Most tourists who visit San Antonio spend their time on the Riverwalk, drinking watered-down margaritas and eating mediocre Mexican food. Many will visit the Alamo, which has a gift shop larger than the shrine itself. You can buy a faux coonskin cap for your grandchild there, which I highly recommend.
Few San Antonio tourists visit the Spanish missions, which line the San Antonio River near the city. There are five missions: San Jose, Concepcion, San Juan, Espada, and the Alamo. With the exception of the Alamo, all are active Catholic churches, even though the National Park maintains them as the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.
These missions are lovely examples of Spanish baroque architecture, perhaps the finest examples in the United States. Unlike the Spanish missions Junipero Sera found in California in the late 18th century, which were mostly adobe, all the San Antonio missions are built of stone.
Americans have largely ignored the Spanish contributions to American history, culture, art, religion, and architecture. And we have impoverished ourselves by our ignorance. As the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson observed, Baroque culture in the New World exhibited "a rich flowering of regional types of art and architecture." Moreover, as Dawson pointed out, Baroque culture in New Spain showed the influence of Native American culture, seen most clearly in religious art.
Today, there has been a revival of Spanish-era religious art in Northern New Mexico, where artists have produced lovely retablos, bultos and altar screens that draw their inspiration from the religious art of the Spanish colonial era. Here we see artists reproduce the images of saints who were dear to the inhabitants of Catholic New Mexico from the 17th century through the 20th century. St. Isador, Santo Nino, Santiago, and San Pasqual were important saints in the northern Rio Grande Valley for more than four hundred years, and devout Catholic sought their aid in dealing with illness, drought, and the terrifying raids of the Apaches and Comanches.
As Dawson noted, the Spanish baroque culture of the New World drew on Native American influences, which puts it in stark contrast with the artistic expressions of Anglo America, where indigenous influences are entirely absent. Nothing illustrates the sharp difference between the Catholic imagination and Anglo Protestantism than a comparison of the severe and sharp-steepled New England Congregational churches with the warm and elaborately decorated Spanish-era churches of Texas, New Mexico and California--often constructed by Native American artisans.
So the next time you visit San Antonio, rent a car and drive down St. Mary Street until you get to the Spanish missions of 18th century San Antonio. Concepcion and San Jose are the loveliest. Be sure not to miss those two sites.
And as you stroll the grounds of these historic sites, reflect for a moment on the Catholic imagination that inspired the architecture of the Spanish missions. The people who built these missions were mystics--they believed in bilocation, in the intercession of the saints, in the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist.
And think what we lost as a people when Americans embraced the crabbed and impoverished worldview of the Puritans along with the welter of Protestant denominations that sprang pathologically from the Protestant American mind. Although our history books won't admit it, the Reformation was not motivated by a desire to stamp out corruption and superstition in the 16th century Catholic Church; it was fueled by hubris, materialistic greed, and political calculation--which has come to full fruition in the postmodern worldview of America's governing elites.
Christopher Dawson. The Dividing of Christendom. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1965. (Originally published by Sheed & Ward).