By Robert Rivard

The San Antonio Missions have offered safe haven to the people of this city, indigenous and immigrant alike, since our predecessors’ mid-18th century struggle upwards from settlement to community. They still stand today, hundreds of years later, as colonial jewels and spiritual sentinels spaced along an 11-mile stretch of the San Antonio River from the present-day Alamo Plaza south to Mission Espada.

There is nothing else quite like them anywhere in the United States. Now, the four remaining missions and the Alamo, the first of five missions built here,  are being nominated by the Obama Administration for World Heritage Site status by the federal government, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Friday morning at Mission Concepción, confirming the commitment he made the previous evening at Mission San Jose, when he brought an audience of several hundred Mission supporters to their feet for a standing ovation.

“There is an iconic meaning” to that status, Salazar, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado,  told the Mission San José audience. “It means this is one of the most special places in the world.”

Friday morning he made it official.

“On my authority as Secretary of the Interior and on behalf of President Obama I am here to let the world know we are nominating the San Antonio Missions and the Alamo as a World Heritage Site,” Salazar told an enthusiastic gathering of preservationists, volunteers and local officials gathered on the Mission Concepción grounds.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with E-Corps volunteers and San Antonio Missions National Historic Park staffers sat Mission Concepción.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with E-Corps volunteers and San Antonio Missions National Historic Park staff at Mission Concepción. 

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has granted World Heritage status over the last 40 years to less the  1,000 natural and manmade places worldwide. The World Heritage List includes 936 sites currently, only 21 of them in the United States.

“Nominations do get rejected…but I am fully confident that when you look at the rig history of these missions and the Alamo…it will be accepted by the international community,” Salazar said in response to a question. “I am, frankly, very enthusiastic about what we’re going to see here in the next few years.”

He predicted that official approval by UNESCO would come in 2015 following a long and painstaking documentation process.

Salazar’s announcement and appearance in San Antonio was timed to a small, but important meeting here of the 15th annual US/ICOMOS International Symposium, an influential worldwide organization of experts formed in 1965 to support the conservation of world heritage sites in concert with UNESCO. That acronym, by the way, stands for the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff introduced Salazar Thursday night, and earlier that same day addressed ICOMOS members by saying, “Welcome to Yanaguana, the Indian village the Payan Indians established on the banks of the San Antonio River.”

John L. Nau III, president and CEO of Silver Eagle Distributors and vice chairman of the National Park Foundation, the official charity that supports the nation’s 400 national parks, praised San Antonio leaders for their dedication to preservation of the Missions and the San Antonio River.

Salazar echoed Nau’s praise and also complimented National Park staff in San Antonio for their work. He singled out Henry Muñoz III, CEO of Kell-Muñoz Architects, who earlier this year was one of four new directors named by Salazar to the National Park Foundation board. Muñoz delivered some well-received remarks Friday morning, singling out many individuals in the audience for their years and even decades of work to win international recognition for the Missions that now seems well within grasp.

“My only disappointment today is that Ken Salazar looks like a better Tejano than I do,” Muñoz quipped as Salazar, sporting a straw cowboy hat and wearing a handsome string time, beamed. At the request of  a Spanish language television reporter, Salazar summarized his previous remarks in fluent Spanish without notes.

Winning World Heritage Site status is not only difficult in terms of establishing the unique and special nature of an individual site, but also because of the Byzantine, often corrupt politics of the United Nations, where an unsatisfied expectation in one realm can easily shelf an unrelated initiative while parties negotiate and trade votes. San Antonio should celebrate the hard-earned recognition bestowed by Salazar, but it’s still too early to order signage.

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and other clergy celebrate Mass at a newly-reconsecrated Mission San José in 2011.
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and other clergy celebrate Mass at a newly reconsecrated Mission San José in 2011.

A review of the list confirms the special nature of the World Heritage Sites and, by omission, how many extraordinary places that have not made the list. The U.S. list is composed mostly of spectacular natural settings such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Everglades, a fact that prompted Salazar to reference the film maker Ken Burns and his documentary of the U.S. National Park system, founded by President Theodore Roosevelt at the start of the 20th Century, as “America’s Best Idea.”

The manmade structures to win the rare honor include the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the American people, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Nothing in Texas, not even the Alamo, have won UNESCO recognition.

If San Antonio needs an example of return on investment, look no farther than what the city, county, San Antonio River Authority and private citizens have spent in recent years on the Missions and the San Antonio River. The ambitious restoration project now underway of the Missions has given San Antonio a revitalized Mission Concepción and Mission San José, the queen of the Texas Missions. Over the next few years, thanks to the efforts of Fr. David García, Los Compadres and others, the restoration of San Juan and Espada will follow.

Below is a video of one of the stone carvers at work:

At the same time, the 2013 completion of the $176 million restoration of the eight-mile Mission Reach of the San Antonio River will connect the Franciscan Missions as they haven’t been connected for centuries.

An under appreciated study of the San Antonio Missions Historical Park was carried out in 2010-11 by the Center of Community and Business Research at UTSA. It’s the first comprehensive report on the economic impact of the Missions. Even without the Mission Reach project or the Mission restorations completed, the park is generating an estimated $100 million a year in economic activity and providing more than  1,100 jobs.

With the restoration projects complete and seven new proposed initiatives approved by 2016, the study predicts economic activity will grow to $215 million a year and the number of jobs will more than double. These numbers do not measure private development that inevitably will follow the public infrastructure investment. Anyone who has contemplated owning river frontage property south of downtown knows the market already anticipates coming development on the Southside on and near the river.

Here are the seven new initiatives:

1. Mission San Juan Demonstration Farm. “Staff and volunteers would use Spanish colonial methods to farm parts of the labors, or farm fields” at the Mission. This would be the first year-around “living history” demonstration project in San Antonio. Anyone who has been to Colonial Williamsburg. Va. can attest to the popularity of such programs.

2. Mission San  José: “A Day if the Life of the Missions.” “Spanish colonial-era skills such as fresco painting and food preparations” would be taught. Click here for an earlier Rivard Report story with photographs and a video of the two stone artisans who recently restored Mission San José’s remarkable carved frontispiece.

Bird's eye view of Mission San José frontispiece.
Exquisitely carved and now restored saints and angels adorn Mission San José frontispiece.

3. Opening El Rancho de las Cabras. This is the never-before opened rancho that supported Mission Espada, supply cattle to the mission population and “where cowboy culture was spawned.” A nature trail system would take school children on filed trips and adult visitors from the ruins of the ranch to the river.

4. River Trail and Mission Portals. This would be the surface trail system connecting one mission to the next for cyclists, hikers and pedestrians.  Exhibits and public art displays would enhance the experience for locals and victors alike.

5. New park headquarters and Mission San José cultural landscape restoration. The new center for Mission Management and Research at Mission San José would “house staff, a library, classrooms and historical collections.” Scholars would finally have a place to delve more deeply into Mission history. Landscape restoration would reconnect San José to the San Antonio River.

6. Expanded Park boundaries. This would expand the current 826-acre national park to add parts of the Mission Reach, the San Juan Dam, and “other lands integral to the historic missions, acquired from public agencies and willing private sellers.”

7. Full funding for essential park services. In brief, this means winning Congressional support to actually fund the activities approved by federal legislation so that park services, maintenance, and historical preservation are not negatively affected by budget cuts. The study’s authority is derived in  part, in my opinion, by its conservative economic impact projections.

As San Antonio pursue its own ambitious agenda for transformation and growth, understanding the city’s unique historical treasures is key to shaping what Mayor Julián Castro has called the Decade of Downtown. San Antonio’s original city is far more than a town center. It’s the San Antonio River and the Missions that helped transform a settlement into an enduring place that nearly three centuries later is stilled defined by its oldest centers of community.

Detail of angel on Mission San José frontispiece.
Detail of angel on Mission San José frontispiece.

For more photos from of the San Antonio Missions also check out UTSA’s digital collection.

Photos by Robert Rivard.     

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.