We need to understand the world of Fray Margil, the founder of Mission San José, if we are going to understand the importance of the missions as a World Heritage site, said Dr. Jesús F. de la Teja. He spoke to a crowd of 150 history buffs Thursday evening at Alamo Hall on the grounds of Mission San Antonio de Valero – commonly known as the Alamo.
Teja, director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest at Texas State University in San Marcos, brought the missionary to life. In 1720, Fr. Antonio Margil de Jesús founded the most successful of all Texas missions, San José y San Miguel de Aguayo.
Margil encompasses the worlds of the social, the cultural, and the historic.
“If it’s a World Heritage site, we must think of it in terms of the world,” Teja said. “I know some may think it’s heresy, but Texas isn’t the center of the universe.”
Teja believes a Franciscan carries all types of baggage on his mission – to understand the future, we must understand his past.
Margil was born in Valencia, Spain, in 1657. “He had the heritage of a Mediterranean Spaniard. Their history is thousands of years old. Our missions have barely been here 300 years,” Teja said.
Rome built Valencia in the 2nd century. “It was in their ancestral heritage that it’s OK to force people to be saved,” Teja said. “Valencia was captured by Muslims who converted the inhabitants to their faith. It was reconquered by Christians who reintroduced their faith.”
There were no pagan lands left in Europe by the 17th century. The Spanish claims on earth were the grandest.
“From 1580 to 1640, most of the new world belonged to Spain,” Teja said. “But don’t pay attention to the borders on a map. Most of that area belonged to native peoples.”
The purpose of the French explorer LaSalle was to create a base to trade with the Spanish.
“The English took Jamaica for the same reason,” Teja said. “The way of doing God’s work helped the Spanish king defend the territories. Missionaries traveled to illiterate lands.”
The Spanish were very successful in their operations.
“Mexico City was very similar to a Spanish city except for the people,” Teja said. “The buildings and the layout of the streets were similar. People wore the same types of clothes.”
Margil spent the majority of his time from 1680 to 1720 preaching to Indians.
“He walked everywhere,” Teja said. “He was observant. He had the time and the opportunity for saving souls.”
The missionary also started a college for the propagation of the faith. “The College of Zacatecas was the centralized agency until 1707. … It was the home base for missionary training. It was a place of rest, for retirement, a place to come to die.”
Missionaries were willing to accept some suffering.
“Walking was a demonstration of what it meant to be a follower and Margil walked everywhere,” he said. “The world was not important to him. Buildings were not important. ‘I am nothingness itself,’ he said. That’s the kind of attitude he had.”
But Margil had a dual purpose, to teach Indians how to live as a Christian and how to “live as a Spaniard.”
Margil founded a mission in East Texas and one in Louisiana in 1716. “That means the first capital of Texas is now in Louisiana,” Teja said.
But the missions there were absolutely useless because the Caddo were already “civilized.” They knew how to plant and harvest crops, he explained. “Their culture was too strong to be dominated. … The Caddo were able to resist encroachment until Americans arrived.”
The goal of Mission San José was to see the countryside transferred into a microcosm of Spain. Margil’s mission was to prepare souls for the next world. Margil, however, did not live long enough to see construction of the church completed. He died in 1726 in Mexico City. The church was finished in 1780, just before secularization.
“Alamo Plaza should be interpreted in total,” Teja said. “It is a living space. All the buildings around Alamo Plaza are all part of the history of this place. It would be an injustice to throw any of it out.”
*Top image: Mission San José. Photo by Scott Ball.