Growing up in California, I learned all about missions. Well, I learned a watered-down story of them, one of Spanish friars civilizing and colonizing the area, bringing farming techniques to the natives. It was, and in fact still is, part of the fourth grade curriculum, complete with visiting a local mission and – in my case – building a model of it out of sugar cubes. (For more of the “real” story of the California missions, click here.) One thing I didn’t learn: that Spanish missions existed in other parts of the United States. Call it irrelevant, or call it California exceptionalism, but it wasn’t part of my fourth grade learning.

While missions in Texas aren’t as robust as those in California, they exist, clustered around what became Spanish – and later American – cities, namely El Paso and San Antonio. El Paso is home to three (well, two and a presidio church). All sitting to the southeast of modern-day El Paso, the fifteen or so miles connecting these three historic buildings is called the El Paso Mission Trail, and it gives us a glimpse into the early history of the city.

My morning begins at the Presidio Chapel of San Elizario, the farthest out of the three, from which I’ll make my way back into the city proper. San Elizario is the patron saint of the military, and it was from this fortress that Spanish control over the area north of the Rio Grande was maintained. The chapel only dates to 1789, making it also the newest of the three missions along the El Paso Mission Trail.

Presidio Chapel San Elizario

The inside of the chapel is brightly painted, and simply adorned outside of that. This is not a home to a gilded altarpiece. But the airy interior and cheery colors make it a pleasant building to spend a few minutes inside of.

The interior is lovely!

My next stop is the Socorro Mission. The current mission was built in 1840, replacing a prior version from the 1700s that was destroyed by a major flood of the Rio Grande in 1829. Socorro means haven or aid, and this mission was originally founded to take in refugees from the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

Socorro Mission looks like a 2D facade from the front.

While the outside is similar to San Elizario – a simple tower with bells over a fairly blocky building – the interior is much different. It is long and narrow, lacking the wide airy feel of the prior chapel. The highlight is the woodwork seen in the beams across the ceiling. While these are replicas, they were created in the same manner and to be identical to the originals, which had begun to rot through. I stand in the back, not able to fully explore, as there is a class learning about the history sitting in the pews. I wonder if they are in fourth grade, and if they will have to build models.

The wooden beams are stunning!

Ysleta is the oldest European-founded city in Texas, dating to 1680, and is the historic home of the Tigua people. The Tigua (also spelled Tiwa) fled New Mexico during the Pueblo Revolt, and, after converting to Christianity almost en masse – and apparently voluntarily, a rather unique aspect of mission history – named their city Ysleta after the one they had left, Isleta. The mission here was built in 1691, although after being destroyed by flooding of the Rio Grande (a common theme), it was rebuilt in 1744.

Ysleta Mission

(Ysleta was bypassed by the railroads in favor of El Paso, leaving it to be an outskirt backwater, a tragic fate for what was once a majorly important city.)

The Ysleta Mission stands out for its silver dome, almost reminiscent of a mosque’s minaret. The interior, however, is almost identical in size and shape to Socorro. It is long and narrow, with wooden beams holding up a fairly low roof. The altar is simple, but beautiful, with lovely carved wood surrounding the main centerpiece.

The wood around the altarpiece is nice

It is important to understand these missions in context, and signage outside each traces the Mission Trail and its history. The overall mission complex of the region also included four missions, mostly built earlier, on what is now the Mexico side of the Rio Grande. Those on the north were important outposts, as the river was difficult to cross in those days, meaning any reinforcements probably had to come via what is now Juarez, where there was a place to ford. So while San Elizario is a mere twenty minute drive from that spot, it was probably a full day or two – or more, depending on seasonal flooding – from the main Spanish outpost.

I finish up my morning on the El Paso Mission Trail with a greater appreciation for the history of the region, and the beginnings of what is now a huge city of more than 800,000. It is a nice way to spend a few hours learning.

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