A family admires Mission Concepción. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

The International Council on Monuments and Sites has endorsed the 2014 World Heritage nomination of the Alamo and four other missions – Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada, bringing San Antonio’s Spanish colonial treasures one step closer to the coveted international recognition.

World Heritage designation is granted by UNESCO and conveys a new level of international recognition and protection to unique natural settings, such as the Grand Canyon, and historically significant cities, buildings and monuments regarded as irreplaceable cultural treasures.

Mission Espada, one of the five San Antonio missions nominated for the World Heritage List is currently undergoing restoration work. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.
Mission Espada, one of the five San Antonio missions nominated for the World Heritage List undergoes restoration work. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa.

The U.S. State Department received the letter from the French-based Council on Tuesday. The council is a non-governmental organization that reviews World Heritage site nominations and helps determine which ones will be added to the list.

There are 1,007 World Heritage sites around the world, only 22 of which are located in the United States. The majority of the U.S. sites are national and state parks or Native American dwellings or burial sites. The Spanish colonial missions here would be the only non-indigenous World Heritage site edifices west of the Mississippi, although Native Americans provided much of the labor to build the missions.

The World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 nations elected on a rotating basis, is set to determine the missions’ nomination during the World Heritage Convention in Bonn, Germany, June 28-July 8. The Council’s vote of approval is considered key to winning the nomination.

Susan Snow, archaeologist with the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, said a Council architect came to San Antonio last September to assess the missions in response to the 2014 nomination. The Cuban architect examined the authenticity, integrity, archaeological remains, and landscape of the five structures. In addition to this on-site evaluator, other experts read the nomination and provided feedback in a 15-page document that included notes and recommendations for improvements. Snow said she also received follow-up letters seeking clarification of some points and posing additional questions.

“We really appreciate all of the work that went into it,” Snow said.

Fr. David Garcia, the leading force behind the $17 million fundraising effort to restore the missions,  said he is cautiously optimistic about the ICOMOS endorsement.

“We’re not there yet, but this is a big step forward,” Fr. Garcia said.

Fr. Garcia was present for much of the examination, and said the architect thoroughly studied the structures and their surroundings.

Mission San Juan is an active parish and has been a parish church since 1909. Photo courtesy of Old Spanish Missions.
Mission San Juan was originally established as San José de los Nazonis in East Texas and in 1731 it was relocated to its permanent home on the east bank of the San Antonio River. It is now an active parish and has been a parish church since 1909. Photo courtesy of Old Spanish Missions.

Mayor Ivy Taylor said she believes the missions are worthy of a World Heritage designation.

“They tell an incredible story that’s unique. It’s a story that has global significance,” Mayor Taylor said Wednesday. “The story is important to us here, but it is also important to Mexico and Spain because it’s a part of their shared history.”

Taylor cited a study conducted by Bexar County that estimates a World Heritage designation would generate anywhere from $44 to $105 million dollars annually in additional economic activity, create 500 to 1,000 new jobs, and generate an additional $2 million in local hotel tax revenue.

“If we obtain the final designation, that could make an impact on our economy because people will come to see our missions,” she said.

Mission San José with newly restored frontispiece. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa/Today's Catholic.
Mission San José with newly restored frontispiece. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa/Today’s Catholic.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio/Austin) called the Council’s recommendation “monumental,” a reflection of years of good work by many here and in Washington, D.C.

“Our recent Missions park expansion has advanced this effort, and now all of our local Congress members are joining together to seek support from the Ambassador of each country on UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee,” Cong. Doggett stated in a Wednesday release. “That final approval will give us even more to celebrate next month. This is about both cultural preservation and job expansion, as even more folks from around the world are drawn to San Antonio.”

A delegation of San Antonio officials is now finalizing plans to travel to Bonn to be present before and during the vote at the World Heritage convention in late June and early July. It’s expected that a substantial delegation will be led by a newly elected mayor, Snow, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority.

*Featured/top image: A family admires the recently restored Mission Concepción during a Something Monday bike ride. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Related Stories:

Mission Overlay Districts to Strengthen World Heritage Bid

Restoring Mission Espada: A Tale of St. Francis and a Missing Cat

Spanish Missions on Track for World Heritage Site

Solar Illumination at Mission Concepción

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Joan Vinson

Former Rivard Report Assistant Editor Joan Vinson is a San Antonio native who graduated from The University of Texas with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She's a yoga fanatic and an adventurer at heart....