Peaceful ... Tranquil ... An oasis of serenity after the tourist-overrun Alamo. Those were my thoughts as I wandered the grounds of Mission San Jose: Six miles but 150 years removed from downtown San Antonio. The hour-and-half interlude we were given here was an unexpected and welcome addition to my 10-day transcontinental journey on American Orient Express.
In 1817, the valley drained by the San Antonio River was a natural destination for Spanish missionaries hoping to establish communities in the dry country of East Texas. The first, according to National Park Service literature, was Mission San Antonio de Valero --- the one we now call The Alamo. By 1831, however, there were four more along an 8-10 mile stretch of river to the south. The lovely --- and lovingly restored --- Mission San Jose is the site the National Park Service visitor center and focal point of the Mission Trail the Service has established to connect them all.
(The Alamo itself, the Park Service brochure notes, is still under the care of The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which began restoration in 1905.)
Visiting Mission San Jose provides a more complete picture of life in the early mission settlements than does the Alamo. Though the latter was once part of a very large compound, all that remain now are the main chapel and the immediately surrounding courtyards containing the garrison’s quarters and some other military installations; San Jose helps you visualize the rest of the largely agriculture-based community. In fact, there’s little if anything military here: the living quarters built into the walls served mainly as the homes of the families doing the settlement’s everyday work.
Mission San Jose wasn’t always walled as is it now: increasingly violent clashes between the mission residents and indigenous tribes forced the settlers to leave their homes near the fields and move into the fortified quarters we’ll be touring. Beyond the church and monastery, we can also follow the system of aqueducts and trenches that supplied the settlement’s water and powered the mill that produced its flour. In fact, a costumed miller may be on hand to demonstrate it for you.
Mission San Jose is still an active Roman Catholic church with regular Masses. Before entering the chapel, gentlemen should remove their hats and women should make sure their heads are covered. Catholic or not, you’ll be welcome here and find it to be a pleasant respite from the Texas sun and San Antonio traffic.
You’ll need to walk at least a quarter-mile from the Visitor Center to the church, but the path is paved and level. If you have a car, you can obtain a Park Service map and drive the Mission Trail to the other still-active churches. However, the road passes through some low-lying areas and may be impassable during periods of high water.