A more beautiful place I could not recall as my feet hit the stone floor of the chapel. I'd had mixed feelings about venturing to the out of the way missions along the Historic Mission Trail in San Antonio. The commercialization of the Alamo only seemed to validate my fears. A three-hour line outside of the chapel at the Alamo had zapped what little patience I had left after a sleepless night on a foreign and mightily uncomfortable hotel bed. Still, running on nothing but caffeine and nervous energy from my latest near-miss traffic collision, I decided to head to Concepción and San José, if I could find them. After driving through a rather rough neighborhood where bums would make passes at women who dared leave their cars for an emergency stop at the local drugstore for film for their 'old school' camera, I finally reached Concepción.
The moment I saw the structure I was in love. Two stone bell towers rose several stories into the air. According to the National Park Service, it is the oldest stone church in the entire United States. Some of the rooms have long since crumbled, but those intact were beautifully so. Painted frescoes survived as vividly as the day they were painted, a little over two hundred and fifty years ago. A stylized sun almost seemed to shine down from the library celling and a cross was emblazoned over the doorway into the next room. These paintings were indeed a blend of the two cultures, that of the Coahuiltecans or the Indian tribe who lived in San Antonio at that time and that of the Franciscan monks who founded the mission. Reluctantly I left Concepción as a choir was about to tape a concert in the ancient stone halls. I felt a certain amount of awe as I walked away from the alter, a sadness almost in leaving. All of that melancholy was washed away however when I reached San José.
A stone tower that seemed to touch the sky and a massive dome rose above the urban setting. I was absolutely floored even before I arrived. Before I stepped in the gates I was informed that the mission was closed to tourists. My heart sank, however a kind member of the congregation allowed me to walk the grounds as long as I was quiet and respectful. Honestly, I was a little shocked to learn that services were still held at San José. I wondered about the implications of knowing that your church had been around longer than your entire nation. The very idea makes me feel small still. The building itself made me feel tiny. Stone arches rose stories above the ground and faded flowers seemed to grow from the peeling plaster. At every entrance, stone statues of angels and saints stared, almost eerily alive. However what seemed to come alive most in this place was faith.
Over two hundred and fifty years ago, this place was a refuge for converts, monks, and maybe even a few with no religion at all. All of this time later, those sacred words still echoed through the halls and corridors. Oh what those walls have seen, in both Concepción and San José. Births, deaths, marriages, just day to day life for people trying to survive and find a greater meaning for their lives. In the end is that not the greatest story of all? Don't get me wrong, the Alamo is brilliant if you can push past the crowds. However, the next time I find myself in San Antonio, I will skip the three hour lines and spend my days in the relative calm and seclusion of the others on San Antonio's Historic Mission Trail.