mcuh like this) have remains of the once standing capillas on these properties. Yet, I did see some still stnading in good shape when we traveled to Mexico and visit friends of my granparents on their ranching properties. To some of these families and their ranch hands that lived on the ranchland… the capillas was part of their daily lives.

    Either way, getting back to this article San Antonio, TX is fortunate to have the Missions. And I look forward to seeing what is in store in the end results after the renovations is done. I also liked visiting the museum/display of the Rancho de las Cabras that was located on the same property. It was interestign to see the artificats that were on display of the Rancho De Las Cabras.

    Daver The Neighbor’

  2. Thanks for sharing your slice of life memories from other days — ones not as old as the missions, but as old as some of us!

  3. My wife came to your mission as part of a ‘Ladies’ outing from Florida. She was quite impressed with Brother Hickeys glass works and after ravi g to me about it, I tried to look it up in a website. I found the friars.org site, bit that was it. If Bother Hickey can produce enough stock, he should develop a pictoral website hi-liting his work! I am sure if it was also listed on e-bay and other sites like it, he could do well for the friary! Let me know if he does. I,am sure I will find something my wife or daughters would love. Bill Hitchcock, Fort Lauderdale Florida

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