Spanish Missions on Track for World Heritage Site

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A family admires the recently restored Mission Concepcion during a Something Monday bike ride in July 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A family admires Mission Concepción. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Carol Baass SowaAn incredible amount of time and craftsmanship went into the construction of San Antonio’s centuries-old Spanish missions, and crafting the massive World Heritage Site nomination document which went off in January to the Paris headquarters of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee was a labor-intensive undertaking in its own right.

The seven long years of work on this project have paid off though, as the San Antonio Missions are now one step closer to the prestigious designation of World Heritage Site, where they would join the ranks of the Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon, Stonehenge and Angkor Wat.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced on Jan. 17 that the official U.S. nomination had been made. “We are very happy and excited about the news,” said Father David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions, “and at the same time, we are a little cautious because the attempt to get the U.S. government to pay the dues for the World Heritage Program to UNESCO have stalled for now, so we are a little disappointed in that.”

Father David Garcia, Director of the Old Spanish Missions, at Mission Concepción. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa / Today's Catholic.

Father David Garcia, Director of the Old Spanish Missions, at Mission Concepción. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa / Today’s Catholic.

The United States has withheld payment of dues to UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) for two years based on a law prohibiting funding of any United Nations branch admitting Palestine as a full member. Congressional efforts are underway to change this, as there is apprehension it could possibly affect affirmation of San Antonio’s five missions (San José, Concepción, San Juan, Espada and San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo) as a World Heritage Site.

Lead author of the nomination, historian Paul T. Ringenbach, is hopeful this will not be a problem. An initial draft was sent off in the fall, he related, resulting in suggestions for minor changes and the nomination team was told to resubmit the corrected files by Feb. 1. “If they thought they were absolutely not going to consider it,” he said, “why would they ask us to send it to them?”

The core San Antonio Missions World Heritage team consisted of historians Ringenbach and Felix D. Almaraz, Jr.; Virginia Nicholas and Paula Piper of the San Antonio Conservation Society (SACS); Susan Chandoha of Los Compadres; and archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. They were assisted by a larger advisory committee, including Father Garcia, plus additional helpers involved in research, writing and map preparation and countless contributors. Mission descendents and indigenous members of the local community also had input, as did national and international experts.

“This project has been a great collaboration of the community from our local scholars and leaders to experts from around the globe,” said Snow, “all working together to present the unique story of the missions and their role in global history.”

No stone was left unturned, no “i” undotted, no “t” uncrossed in compiling a compelling dossier making the case for San Antonio’s 18th century string of mission complexes, along with their Rancho de las Cabras, acequia system with aqueduct and dam, and  “labores” (farm fields fed by the acequias), meeting UNESCO’s criteria. “We have rewritten portions of it dozens and dozens and dozens of times,” Ringenbach noted.

The project had its start in 2006, when then-SACS President Virginia Nicholas learned the U.S. tentative list for World Heritage Site nomination was being reopened and contacted Susan Chandoha, executive director of Los Compadres, the friends group for San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. In looking for a writer to craft the nomination they called on Ringenbach, with Piper and Snow also becoming involved. None had any previous experience in such an undertaking, but after numerous re-writes, their nomination was among 38 submitted and eventually became one of 14 to make the tentative list — but not without some behind-the-scenes work.

Archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park speaks to ICOMOS symposium visitors at Espada Aqueduct in May 2012. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa / Today's Catholic.

Archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park speaks to ICOMOS symposium visitors at Espada Aqueduct in May 2012. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa / Today’s Catholic.

Their proposal initially did not elicit many positive responses for the missions’ inclusion. “They didn’t think that our missions were unique enough or different enough,” said Ringenbach. There were already missions on the World Heritage List from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico. “A site has to be of outstanding universal value,” noted Ringenbach. “So what outstanding universal value did we have that the other sites did not have?”

Other countries had more impressive mission churches, but nobody could beat the historical completeness of San Antonio’s missions in visually demonstrating their socio-economic impact on the Spanish colonial frontier in the formation of the city of San Antonio and culture of its people.

This proved to be a turning point for advancing the nomination, along with the convening of a panel of international experts in a variety of pertinent fields to tour and discuss the San Antonio missions in April of 2012. “Many people who originally did not support the San Antonio Missions were sold after they saw them,” noted Ringenbach.

Among the helpful suggestions given was hiring a consultant, leading to Gordon Fulton of Canada, an expert on World Heritage issues, coming aboard. Fulton knew the words to use and the stance to take. As example, when comparing San Antonio’s missions to other mission sites (a whole section in the nomination document), care was taken not to come off as criticizing others.

Archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park leads ICOMOS symposium visitors on a tour of Mission Espada in May 2012.

Archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park leads ICOMOS symposium visitors on a tour of Mission Espada in May 2012. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa / Today’s Catholic.

“Anybody who was willing to read any of the documents, we gave it to them and took their comments and read comments that anybody made and took them seriously,” Ringenbach related. This included taking into account oral tradition, since the indigenous people at the mission had no written language. If anyone recommended a book that should be read, he read it.

The final 344-page dossier included highly detailed maps, photos, slides, plans and extracts, along with extensive bibliography and glossary and was accompanied by audio-visual materials. The properties’ history, authenticity, integrity, state of conservation, management and guidelines for protection and monitoring were all detailed. And, of course, voluminous justification was given for inclusion in the World Heritage List based on the missions’ role in the important interchange of values that occurred there in the blending of cultures, leading to the founding of a city unique in many ways.

A succinct line of the document’s synthesis summary reads: “This ensemble is the most complete and most intact example of the Spanish Crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize, and defend the northern frontier of New Spain during the period when Spain controlled the largest empire in the world.”

The next steps in the process will be analysis by ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) of the submission and an on-site inspection sometime between March 2014 and May 2015. In the meantime, Father Garcia and Las Misiones will continue their work of restoring and preserving the four mission churches that fall under the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s jurisdiction. He is confident San Antonio’s missions have all the qualifications to merit the title of World Heritage Site.

Speaking for the National Park Service, which oversees the mission compounds, outlying buildings and associated properties, Snow related, “I am excited to think of all the ways we can continue our journey to tell about the missions and South Texas as we move through the next phases of the World Heritage process.”

“Our missions have a value for the whole world,” said Father Garcia. “We certainly believe that. We’re going to hope for the best and work for the best and see how it goes.”

San Antonio’s missions are on their way.


This story was originally published in the Feb. 7, 2014 issue of “Today’s Catholic” newspaper and has been republished with permission.


Carol Baass Sowa is staff writer and photographer for Today’s Catholic newspaper, published by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Born and raised in Victoria, Texas, her mother hailed from San Antonio, so the city has been a part of her life as long as she can remember. She graduated with a B.A. in communications, cum laude, from the University of Houston. A favorite area of coverage for her at Today’s Catholic is the San Antonio missions and her earlier mission stories can be viewed at, with photo album stories on Today’s Catholic Facebook. Carol can be contacted at


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2 thoughts on “Spanish Missions on Track for World Heritage Site

  1. Anna, Thank you for all your assistance to the World Heritage nomination team. I know you put in a lot of work on the document — and also down at the missions!

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