From Yosemite in California to Glacier Lake in Montana, from Big Bend in Texas to Acadia in Maine, the National Park Service will celebrate its Centennial on Aug. 25, honoring the preservation of some of the country’s most majestic wild places and historic sites.

The nation’s first national park came with the 1872 purchase of lands in the Montana and Wyoming Territories to form Yellowstone National Park. That legislation was signed by the nation’s 18th president and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant. Ten presidents and 44 years later,Woodrow Wilson signed legislation on Aug. 25, 1916 creating the National Park Service within the Interior Department, and bringing under its management and conservation the 35 national parks and monuments that existed at the time.

Today, the NPS has more than 400 parks, monuments and historic sites encompassing 84 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. All are listed on the National Park Directory.

San Antonio will have its own celebration, just over one year after the Alamo and four Spanish missions were added to UNESCO’s list of 1,031 World Heritage sites, of which only 23 are located in the United States.

Other cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, have national historic parks and monuments within their boundaries, but the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is unique. It is part of the World Heritage designation, and by acreage is the largest urban park in the NPS system that is rooted in Spanish colonial history.

Creation of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park occurred in 1978, although the park would not open to the public until 1983. Click here to read a period document prepared to record the events surrounding the commemoration. It almost didn’t happen.

National Park Service Archaeologist Susan Snow talks Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff through how to vote for Mission Concepcion on Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
National Park Service Archaeologist Susan Snow talks with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff as he votes for Mission Concepción on Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Elected to the White House as the 39th president 40 years ago, President Jimmy Carter opposed establishment of the proposed San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. A Baptist deacon who taught Sunday Bible classes back home, the former Georgia peanut farmer and  governor objected to the proposed park on the grounds that it would join federal park lands with the four Spanish missions, which remained active Catholic parishes, and thus violate the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Frantic, last-minute lobbying, then-San Antonio Conservation Society President Lynn Bobbitt recalled, by park advocates gathered in Chicago in 1978 for the National Land Trust Conference, convinced members of the Texas delegation led by U.S. Rep. Abraham ‘Chick’ Kazen, Jr., the bill’s author, to attach the bill as a rider to a Pennsylvania Avenue improvement act sought by Carter to redevelop what is now the showcase avenue and home to the White House.

“I am delighted that we’ve reached the stage of getting some permanency to the situation and I want to commend all of the people who have worked on this…I am confident that the Missions will be preserved and they that will be an attraction for the people from all over the world who visit San Antonio and a reminder of the great history that these structures represent,” Kazen wrote back in 1983.

Los Compadres de San Antonio Missions is the nonprofit fundraising arm of the historic park. The Department of the Interior has seen its budget cut repeatedly by Congress, and no U.S. president has advocated for increased park funding in recent memory, despite billions of dollars in deferred maintenance across the system.  Most of the planned improvements in the Missions National Historic Park are unfunded, and World Heritage designation has not led to any indications funding will be increased. Any improvements will have to be made through a combination of local government funding and private philanthropy.

Susan Snow, the NPS’ World Heritage director and archeologist at San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, traced the park’s evolution from 1941 when Mission San José became a National Historic Site, at the time managed by Texas Parks & Wildlife.

Bird's eye view of Mission San Jose frontispiece.
Exquisitely carved saints and angels adorn Mission San José frontispiece. Photo by Robert Rivard

“By the late 1950s and early 1960s you had a lot of people talking about establishing the proposed Mission Parkway to connect the four Missions,” Snow said.

That community effort eventually led to establishment of the Mission Parkway and helped gain National Historic Landmark status to a number of other significant historic buildings and venues in San Antonio: the Alamo (1960); the Espada Acequia (1964); Mission Concepción and the Spanish Governor’s Palace (1970); Fort Sam Houston (1975); Hangar 9, Brooks Air Force Base (1976); the Majestic Theatre (1993); Randolph Field Historic District (2001).

Revisiting the era is a reminder of the community leaders and groups that were central to the preservation of San Antonio history and culture in that era: Kazen and other elected officials; the Conservation Society, the Archdiocese through three generations of archbishops beginning with Archbishop Robert Lucy (1941-1969); Archbishop Frances Furey (1969-1979); and Archbishop Patrick Flores (1979-2004), who signed the cooperative agreements between the federal government and Archdiocese(see lead photo) that still govern the Missions today, with the Church overseeing the parishes and churches, and the government overseeing the lands and other improvements.

Flores also formed the Old Spanish Missions and appointed Monsignor Balthasar Janesek, the priest everyone knew simply as “Father Balty,” to be its first director.  Fast forward several decades and Fr. David Garcia, only the second person to hold the position, serves as pastor of Mission Concepción and director of the Old Spanish Missions. Garcia raised the $17 million that allowed the archdiocese to restore the four Spanish missions, work that was central to San antonio winning the World Heriateg designation.

Others, including historian and radio personality Henry Guerra; José Cisneros, the park’s first director, and many influential women who formed the Conservation Society’s leadership.

“Concern over the future of the missions was a primary reason for the founding of the Conservation Society in 1924,” Conservation Society President Lynne Osborne Bobbitt said in her remarks at the Feb. 20, 1983 ceremony. “At that time, a resolution was adopted by the Board of Directors which encouraged the purchase of property surrounding the missions as a means of protection. In 1933, the San Jose granary was purchased by the Society and restored. The fund-raising effort began with the distribution of piggy banks. The pigs had many purposes, the foremost of which was to deal with the restoration of the missions.”

The Conservation Society continued to purchase sensitive properties around the missions, including the Espada Acequia, which was on land slated for foreclosure and almost certain destruction. Today, Bobbitt serves as the executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy and is working to win 2017 bond funding for  efforts to restore and preserve park lands which were part of the original Spanish land grants in San Antonio.

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush at the 2000 inauguration of the restored Grist Mill at Mission San José. The two men to the far left and right in the photo are only identified as "Ricardo" and "Steve." Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush at the 2001 inauguration of the restored Grist Mill at Mission San José. The two men to the far left and right in the photo are only identified as “Ricardo” and “Steve.” Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

On Aug. 29, 2001, President George W. Bush and First lady Laura Bush came to San Antonio to dedicate the Mission San José Grist Mill. You can read the president’s comments here. It was one week before Mexico’s President Vicente Fox came to Washington D.C.  for a state dinner and to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on a closer relationship and the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Five days later the events of Sept. 11 changed everything.

 Coming Events

The Sept. 9-11 San Antonio World Heritage festival now being organized by the City, County, San Antonio River Authority, National Park Service, San Antonio Conservation Society, and the Rivard Report was conceived with the specific goal of creating an annual commemoration of the World Heritage designation and to raise funds for NPS projects within the park. A more detailed story of the festival as it develops will be published here in the coming weeks.

Individuals can join Los Compadres for as little as $50 a year. A special donor group called Los Centinelos, or ‘The Sentinels,” was recently formed to seek donations of $1,000 or more to help maintain the World Heritage sites.

On Thursday, Aug. 25, the National Park Service will host a red carpet event and showing of the “National Park Adventure IMAX,” narrated by Robert Redford, at the Santikos Palladium. A total of 449 seats will be distributed online through the Rivard Report for a modest donation that will benefit NPS operations in San Antonio.

Local civic and business leaders are working on plans for the City’s 300th anniversary celebrations in May 2018, and to develop a sensitive and inclusive World Heritage development strategy that will includes efforts to attract visitors from around the world who visit World Heritage sites. A sensitive redevelopment of the Alamo Plaza, now in the early planning stages, is considered critical to that effort. 2017 bond funding is expected to be earmarked for both infrastructure improvements around the Missions and surrounding neighborhoods and for the Alamo Plaza.

It’s the hope of many that the City eventually will become better known for its World Heritage status, and for an authentic 21st century culture that can be traced to its origins as the most significant U.S. city with a confluence of indigenous, Spanish, Mexican and American heritage.

Top image: San Antonio Conservation Society President Lynn Bobbitt (left), Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Director James Bell, National Parks Service Director Russell Dickenson, and Archbishop Patrick Flores all signed the cooperative agreements on February 20, 1983. The agreements assured protection of the four Franciscan missions in the San Antonio Mission National Historical Park, represented by Supt. José Cisneros (standing). Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Related Stories:

Casa Navarro May Receive National Historic Status

San Pedro Creek Project To Break Ground This Summer

Group Calls for City to Buy Land Around San Antonio Missions

Council Stresses Preservation of ‘Authenticity’ in World Heritage Work Plan

World Heritage Work Plan Continues to Take Shape with Community Feedback

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.