San Antonio is the site of five Catholic missions built by the Spanish, who sought to expand its influence in North America through colonization and converting native Indians. The most famous is the Alamo (original name - Mission San Antonio de Valero). The middle one of the five on the "Mission Trail" that extends south from downtown is the Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo. Recognized as a National Historic Site in 1941, the "Queen of the Missions" is perhaps the most complete and beautiful of the missions.
For information on the entire San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, stop in the modern Visitor Center. Four of the five missions (all except the Alamo) are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which always supplies excellent brochures. The other missions are the Mission Conception, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada.
The mission community was founded here in 1720 under Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus. It became a model of mission organization in part because of its rich fields and pastures. It was secularized in 1824 and was no longer a mission. The buildings were either structurally damaged or vandalized during decades of neglect (its northern tower, which collapsed in 1928, remains missing). In 1931 the Franciscans returned to the complex to continue the tradition of the religion taught to the mission Indians.
The attractively rustic limestone church was constructed from about 1766 to 1782 and is perhaps the premier example of Spanish Baroque architecture in the United States. The nave is capped by a low central sacristy dome. At the base of its southern tower, there are still remnants of the original colorful geometric patterns that had decorated its stucco exteriors. Its ornately crafted rose window, nicknamed "Rosa’s Window", is credited to Pedro Huizar (who also worked on the carved details of the main elevation). Built around 1775, the vertically oriented opening was allegedly his memorial to his tragic sweetheart Rosa.
The site is surrounded by a bastion and sturdy stone walls along which the 84 Indian apartments were positioned. These quarters, along with the granary and the church itself, were restored from 1931 to 1949 under the direction of Harvey P. Smith. The arcade of the former convent, the grist mill, and some workshop foundations are also within the site. One room houses a large scale model of the complex with recorded narration. The grounds are beautiful, but watch out for fire ants, pointy plants, and low doorways. Visitors can check out the religious gift shop and the Spanish Colonial bookstore.
Admission to the missions is free. The Mission San Jose is easy to reach by VIA bus 42 from downtown, as it stops right outside the grounds. It runs twice an hour and takes about twenty minutes each way. Parking is available for those with cars, and you can make a full day of it with hiking or cycling along the trails and a picnic lunch in designated areas.