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Elected and appointed officials and civic and religious leaders gathered together on Saturday at Mission San José to celebrate the official inscription of the UNESCO World Heritage designation of the Spanish colonial Missions and the Alamo, the culmination of an effort that goes back nearly a decade.
San Antonio’s Missions are now collectively one of 23 World Heritage sites in the United States, a reflection of the efforts to restore the Mission’s churches, and expand the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Globally, there are1,031 World Heritage sites.
Mardi Arce, superintendent of the historical park, opened the ceremony with an unveiling of the Missions’ formal inscription. She praised the stakeholders who worked together toward a World Heritage designation, from the San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation and Bexar County to the Archdiocese of San Antonio and National Parks Service (NPS).
“This would not have happened without the total community support that it received,” Arce said.
Michael Bean, principal deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the U.S. Interior Department, said the NPS is proud to manage 18 of the 23 U.S. World Heritage sites.
“Our historic sites tell the full story of our history,” he said.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took a guided tour of Mission San José grounds prior to the inscription ceremony.
“(The Missions) already have the best brand in the United States, that’s the National Park Service. It’s going to have the best brand in the world, the UNESCO World Heritage site,” Jewell said.
Secretary Jewell called the Missions an “important part of our history and culture.” The Missions and Alamo are the first World Heritage site in Texas, and the first west of the Mississippi River for structures built by European settlers. Indigenous settlements and natural formations have received such designation in the West and Southwest United States.
World Heritage designation carries a new level of global recognition and protection for one-of-a-kind natural settings, and historically significant landmarks.
“There is a richness in the history for the United States that is represented in San Antonio like no other place,” Jewell said, referring to how the Missions were originally used by the Spanish to stave off encroaching influence from the French in the 1700s. It was not until early in the 20th century that the federal government along with local government and religious leaders began efforts to restore and preserve the Missions’ grounds.
“This is an important part of America’s story and it’s part of the role of the National Park Service to tell all of America’s story,” Jewell said. The Interior Secretary later singled out the San Antonio Conservation Society as instrumental in Mission preservation decades ago.
Jewell also told the Rivard Report that while World Heritage status does not change the management of the Missions, it does mean higher visibility and an awareness to widen support for the their preservation.
“We see an influx of tourists from all over the world. That’s great for San Antonio. It will also provide support for these places to remain special for years to come,” she said.
“While it won’t result in international money to fix up these places, it will result in international tourism that will support the local economy and provide the impetus for the work that needs to be done.”
Mayor Ivy Taylor called Saturday “an extraordinary and historic day,” telling the crowd that the World Heritage designation was a “validation of our deep pride in our heritage and in our historic Missions and our community.”
Mayor Taylor lauded the collaboration that led to winning World Heritage status.
“It’s the result of commitment from people in many levels of government, the private sector, historians, elected officials and community advocates,” she said.
Saturday’s celebration are not the conclusion of those efforts, Mayor Taylor said, citing the need for “the ongoing recognition, preservation and promotion of these special places.”
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff reflected upon a “serial connection between the Alamo and the Missions.” He said the historic structures’ cultural impact led to their World Heritage status.
Becky Dinnin, director of the Alamo for the Texas General Land Office (GLO), said the State and the Alamo Endowment look forward to recreating “ways to tell the story of the Alamo.”
On Thursday, a historic agreement between the city, GLO and the Alamo Endowment to jointly fund and plan the redevelopment of the Alamo complex, Plaza, and surrounding downtown district was unanimously approved by City Council. That act follows the the Alamo Endowment board’s pledge to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out those plans.
José Antonio Larios, Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio, called the Alamo and the Missions “the source of historical and cultural enrichment for the San Antonio community.”
Enric Panés, Consul General of Spain in Houston, said World Heritage status underscores the importance of recognizing and preserving significant natural sites and places that demonstrate human ingenuity, faith, culture and resolve.
“We are here to celebrate the Missions’ entry into that cultural realm of human marvels,” Panés said.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio), who represents the area surrounding the Missions, said the Missions district on the near-Southside is undergoing cultural and economic rebirth. It’s crucial that new development not encroach on the Missions, he said, and that neighborhood small businesses remain a vital part of the community’s lifeblood.
“Let us call on the need to nourish the cultural and ethnic diversity that strengthens us,” he said.
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller concluded the ceremony with a prayer. He thanked the people and organizations who helped to reaffirm the importance of the Missions on a global scale. He called the Alamo and the Missions “uniquely historic and cultural icons.”
Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she is “excited and rejuvenated. As Secretary Jewell said, ‘It’s the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another.’”
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The day’s activities included a concert, an archaeological fair, and guided tours of the Yanaguana Trails near Mission San Juan. There, Carrie Merson with the San Antonio River Authority and Kathryn Gilson with the Interior Department’s VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), guided visitors through the Mission grounds, and pointed out the flora that exists along the trail to the San Antonio River.
The ruins at Mission San Juan include an unfinished church and tell the story of the missionaries in colonial times. But as Gilson put it, “It’s neat that the church is still active. People here make it part of their daily lives.”
The celebration continues with a live music concert at Mission San José at 7 p.m. and an outdoor mass at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Find a complete list of activities here.