The San Antonio Missions have been beloved by residents and tourists for years, but thanks to recent upgrades, expansions and a pending World Heritage status, Southside San Antonio is well on it’s way to becoming an iconic and international destination.
City officials and representatives with the San Antonio River Authority, the National Park Service and Bexar County signed the papers for a Mission boundary expansion at Mission San Juan Capistrano on Friday. The expansion transferred 55 acres of land previously owned by the River Authority and 5.5 acres from the city to Mission County Park.
Including the additional acreage, Mission Park now stands at nearly three times the size of Central Park in New York.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett helped pass the park expansion by tying it to an essential defense bill last December, after years of blocked bill efforts. Doggett was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming UNESCO meeting in Bonn, Germany next month, which will determine whether the missions are named a World Heritage site.
“I think it’s a great sendoff for our delegation on World Heritage,” Doggett said at a press conference on Friday. “It says we’re committed to protecting views of the missions and that the community and our elected leaders at all levels of government believe in these missions, not only as a way of preserving our past, but about our economic future.”
The local delegation has started reaching out to other countries for votes before the meeting on July 5. “This is clearly the nation’s largest cultural collection of the Spanish colonial heritage anywhere, it’s some place that is really unique to the world,” Doggett said, noting that several countries, including Germany, had already promised to vote in favor of the missions.
A recent study projected that the missions would bring $290 million in San Antonio tourism each year and support more than 4,000 local jobs if approved as a World Heritage site.
Although part of the land additions included in National Park boundaries, Bexar County will continue to run the park. The Missions are already an obvious tourist attraction, but the Parks Department works to preserve the historic structures, which are a part of everyday life in San Antonio, through cultural and educational programs.
“People often think of a mission as just a church, but it wasn’t,” Mardi Arce, park superintendent said. “The mission was a community, it was the farm fields and it was also a ranch that went with each one of these places.”
Arce said the expansion included 75 more acres of Spanish farmlands or labores, which are still used to grow crops like wheat.
“As people drive down Villamain (Road), or hike or bike on the trail, they’re going to actually see these fields in production. That just adds to more of the visitor understanding of the story of the missions,” Arce added.
According to Rick Grinnan, the board chair for the fundraising group Los Compadres, more than 1,000 students visited Mission San Juan in 2015, and that number was expected to grow with the expansion.
Officials continued the festivities on Friday evening with a special mass and the rededication of Mission San Francisco de la Espada.
Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller led the congregation in giving thanks for the successful restoration of the small church and buildings on site.
“Although this is the tiniest mission, the simplicity makes it almost delicate; In its simplicity it stands out and attracts its guests and visitors,” the Archbishop said.
Several clergymen joined him to consecrate the church’s new altar, which was handmade by Franciscan monks. Garcia-Siller welcomed the congregation and future visitors to the mission before blessing the walls.
“From the very beginning we’ve tried to say the missions of San Antonio are not museums, they’re alive,” said Father David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions. “Things happen here all the time, beyond the spiritual.”
The four missions offer programs and activities including yearly festivals and free archeology exhibits and demonstrations, which welcome families and local students.
Anna Nau, the Architectural Conservator for the Ford, Powell and Carson firm, who oversaw the improvements, said that the project was less serious than the renovations at Mission San Juan, which suffered a lot of structural damage over the years.
“The facade of course is the gem of the Colonial portion of this church, so we did very minimal work,” Nau said. “We did have to tackle some roof leaks. The rain over the last few months has found every possible way inside.”
The firm worked extensively on the church interior and the rooms throughout the parish, to fill wall cracks and replaster rooms while preserving the original structure and simplicity. Other upgrades to the site included improved sound systems and lighting, new furnishings and a paved area for parish functions and parking.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd was also present at Mission Espada, which resides in his district. A native San Antonian, Hurd said he was proud to have been a part of the mission’s rededication.
“This is part of our district’s heritage, and it’s important to understand our past, appreciate our present and know where we’re going in the future,” Hurd said. “To think that this place has been functioning in some form or fashion for almost 300 years, that’s pretty amazing.”