Remember the Alamo

Remember the Alamo? Of course we do. But not so well recalled are the early days of the Texas landmark. For its first 75 years, before it was a fortress, the Alamo was a thriving mission that brought Christianity to native Americans.

As every schoolboy once knew, the Alamo in San Antonio was where Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and 187 Texas volunteers died in a valiant battle against 4,000 Mexican soldiers in 1836. A few weeks later, shouting “Remember the Alamo,” Texans defeated the Mexican army and ended Mexican rule over Texas.

The Alamo, sacred ground to Texans, was simply sacred ground as a successful mission from 1718 to 1793. The two histories of the site as a fortress and as a mission are intertwined. The famous Alamo building, the one seen on innumerable postcards, is the former mission church. The Long Barracks, where much of the decisive fighting took place, is the former living quarters of the Franciscan missionaries. Few American historic sites can claim such a dual background, religious and patriotic, and call forth such poignancy in visitors seeking an experience with either — or both.

An Air of Permanence

The limestone walls of the Alamo are being slowly eaten away by water and moisture. A stately, hulking shell, the Alamo nevertheless radiates an air of gravity and permanence. Displayed inside are Crockett's rifle, Bowie's knife and other relics.

For many reasons, especially for Catholics, the Alamo is an odd site that arouses complex emotions. It's located in the middle of busy San Antonio, not in a rustic setting, as one might expect. Just a two-minute stroll from the Alamo is the popular River Walk, jammed with shops, nightclubs and restaurants.

The front of the Alamo was once a walled-in section of the mission. Today, it's a city landscape. Also urbanized is the area northeast of the Alamo, where once grew the mission's vast beanfields and cornfields. The vast majority of visitors to the Alamo come strictly with visions of Crockett and Bowie. Men remove their hats at the Alamo out of respect to its proud military history. For the casual tourist, its history as a mission is regarded as a footnote at best.

The site is officially a state landmark. Since 1905, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas have been entrusted by the state with preserving the site as a memorial to it defenders.

To their credit, the Daughters oversee exhibits that encompass the site's entire history. The Long Barracks contain galleries that chronologically tell the site's history. A headless statue of St. Anthony (San Antonio in Spanish) is displayed in the gallery devoted to the mission period. It probably once sat in a niche in an outside wall of the mission. The statue likely was damaged sometime after the mission was secularized and subject to vandalism.

Also displayed are rosaries and crucifixes, but these postdate the mission days. The mission's secularization resulted in its sacred objects being given to other churches.

Most of the religious artifacts on display were given to the Alamo by descendants of Native Americans and Spaniards who lived at the mission.

San Antonio has a number of residents who can trace their ancestry to the mission. For them, the Alamo summons sometimes contradictory feelings. It represents who they were and who they became.

Catholics who visit the Alamo may likewise experience some confusion. The secular character of the site can drown out the mission aura. The headless statue, the secondhand artifacts, the urban location — all contribute to a vague unease. Visiting the Alamo is emblematic of being Catholic in modern society. Where evidence of contemplative Catholic religiosity meets that of brash, secular endeavor, however well-intentioned, it's not likely the former will be able to compete for attention or recognition.

Missionary Spirit

Interestingly, when Pope John Paul II visited San Antonio in 1987, his motorcade drove by the Alamo but did not stop. That was entirely fitting, given the Alamo's identity as a civic shrine.

That doesn't mean visiting the Alamo cannot be a powerful, spiritual experience. The convento courtyard, beautifully landscaped, invites prayer and reflection; the peace and serenity of the grounds suggest that the spirit of the missions will never be quenched. Also not erased by time: the words carved above the entrance to the church — “Ave Maria.”

The Alamo's original name was Mission San Antonio de Valero, named after the marquis de Valero, a powerful Spanish official in Mexico. Mission San Antonio was one of 36 missions founded by Spain in Texas between 1680 and 1793.

Mission San Antonio was the oldest of five missions in the town along the San Antonio River. The Franciscans came to convert Indians. The soldiers and settlers accompanying them were sent by Spanish rulers to expand their nations’ empire.

The San Antonio missions evangelized among the native Payaya and Coahuilteca, nomadic tribes who subsisted on pecans, mesquite beans and insects.

They two tribes lived under the constant threat of raids by the Apache. The Franciscans provided the Payaya and Coahuilteca with food, protection and spiritual sustenance.

In return, they worked in the mission fields and helped build the mission church in 1744 and other structures.

Mission San Antonio flourished for decades before disease and raids by hostile Indians rendered it ineffective.

The Church secularized the mission in 1793 and distributed the land to the remaining Indians. The site became a fortress.

Spanish soldiers in the early 1800s began calling it the “Alamo” (Spanish for “cottonwood”), in honor of their hometown Alamo de Parras, Coahuila.

Four other missions lie outside the city on a six-mile route. All are worthwhile stops for the Catholic traveler as all recall the hardships and glories of evangelization in a rugged land.

Remember the Alamo? Sure, but Catholics also may want to shout out, “Remember the Alamo mission!”

Jay Copp is based in Chicago.