Mission San José. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mission San José Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio’s four Spanish colonial Missions and the Alamo, a world-famous symbol of heroic sacrifice and a former mission, were formally named a World Heritage site Sunday at the 39th Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany, a triumphant conclusion to a multi-year effort that included restoration of the Mission churches and the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, and expansion of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The 21-country committee granted the designation Sunday at 6:02 am CST by acclamation following a 23-minute presentation and comments from 17 of the committee members, all but one unconditionally supporting the nomination.

Chairperson Prof Maria Böhmer of Germany congratulated the U.S. and San Antonio delegations and invited them to take a few minutes and address the Committee after the delegates spoke and the designation was affirmed.

But first there was at least one moment of suspense when  Amb. José Filipe Mendes Moraes Cabra, the Portugal representative, held up a letter he and other delegates apparently had received, expressed his concern that Hemisfair Park was being redeveloped over indigenous burial grounds, a claim previously made by groups in San Antonio that is not supported by the archeological record. The author of the letter was not identified.

Chairperson Böhmer did not respond directly to the concern, and none of the other delegates raised the matter. Most seemed intent on expressing their delight with the nomination.

“I am of a generation that has Davy Crockett as a hero,” Amb.Khalil Karam, the representative from Lebanon, quipped as the first to speak in support of the nomination. “Now we know that the Alamo has these other Missions.”

One by one, representatives from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America expressed unanimous support for the U.S. bid, or as stated in the diplomatic language of UNESCO, “the state party.” That included Portugal by the end of the proceedings.

A representative of the Philippines noted that his country is one of seven with World Heritage sites dating to the Spanish colonial period, and he welcomed the addition of another, showing the breadth of the Spanish colonial reach.

Amb. Federico Alonso Renjifo Velez, the Colombia representative, said the San Antonio Missions as a “serial nomination,” meaning a collection of individual culturally sensitive sites, was the most outstanding representation of Spanish colonial mission construction and culture that exists “from the North (America) down to Patagonia.”

Several Committee members praised the San Antonio Missions as an example of European and indigenous cultures meeting in the New World. It was evident that the inclusion of the Mission labores, or agricultural lands, the acequias and Espada dam, and the Rancho de las Cabras in Floresville, the ranching outpost for Mission Espada, were critical elements in the nomination. So, too, were the buffer zones around the Missions, preserving site lines and the sense of history in each place, and preventing encroachment of development.

The U.S. delegation was led by U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO Crystal Nix-Hines, who accepted the Committee’s congratulations.

“We are honored to receive this inscription and thank the Committee and ICOMOS,” she said, surrounded by members of San Antonio’s observer delegation. “The Missions were an integration of cultures, which, while complicated and, sometimes difficult, reflects the United States’ diverse communities and cultures.  Of particular importance, today’s designation will offer the opportunity to celebrate the contributions of the Native Americans who were so instrumental in building our country.

“One indigenous woman, María de Luz, quoted in a film about the Native American experience at the Missions, said, ‘I find myself drawn to the Missions by something I can’t quite explain. These were my people. They put these stones in place. Their hands dug these aqueducts, built these walls. These were my people. The People of the Missions.’ Thank you.”

US Amb. Crystal Nix-Hines with member of the San Antonio delegation. Photo courtesy of City of San Antonio.
Left to right: Susanne Dixon, National Parks Conservation Association’s Texas regional director; Judge Nelson Wolff; San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Archeologist Susan Snow; Henry Muñoz; U.S. Amb. to UNESCO Crystal Nix-Hines; UTSA Dean of the School of Architecture Dr. John Murphy; Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3); Mayor Ivy Taylor; Hugh Miller; Shanon Miller, director of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation. Photo courtesy of City of San Antonio.

Then Bexar County Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ivy Taylor each spoke in turn, expressing their gratitude and commitment to uphold World Heritage site standards.

“On behalf of the citizens of Bexar County, I want to thank you for this honor,” Judge Wolff said. “Congratulations to Germany for your gracious hosting. Bexar County provided funding to restore the ecosystem of the San Antonio River, the farm fields of Mission San Juan and create portals to each of the missions to enhance the river to mission connection. We are committed to continuing to protect these missions and their surrounding areas.”

Mayor Ivy Taylor’s statement included the first official welcome to San Antonio of future World Heritage site visitors:

“On behalf of the City of San Antonio, we are so very honored today to become a part of the   UNESCO family of World Heritage Sites,” Mayor Taylor said. “As we join this noble circle, we thank you as well as the many organizations and individuals involved with this nomination for their dedication and hard work. We affirm our commitment as a community to fulfill the responsibilities conferred upon us and to protect their outstanding universal value. Through this inscription, we welcome the world to San Antonio and invite you to come experience the Spanish Colonial Missions for yourself as well as all of our vibrant, colorful, cultural city. We welcome the world to San Antonio.”

Their statements were followed by applause, hugs, and perhaps, a few tears of joy from Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose district includes the Missions. The relief at winning the coveted designation after many years of effort was evident in the joy on the faces of the San Antonio delegates, even though the designation was anticipated.

There were never any guarantees. A denial of the U.S. application, however, would have been a surprise and a setback given that the U.S. bid had received an important endorsement from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in May.

A celebration is planned in front of the Alamo Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. Both Judge Wolff and Mayor Taylor will return to San Antonio in time for the event. The first 250 people to arrive at the Alamo Plaza will received custom printed t-shirts commemorating the occasion by noted San Antonio Artist Cruz Ortiz.

The Mission and Alamo become the first World Heritage site in Texas, and the first west of the Mississippi River for buildings constructed by European settlers. Indigenous settlements and natural formations have received such designation in the West and Southwest. World Heritage designation 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.

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

There are 1,007 World Heritage sites around the world, only 22 of which are located in the United States. That number is now 23, and the world number will grow with this Committee’s actions, too. The majority of the U.S. sites are national and state parks or Native American dwellings and burial sites. San Antonio’s 18th century Missions are the only example of European and indigenous culture together among the sites west of the Mississippi.

For San Antonio, World Heritage status brings a whole new dimension to the city’s cultural heritage, recognition, and the potential for a new kind of cultural tourism. Many people travel regularly to World Heritage sites around the world, and it will now be up to local and federal officials to devise programs and improvements to make a visit to the Missions and the Alamo an unforgettable experience for such visitors.

Plans to remake the Alamo Plaza, to add living history elements to the Mission grounds, and enhancing the surface roads and surroundings to the Missions will take a number of years, but much can be done in time for the city’s 300th anniversary celebrations in 2018.

Dedication ceremony at the Alamo. Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick, historian, gives the history of the cannon. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa for Today’s Catholic.
Dedication ceremony at the Alamo. Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick, historian, gives the history of the cannon. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa for Today’s Catholic.

The road to World Heritage status was one that reaches back nine years, and includes the efforts of many individuals and organizations, including the San Antonio Conservation Society, Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority, the City of San Antonio, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Los Compadres, and outside the city, the U.S. Department of Interior.

Virginia Nicholas. Photo courtesy of Bexar County Historical Society.
Virginia Nicholas. Photo courtesy of Bexar County Historical Society.

Virginia Nicholas, the long-serving president of the Bexar County Historical Commission (1996-present) and the former president of the San Antonio Conservation Society (2006), is recognized for first conceiving the idea of World Heritage status for the Missions and Alamo.

“I had been to other World Heritage sites, but working with the Conservation Society and at the Alamo I learned a lot about our own local history, and somewhere along the line it just hit me,” Nicholas said. “None of us had any idea how long it would take, we didn’t understand the process, or how to go about it.”

Nicholas credits Paul Ringenbach, a retired Air Force colonel and USAA executive who wrote the biography of  Gen. Robert F. “McD” McDermott (1920-2006), the celebrated military leader and longtime leader at USAA. Ringenbach has served as vice chair of the county historical commission for nearly 20 years.

“The best thing that happened to us was Paul Ringenbach, who was very organized, very dedicated, knew how to do the research, and understood what needed to be done,” Nicholas said. “He has stuck with this project for nine years. That’s not typical anymore.”

Writing for the Rivard Report in February 2014, Carol Baass Sowa, staff writer and photographer for Today’s Catholic newspaper, published by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, credited Ringenbach as the lead author of the 344-page application, while citing other key participants in the process:

“The core San Antonio Missions World Heritage team consisted of historians Ringenbach and Felix D. Almaraz, Jr.; Virginia Nicholas and Paula Piper of the San Antonio Conservation Society (SACS); Susan Chandoha of Los Compadres; and archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. They were assisted by a larger advisory committee, including Father David Garcia, plus additional helpers involved in research, writing and map preparation and countless contributors. Mission descendents and indigenous members of the local community also had input, as did national and international experts.

“This project has been a great collaboration of the community from our local scholars and leaders to experts from around the globe,” Snow told Bass Sowa, “all working together to present the unique story of the missions and their role in global history.”

Archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park speaks to ICOMOS symposium visitors at Espada Aqueduct in May 2012. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa / Today’s Catholic.
Archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park speaks to ICOMOS symposium visitors at Espada Aqueduct in May 2012. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa / Today’s Catholic.

“The final 344-page dossier included highly detailed maps, photos, slides, plans and extracts, along with extensive bibliography and glossary and was accompanied by audio-visual materials. The properties’ history, authenticity, integrity, state of conservation, management and guidelines for protection and monitoring were all detailed. And, of course, voluminous justification was given for inclusion in the World Heritage List based on the missions’ role in the important interchange of values that occurred there in the blending of cultures, leading to the founding of a city unique in many ways.

“A succinct line of the document’s synthesis summary reads: ‘This ensemble is the most complete and most intact example of the Spanish Crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize, and defend the northern frontier of New Spain during the period when Spain controlled the largest empire in the world.’”

Ringenbach, like many involved in the process, awoke around 4 a.m. Sunday to watch the UNESCO proceedings as they were lived streamed on the Internet. He said his role in the project was all about the right timing.

“The way it worked out, I finished the book about McD in the Spring of 2006 and he then died in August, and that was about the same time it was announced we could go ahead and try to do the World Heritage bid. Virginia asked me if I would be willing to volunteer,” Ringenbach said. “God almighty! Eight years later, here we are, but who knew? When we first started out we really didn’t get any encouragement from anyone, locally or at the federal level, and there was no funding.”

For a complete timeline of the application and selection process, click here.

He credits Susan Snow, the national historic park archeologist, for her dedication to the project over the years and said one key turning point was the 2011 visit here by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for the dedication of the opening of the Mission Reach. Judge Wolff credited Henry Muñoz, CEO of Muñoz & Co.,  and his national political contacts for making Salazar’s visit happen.

“Ken Salazar came down for the opening of the Mission Reach and said he had decided to support the effort,” Ringenbach said. “We took that at his personal support because he didn’t announce the Interior Department’s official support until 2012.”

Interior sEcretary Ken Salazar poses with volunteers at Mission Concepción in 2012. Photo by Robert Rivard
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar poses with volunteers at Mission Concepción in 2012. Photo by Robert Rivard

That was followed by a return visit here by Gustavo Araoz, president of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the influential Paris-based organization of professionals and supporters of heritage conservation. Araoz, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Cuba, had been to San Antonio to lecture at UTSA’s School of Architecture in 2010, but was not a supporter of the World Heritage bid for the San Antonio Missions, then still in the works.

Ringenbach said Araoz’s views changed as he became more familiar with the growing depth of San Antonio’s application. He and Salazar returned to San Antonio in 2012 for the 15th annual international symposium of the U.S. National Committee for ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), and both affirmed their individual support. 

Over the last five years, the archdiocese has overseen the $15.5 million restoration of its parish churches at the four missions, a fundraising and restoration effort overseen by Fr. Garcia.

Politically, local efforts have been driven by Judge Wolff, SARA’s General Manager  Suzanne Scott, Mayors Phil Hardberger, Julían Castro and Ivy Taylor, and City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

“This is a monumental moment for all our families who have lived in and around the Missions because we are very proud of being from the Southside,” Councilmember Viagran said in a later statement on Sunday. “As of July 5, 2015, the world now knows what we in the Southside and the city of San Antonio have always known: that we have a world treasure is our very own backyard. The honor of receiving the official World Heritage Site designation will help ensure that we can continue to enhance and preserve our treasure as we share it with the rest of the international community.”

Now, it will take all those individuals and organizations and a new generation of volunteers to take the World Heritage designation bestowed on the Spanish colonial Missions and the Alamo and transform that recognition into a new era of cultural and historical preservation that will further distinguish San Antonio from all other U.S. cities.

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee congratulate the United States and San Antonio.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee congratulate the United States and San Antonio.

This story was originally published on July 5 at 6:20 a.m.

*Featured image: Mission San José, the “Queen of the Missions”, founded in 1720. The present church was built in 1768. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.