The voices of Mission descendants and the beat of their ceremonial drum floated through the grounds of Mission San José Wednesday morning as dozens of local leaders gathered to mark the first annual World Heritage Festival, a free weekend celebration of history, community, and culture surrounding the Spanish-colonial Missions in San Antonio’s Southside from Sept. 8-11.
Disclosure: The Rivard Report is one of several partners and sponsors for the World Heritage Festival.
Mayor Ivy Taylor read from an official City proclamation recognizing the festival, scheduled roughly one year after UNESCO voted to designate the historic Missions as World Heritage sites. The festival itself comes after a decade-long path to the highly coveted designation and is a result of the work and resources from City, Bexar County, State, and dozens of other partners.
The free festival aims to introduce the Missions “to a new audience,” said San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Superintendent Mardi Arce, at a time when the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th year.
“I challenge everyone to get out this weekend to find your park,” Arce said.
During a brief prayer and blessing of the festival, Fr. David Garcia, the pastoral administrator of Mission Concepción and director of the Old Spanish Missions, said this weekend will emphasize the “diverse, tolerant, and energetic, and faithful” community in San Antonio.
From live music to Mass, World Heritage Festival officials promise “something for everyone” to enjoy, starting with the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project kick off on Thursday, Sept. 8 at Fox Tech football field that will include far more than hard hats and shovels typical of groundbreaking ceremonies – an opera, complete with Native American dancers from American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions and Ballet San Antonio, the a 40-piece orchestra, and professional vocalists from Opera San Antonio.
On Friday, Mission San José will be “restored by light” after dusk with projectors set up to illuminate the Mission with an approximation of its original, vibrant color. Festivities start at 6:30 p.m.
The Tour de las Misiones bike ride will take off from Mission Park Pavilion at 10 a.m. on Saturday, where a 5K Walk/Run Tour also will start at 10 a.m. Activities and educational booths will be set up at all five Missions, including the Alamo, throughout the day on Saturday. The Mission Pachanga concert series will carry the celebrations into the evening from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. with a diverse lineup of local talent.
Sunday signals a day of relative rest to close out the festival with special Masses at each Mission on the Mission Reach.
Click here for a full list of events and details.
Though not officially part of the events, several native tribes will participate in Semana de Recuerdos, a week of celebration and spiritual remembrance for the Native Americans who lived and died in San Antonio and Bexar County.
“It’s our week of the dead,” said Ramon Vasquez, executive director of American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions. Vasquez attended the Wednesday morning press conference as his organization and others are taking part in the World Heritage Festival as well. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years … it just so happens to fall on the same week.”
Many of the events are private, including a Sunrise Ceremony at the Alamo Saturday morning, but the dusk Bear Dance at the Land Heritage Institute is open to the public. Mission visitors also may see Native American runners throughout the morning as they dash through city streets and speedily traverse the Mission trails, stopping at each Mission to pray.
The World Heritage designation was bolstered by two developments, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff: the multi-million dollar restoration of the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach, which created a “front door to the missions,” and a strong backing from then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar after he visited the Missions.
Colleen Swain, director of the City’s World Heritage Office, said another goal of the festival is to raise awareness of the various nonprofits that contribute to preserving and protecting the World Heritage sites. Various organizations will partake in events with informational booths and educational materials throughout. The City hopes to raise funds for projects that will further connect the Missions.
The long list of public, private, and nonprofit partners involved in the festival, Swain said, is an indication that succedding World Heritage Festivals will only grow in scope and participation – especially in the lead up to San Antonio’s 300th Anniversary in 2018.
“It takes a lot of people to pull this off and we’ll continue to collaborate,” she said. For the World Heritage Festival’s first year, “nobody said ‘no.'”
On Friday, Sept. 9, VIA will extend its hours until 11 p.m. for Mission San José’s Restored by Light celebration. On Saturday, Sept. 10, buses will run until 11 p.m. to accommodate those attending events at Mission County Park. Passengers can also opt to ride Route 42 Roosevelt during both dates.
VIVA Missions connects the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Sites, providing rides from the Alamo to Mission San Juan. A Mission Espada stop will be added at a later date, once road construction is complete. For those interested in unlimited rides during the festival, VIA offers a VIA Day Pass for $2.75.
For more information on prices and a complete schedule, click here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed mass will be held at the San Fernando Cathedral downtown, but no such mass will take place.
Top image: Mission descendants play a ceremonial drum at the kick-off for the inaugural World Heritage Festival. Photo by Robert Rivard.