This month marks the 255th anniversary of the dedication of Mission Concepción, near San Antonio, considered by many historians to be the oldest unrestored church in the United States. In an effort to push back on French encroachments from Louisiana, Concepción was originally founded, along with five other missions, by Franciscan friars in East Texas during the late 1600s. However, famine, drought, disease, and French incursions eventually forced the missionaries to relocate three of these missions to their present site on the east bank of the San Antonio River in 1731. Here, Concepción was officially renamed “Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña” after Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and Juan de Acuña, who at the time was Viceroy of New Spain.
Missionaries worked to attract American Indians from a number of tribes to join the new missions. Historical reports indicate 1,000 American Indians, mostly Coahuiltecan Indians,were willing to join. Many of these sought protection from their enemies, the Apaches and the Comanches. Temporary shelters were built while construction on permanent stone and adobe structures began at Concepción, including a large church and stone wall to protect the mission against enemy raids. Concepción housed not only the American Indians, but also Spanish friars and soldiers. Inside its walls, a self-serving community began to thrive.
During the next two decades, numerous challenges threatened the vitality of Concepción. Local settlers, led by the Canary Islanders who were considered the “elite” of San Antonio, attempted to curb mission rights and often won the support of government officials. This resulted in policies that stifled mission growth, such as one decree requiring missions to allow local settlers to use the resident American Indians as laborers. Another curtailed farm production at the missions to ensure they did not produce a surplus. The friars of Concepción fought these decrees and eventually they were rescinded.
Through the peace-making efforts of Fray Benito Fernandez de Santa Ana in the 1740s, the Apaches, who considered him a friend to their tribe, finally halted raids on Concepción. This allowed the missionaries to expand their efforts, and on December 8, 1755, the church at Mission Concepción was officially dedicated.
The church, which took 20 years to build, measured roughly 89 by 22 feet, with 45-inch-thick walls. The cruciform featured a cupola, twin towers, carved portal, polychromed façade, latticed windows, and a choir loft. Today, it maintains its original roof and has never lost its integrity – a structural feat that is likely due to the fact that the church was built directly on bedrock. While many of the colorful designs that once adorned the church have faded over the centuries, visitors can still see a few remaining frescos inside, including the “Eye of God” on the convento ceiling.
In the 1800s, Mexican independence ushered in secularization, and with it the loss of autonomy for the friars of Mission Concepción. By 1819, the mission no longer held church services. Mission property was auctioned off, and its church used as a barn by settlers, and eventually a supply depot by the U.S. Army. The American Indian population dwindled, and in 1835 the battle of Concepción took place on the mission’s grounds, during which James Bowie and Texas revolutionaries defeated Mexican troops.
By 1855, after the Republic of Texas had conveyed ownership of Concepción to the Catholic Church, Marianist brother Andrew Edel, founder of St. Mary’s Institute, was permitted by the church to use the land at Concepción. Under his direction, the church at Concepción was cleaned, repaired, and reopened for services on May 28, 1861.
Today, Concepción is a part of the San Antonio Missions National Park and is open to the public daily during park hours. The church at Concepción holds regular services. A schedule of services can be found at the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s web site: http://www.archsa.org.
Mission Concepción is a historical and religious jewel – one that all Texans should take the time to visit. Though you will likely be lulled by the serene setting, spend a few hours at Mission Concepción and you will catch a glimpse into more turbulent times that threatened the very foundation of the colonial mission but thankfully, never destroyed it.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn