Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mission Accomplished!

Day Two of our 1st Anniversary Trip to San Antonio, Texas started off with a short drive south of downtown to see two of the four historic San Antonio Missions within the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. All built in the 18th century, several of the missions were originally located in East Texas and later relocated near the San Antonio River. These missions, still rich with clues of an interesting cultural history, were Indian towns, established by the Spaniards with the Catholic Church as the focus.

Spanish explorers, accompanied by Spanish military troops, had discovered the beautiful lands of Mexico and southern Texas in the late 1600s and the King of Spain claimed the land as Spanish territory. The Spaniards, who worried about French encroachment from the direction of Louisiana, relocated many of the native Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tay-kans) to sites in East Texas to help build the missions and presidios and work the land and livestock in and around the missions.

Initially, these indigenous tribes came from a number of hunting and gathering bands. In order to establish its domain, Spain needed to place Spanish citizens throughout the land. The quickest way to do this was to teach the native people to become Spanish citizens. But, to be a citizen of Spain, one had to be Catholic. Therefore, the King of Spain sent missionaries to teach the Coahuiltecans and convert them to Catholicism.

Increasing hostility from the indigenous Indians' traditional enemy, the Apache, motivated many of them to forsake their native lands and culture and retreat behind the walls of the missions. And so, the missions flourished between 1745 and the 1780s. The Indians found food and refuge in the missions in exchange for labor and submission to religious conversion. Later, the Apaches were attacked by the fierce Comanche, causing even this warring tribe of Apaches to seek safety within the missions. However, disease brought by the Europeans greatly reduced the native population, accelerating the missions' decline.

Our first stop was Mission Concepción, and like all the missions, Mission Concepción has an active parish. Mission Concepción is the oldest unrestored stone church in America, founded in 1716. The mission was transferred from East Texas to the San Antonio River area in 1731. It took 20 years to complete the structure and was dedicated in 1755. The Coahuiltecans painted colorful geometric designs on the limestone face of the church after completing its construction. These patterns have long since faded, but many of the rooms inside contain frescos that are still visible.

During our visit, families in their Sunday best gathered inside the chapel to celebrate a young girl’s First Communion. The exterior structure was beautiful to behold with simplistic stone archways, old wooden doors and lovely carvings at the entrance.

Next was Mission San José, which is the largest of all the missions (and our personal favorite), was founded in 1720 and completed in 1762. Once built, this mission was a nearly impregnable fortress.

It was easy to see that this mission was not just a church, but a community with the church as its center. The church building was surrounded by a protective limestone wall with the Indian quarters built into it.

Mission San José had the most fascinating architecture. The arched walkways beckoned us to explore more of the mission.

Outside the walls of the mission was a grist mill. San José's grist mill never ground corn, only wheat.

The mill was built late in the mission period; by then the mission Indians had acquired a taste for wheat-based foods.

While we were leaving the grist mill, a man stopped Gene, noticing his hat with the United States Marine Corp insignia.

Howard introduced himself and talked to us at length about his story of joining the Marines before graduating high school in 1953, just after the Korean War. Howard’s best friend, Albert, had been relentlessly pressuring him to sign-up for the Marines together. Howard told his mother he was going to join the Marines, but she didn’t believe him. After getting in a minor scuffle with the Law, Howard finally acquiesced and joined Albert at the USMC Recruiting Office. Although the USMC recruiter had assured Howard and Albert they would be stationed together, they were separated almost immediately. Albert was shipped off to Japan, and Howard was sent to Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada. Howard never again crossed paths with his best friend while in the Service. He always wondered what had happened to him or even whether he was still alive.

Fifty-five years later, while on a visit in Virginia, Howard happened to notice Albert’s last name in the phone book. He quickly searched for Albert, and found a listing. Howard dialed the phone number, and asked to speak with Albert. The young man, who answered the phone, acknowledged that he was Albert and listened as Howard described the best friend he’d joined the Marines with. Young Albert said, “Oh, you want to talk with my grandfather. Just a minute.” Unbelievably, the young man handed the phone to his grandfather, who was there, and for the first time in 55 years, Howard was able to speak with his best friend, Albert.

Howard and Albert and their wives were able to meet and reminisce, filling each other in on the high points of their lives. They hugged and cried. That meeting took place right before Howard and his wife made the drive back home to Texas, stopping off at Mission San José, where we met him. He was still choked up about the meeting and was just so excited to tell his wonderful story. The story touched our hearts, bringing our wonderful trip to the San Antonio missions this Memorial Day Weekend to an end.

We are so grateful to all those who have served and do serve our country, including Gene’s daughter, Liz, who is serving in the United States Air Force, and his son, Jon, serving in the United States Marine Corp, who just returned from a tour in Afghanistan (See picture above). Welcome home, Jon! Mission Accomplished!

Semper Fi, Y’all!!

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