Spanish Missions

God, Glory, Gold and the Spanish Mission extended Christ’s Church into the Americas.  Little of civilizations long remain.  If as some suggest, we of the Americas made home here 10,000 years ago, almost nothing of our art, architecture, or language survives the first 9,500 years.  Grinding Time, Nature’s sweep, Man’s war destroys all that is not true, all that does not extend life through the seeds of the mind.  Beauty, Goodness, Truth, the Classive Tradition, has survived, has flourished these 3,000 years, living mind-to-mind, finding fertile soil where souls might grow one into the other.  Classive Civilization incorporates all that is Good and True into itself, leaving Beauty in literature, art, and architecture on its way around the world through time and place, as in the Spanish Missions of the Americas.


Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche Mission Nombre de Dios St. Augustine Florida. image credit EQ Roy

Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, Mission Nombre de Dios, St. Augustine, Florida. image credit: EQ Roy


Spanish Missions in Florida

Mission Nombre de Dios, the first Spanish Mission of North America, was founded upon the day of founding Saint Augustine [Florida city named for the Roman Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine], upon the ground where Florida’s first Mass was celebrated, September 8, 1565.*  The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche (rebuilt after the 1728 British raid) grows from the soil of this first Mass.  You might consider the establishment of Spanish Missions to be that energy of faith tested by Muslim conquest, strengthened in Christian reconquista, extended by enthusiasm into the Americas.

Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, FL. credit: S.G. Sather

The 40 Florida** missions were attached to the presidio, a type of heavily fortified stone fort employed by Christian crusaders in battle with Islam, forts that extend through Palestine into Europe, through Africa into the Americas.  The missions were mostly simple pole buildings walled in palm, waddle-daub or plank, and roofed with thatch, temporary structures that grew or that were abandoned as the fortunes of Spain rose and fell.  Dominicans, Jesuits, and Franciscans each built and maintained missions to serve the souls and better the lives of people in surrounding neighborhoods (1549—c.1709).  The Spanish missions ceased to be when England burned the missions, murdered the Catholics (friars and congregations), and conquered the Spanish in the Colonial Wars (Queen Ann’s War, et cetera).

Spanish Revival ecclesiastical architecture from Florida into Georgia remembers the European Spanish cathedral and creates a triumphal Christianity unknown by Florida’s missions, unseen in Florida’s mission churches.  For the surviving American Spanish Mission, we look westward.


Spanish Mission altar

Mission San Francisco Xavier del Bac Mission, Tucson, Arizona. image credit: Cheryl Ann Quigley


North America Mission Trails

The West’s North America Mission Trail is diverse, inclusive of many cultures, many denominations, and many places, each with a unique history.  We witness this history in the towers, arches, domes that beautifully grow from the landscape.  Each mission tradition, the California, the New Mexico, the Texas, has its own texture, manner, its habits of building, practice, life.

Spanish Missions

Fresco of the Sun-Eye (detail), Mission Concepcion, San Antonio, Texas.

In New Mexico, missionaries constructed adobe shrines that seamlessly blended with homes of the Pueblo and Zuni.
In Texas, abundant stone allowed the building of fortress missions, defense against Comanche and Apache, a castle-like economy.
In Arizona’s Senora Desert the missionaries employed stone, brick, and adobe to fashion the most high Spanish of churches, the most magnificently humane structures in North America.
In California, traditional forms blend with inventive solutions.  The Alta (upper), later, American Californian, employed mud-brick in construction of graphically simple missions; the Baja (lower), later, Mexico, employed stone in construction of elaborate churches.  Few of the Baja missions survive.

The missions were centers of faith, education, and community.  Most were incorporated into a quadrangle, as in a college or monastery.  All were constructed by a blended population toward the goal of creating a healthier, fuller, God-following life.  As in ancient Greece, the system of paideia instructed in music, writing, and literature, mostly, the Bible.  And with them, the missionaries brought technological advancements in crafts, trades, and agriculture, even old Roman technologies alike the aqueduct and irrigation systems; horses and cattle, vegetables and fruits (wheat, citrus, grapes, dates, etc).  The missions were hos epi to polu, self-sufficient.

The missionaries were not only Spanish, they were Germans, Checks, Italian, Croatians, other Europeans and of the many tribes, each incorporated into the Dominican, Jesuit, Franciscan, and Augustinian Orders.  The numerous unwritten languages, tribal internecine wars, and untried immune systems caused many failures, some disastrous; yet, the mission system survived until Europe’s revolutionary animosities toward faith outlawed the Church and secularized the missions.  Spanish Missions fell to disrepair until American Catholics and patriots restored those missions that could be saved or rebuilt.  Few missions survive in Mexico.


Mission San Geronimo, Taos

Mission San Jerónimo de Taos, New Mexico. image credit: B.G. Stock, 72


Spanish Missions in New Mexico

Around 1540, in search of gold and fame, Coronado followed the Rio Grande into what is today New Mexico, and left, finding neither fame nor gold.  In the 1580-90s a second expedition enters the area, establishes missions, takes possession of the land, and establishes the province of New Mexico in King Phillip II’s name.  The New Mexico missions are simple because inexpensive, broad in form because reminiscent of local Pueblo technology, devoid of high-Catholic detail because constructed by the illiterate in the pay of common missionaries.  Some 40 missions were constructed in the pleasing Pueblo style, a few surviving missions serve the ascendents of those who helped build the mission churches 200 to 400 years ago.


Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas. image credit: amadeustx


Spanish Missions in Texas

The late XVII Century development of missions in Texas was prompted by French incursion of Spanish territory.  Missions were developed near what is now Texas’ eastern border, and along the banks of the San Antonio River.  Here at the farthest extension of Classive civilization the Franciscan’s built fortress-like stone missions.  Among these, San Antonio de Valero, commonly known as The Alamo, the first mission in regional San Antonio.  The tall walls of these missions enclosed a vast plaza, the center of mission life, a space populated with buildings and the busy occupations common to castled fortifications.

Mission San José Entrance

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Entrance, San Jose, Texas. image credit: xradiophotog

As in New Mexico, the mission land was subdivided in the old Roman model of what might be irrigated within a day.  These complex, often Roman arched missions were something unknown to the local stone-age people, living as they did in temporary grass huts, in sub-groups divided by dizzying accents of language.  These people, pressed by active Spaniards to the south and warlike Apache to the north, flocked to the missions where they found security, comfort, order, and a larger world.

Mission San Jose is the largest of the middle-Texas missions, the wealthiest and most secure, able to repel raiding Comanche’s who burned local farms, able to rebuild and replant after Comanche retreat.  Elaborate carving rich in Catholic iconography, statues of Saint Dominic and Saint Francis, elements of Greek, Roman, and European building technique, painting and colorful decoration rank the mission among the most important Classive structures in early American history.  Mission Concepción (1716) is the oldest, unrestored church in what is now The United States.  An impressive structure in the shape of the cross, constructed of 48 inch thick walls from stone locally quarried, Concepción yet retains much of the early frescoes, a visual language that taught an emerging literary people theology, history, and the fine details of Classive beauty.

As at the Alamo, Concepción served the American cause: in 1835, 90 volunteer Texans under James Bowie defeated 400 regulars of the Mexican army.  Texan’s lost one man; Mexican’s lost about 60.  Mission Capistrano was self-sustaining and a regional supplier of agricultural and other riches: Mission Capistrano is an active parish to this day.


Mission San Francisco Xavier

Mission San Francisco Xavier del Bac, near Tucson, Arizona. image credit: Traveler 70


Spanish Missions in Arizona

Arizona’s missions of the Sanora Desert are splendid in Baroque exuberance, grand in Classive ambition.  Here are domes, towers, columns, statuary not unlike the compositions of Michelangelo.  Beginning in 1687, over twenty missions in eight provincial districts served the Pima, a people of Aztec inheritance.  An Italian Jesuit of The Holy Roman Empire, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, founder of the Arizona missions, was an explorer, astronomer, geographer and cartographer, a man of vision and ambition who formed a land on the model of his imagination.  Father Kino authored many books, traveled many miles (over 50,000), named many places (including the Colorado River), built many roads and established many missions, the first at the request of local Pima.

Mission San Francisco Xavier

Mission San Francisco Xavier del Bac, Interior.

Missions were not built upon whim, but in accordance with Royal permission and bureaucratic order.  Missions were to be developed near a water supply with easy access to wood, on airable land suited to crops and grazing.  Before development, the site was blessed, was protected by soldiers in temporary structures, then streets were laid east to west, the church was prominently centered, and the grounds of habitation, service, and festival were formed into a quadrangle.  There was in Spanish mission architecture great latitude in design.  Father Kino’s designs were ambitious in the way of the Renaissance Baroque, the scientific proof of God’s hand, a faith in man, that intelligent creature who could surpass angels to achieve life with God, or sink below worms to abide with devils.

The first Prima Alta mission founded by Father Kino was Mission Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, 1687.  The most grand, Mission San Xavier del Bac, established by Father Kino in 1692, destroyed by the Apace in 1770, rebuilt in its present form, 1797.  Mission San Pedro y San Pablo del Tubutama, typical of the Sonora missions, was founded by Father Kino in 1691.


Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, Soledad, California. image credit: Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz


Spanish Missions in California

Mexico’s Pacific coast was explored in 1542 when it was given the name of an imaginary island, “California”.  Two hundred years later, four Spanish missionaries reached the ocean by land and began the construction of 40 missions (19 in Baja, 21 in Alta California).  The first of the Alta (later American) missions was founded in San Diego, 1769, and burned in 1775, the year of the “Shot Heard Round the World” at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, 2,569 miles east, as the condor flies.  Mission San Diego de Alcalá was rebuilt in 1813.

Mission San Juan Bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista, wall detail. image credit: M. Curtis

Alta California’s missions stretch 600 road miles from the first, Mission San Diego, 1769, to the last, Mission San Francisco Solano de Sanoma, 1823.  Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans cooperated in building the missions, both to encourage Spanish settlement and to discourage settlement of the encroaching Russians, their forts and fur trade.  Linked by El Camino Real, “The King’s Highway” (Spain’s Charles III) the missions were intended to be but a day’s ride by horseback, a conceptual and practical linking.  You will find the California missions to blend easily into the landscape, the stone or stucco well suited to the climate, the honest designs pleasing and pure.  You will find the graves of those who laid the foundations of California in the mission cemeteries, you will find the bells’ call to festival and prayer, beautiful.

The California tradition of red tile roof was begun at Mission San Antonio de Padua and was soon reproduced in the other 20 formerly thatched roof missions.  The lovely missions of California were among the last built, are among the most aesthetically admired, and continue to be the most copied in what has become our Spanish Revival style, a style brought to maturity by Bertram Goodhue, Carlton Wilson, Frank P. Allen and other architects of the Panama-California Exposition, San Diego, 1915—1917.


1915-1917 Panama-California Exposition Building

1915-1917 Panama-California Exposition Building in Balboa Park, San Diego, California.


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* The first Mass in America (for which a record exists) was celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1494, in a shelter that would became La Isabela (Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic).  Other masses offered on the American continent by Saint Brenden, 512, by Bishop Eric Gnupsson, circa 1121, and by the friars of John Cabot’s expedition, June 1497, are possible, even likely.
** Florida, id est, La Florida, “Pascua Florida”, the Spanish Feast of the Flowers, Easter, as named by Ponce de Leon when he discovered “Florida”, April 2, 1514.  Spain’s Florida territory, extending north into what would later be Carolina, when under English dominion, and west into Alabama, named of a Choctaw tribe, contained some 40 missions, all swept away by storm, raid, or neglect.
*** Founded in 1598, San Miguel de Socorro was built on the ruins of the old Mission Nuestra Señora de Socorro (1626); parishioners claim it is the oldest Catholic church in the United States, and parishioners claim that the church is named in honor of Archangel Michael who was seen to drive raiding Apache’s away from mission and town.  A portion of “Saint Michael’s”, San Miguel’s original adobe wall is preserved behind glass near the altar of the rebuilt church (circa 1821).


The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

Mission San Antonio de Valero, The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas. image credit: Dean Fikar

Spanish Missions

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Featured image: Mission Santa Clara de Asis, California. image credit: J. Ejim 


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