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Mission trails in America’s Southwest

Courtesy San Antonio CVB

For hundreds of years they have stood, testaments to the faith and achievements of the explorers who braved the desert and opened the New World to Europeans. Today, the missions of the Southwest are architectural wonders, historical monuments and relics of a religious tradition that continues to this day.

Before they were part of the United States, of course, the land we call Texas, New Mexico and Arizona was all part of Mexico; when the Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century, the land wasn’t unified as a country but was controlled by various indigenous tribes that lived in the area. And although the Spanish exploration of these areas was a complicated affair — with some unsavory aspects — one of the key motivations was the conversion of the pagan natives to Christianity.

As the explorers and Catholic priests moved through the Indian territory, they set up missions along the way that served as churches for the natives and sometimes also as military outposts. Many of these buildings survive, and they give visitors a look at the fascinating past and present of faith and history in the Southwest.

Father Kino Missions
[ Tucson, Arizona ]
Arizona’s most famous colonial missions were founded not by the Spanish but by an Italian Jesuit priest named Father Kino, who traveled the area in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Father Kino established more than 20 missions throughout Arizona and northern Mexico; although few survive, those that remain are popular with visitors to the Tucson area.

The most famous of the Kino missions is San Javier del Bac, which was begun shortly before the priest’s death in 1711 and continued by Franciscan missionaries later that century.

“They call it the White Dove of the Desert, and it’s an icon here in our community,” said Jessica Stephens, director of communications and public relations for the Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They finished building it in the 1780s, and it’s the oldest European structure that is still intact in Arizona. It still has the original statues and murals.”

The structure is still an active church and receives more than 200,000 visitors each year. Groups can have tours of the complex led by volunteer guides, who tell about the mission’s role in the region.

Visitors can see more missions farther south of Tucson at Tumacácori National Historical Park. The park preserves the adobe ruins of three Kino missions and has a visitors center where groups can learn more about the missions and the history of Arizona.

El Paso Mission Trail
[ El Paso, Texas ]
In the 1590s, Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the Rio Grande area settled in the area that now borders New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Some of the colonists celebrated a thanksgiving feast with the local Tigua Indians 23 years before the celebration at Plymouth in New England.

Today, visitors can tour a number of the missions and other structures the Spanish set up in the area on the El Paso Mission Trail.

“The Ysleta Mission is the oldest, dating back to 1680,” said Daniel Horsch, communications manager for the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It was originally built of clay, adobe and wood. There’s still evidence of the old materials they used to build the structures.”

The Ysleta Mission was built on the banks of the Rio Grande, and the Socorro Mission was built soon thereafter, about five miles downriver. The two missions are architecturally similar and are surrounded by quiet natural settings just outside of the city.

Another structure, the Presidio Chapel San Elizario, was constructed as part of a military encampment in the area. Unlike other missions, which were aligned to face the rising sun in the East, the Presidio faces west and features many small buildings in addition to the chapel.

San Antonio Missions
[ San Antonio, Texas ]
Beginning in 1690, the Spanish set up six missions in east Texas, five of which are in the vicinity of modern San Antonio. The most famous of these — and perhaps the most famous Spanish mission in the country — is San Antonio de Valero, better known today as the Alamo.

Located in downtown San Antonio, the Alamo is best remembered as the site of remarkable heroics during the Texas Revolution, when Davy Crockett and a small group of other defenders held out for 13 days under siege by Mexican forces. Today, the Alamo is one of the most popular attractions in San Antonio, and visitors learn about the building’s role as a church and a military outpost and can see some artifacts of the battle in the on-site museum.

Perhaps lesser known are the other four missions in the area, preserved now as the San Antonio Mission National Historical Park. Situated about three miles apart on the banks of the San Antonio River, each of the missions is part of a Catholic parish and holds regular church services.

Visitors to the park can tour the various missions and learn about their distinct architecture and historical events. Other highlights include a gristmill at Mission San José, a 270-year-old dam and aqueduct at Mission Espada, and a number of nature trails.

New Mexico missions
[ new mexico ]
With 18 missions and mission ruins open to visitors, New Mexico is a treasure trove of colonial Spanish structures. Some of the missions remain on tribal lands, where local elders maintain them; others serve as historical landmarks, and some have found new life as repurposed historic buildings.

The most-visited mission church in the state, the Santuario de Chimayo attracts some 300,000 people each year. This little church in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains has been called the “Lourdes of America” for the healing miracles said to have taken place there. The shrine was built between 1814 and 1816.

Other New Mexico churches bear their own distinctions. San Miguel Mission Church, a simple adobe structure built in the early 17th century, is the oldest church still in use in the United States. The Santuario de Guadalupe, built in 1781 west of the Santa Fe Plaza, has been transformed into an art and history museum.

One of the most famous — and most photographed — mission churches in the state is St. Francis of Assisi Mission in Taos. Built between 1772 and 1815, this well-preserved adobe church rises seamlessly from the desert landscape with simple lines and a clean aesthetic that fits in perfectly with Taos’ artistic ambiance.

More on Missions:

Mission trails in America’s Southwest
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Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.