Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Acuña, San Antonio, Texas, 1755. Convento and church at dusk.
Credit: San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, Texas. © George H. H. Huey.
In this Picturing America lesson, students explore the historical origins and organization of Spanish missions in the New World and discover the varied purposes these communities of faith served. Focusing on the daily life of Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, the lesson asks students to relate the people of this community and their daily activities to the art and architecture of the mission.
At the end of this lesson students will be able to
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción is one of five Spanish missions in San Antonio, Texas. Founded in 1716, the mission was relocated from East Texas to its present site in 1731. The stone church took about twenty years to build.
The Spanish established missionary outposts in Texas as barriers to the threat of French expansion from Louisiana. Using a system they had employed previously in Arizona and New Mexico, Spanish missionaries (Catholic priests and members of religious orders) moved into remote areas to build missions where they preached Christianity and worked side-by-side with the native peoples, planting crops as well as hunting game. The missionaries also taught the natives about Spanish culture, including language, arts and crafts, and politics. In this way, the missionaries converted the native population to Christianity and allegiance to the Spanish Crown.
At its peak, Mission Concepción included a convent, farmland, workshops, a granary, and adjacent communities called "pueblos". One of the oldest surviving mission churches in the American Southwest, Mission Concepción is now stripped to bare stone, but when it was completed in 1755, it was originally plastered white and adorned with red, blue, yellow, and black painted designs. Constructed by native artisans using local materials, the stone-faced adobe structure features a floor plan that reflects Spanish Catholic traditions. The mission's architecture was an amalgam of several historical architectural styles: Moorish, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance influences were modified to meet the needs of frontier life.
On the Picturing America website, click on the image of Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción to read basic historical information about the mission, its art, and architecture. A link on the page for educators will take you to the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book with a two-page chapter on Mission Concepción. The instructions on how to look at a building and what kinds of questions to ask of it on page 9 can be used prior to student research on mission system and the church. Afterwards, these questions can be repeated when student research is complete (see also Activity 3).
For historical information, you can follow EDSITEment's Mission Concepción website resource links to the Mission Concepción site maintained by the National Park Service. The latter provides historical context on the origins of the missions, their organization, as well as to the National Park Service's own lesson plans. A closely related EDSITEment lesson What They Left Behind: Early Multinational Influences in the United States may be used prior to this lesson.
The Picturing America website also provides comparative material on other notable buildings. Consider comparing the Mission with the Ohio State Capitol (1838-1861), which was designed by Thomas Cole and others as a home for the legislature of that state. You might begin by asking students about the functions of each building, what those functions say about the people who built it, and how well the building reflects the needs and aspirations of the communities it was meant to serve.
If teachers and students are new to the topic of the Spanish exploration of the New World, they might begin with the multimedia overview of "Spanish Explorers in the New World" which can be found by going to Unit 1, Chapter 1, Lesson 3, Topics 1 & 3 of the U.S.History course created by the University of California for the National Repository of Online Courses link from Teaching American History, an EDSITEment-reviewed website.
More experienced teachers may quickly scan the historical context by reviewing sections of the Mission Concepción web site maintained by the National Park Service, "Mission Frontier" and "Church and State on the Frontier" as well as the "San Antonio Missions: Their Beginnings" section to set up the class discussion of the mission and its way of life.
Begin by having students look carefully at the images for Mission Concepción. (Further images for the mission are on the Picturing America website), briefly pointing out that the detailed views show how the building looked in an earlier state. They can find more images of the mission's art and architecture by going to the National Park Service page for the Mission. They can also find out more information about the mission architecture by using the Handbook of Texas Online EDSITEment-reviewed website to do their research. To learn about the different historical styles of architecture which influenced the artisans, students can consult the EDSITEment-reviewed Art History Resources website. Give them the following questions to answer:
Begin by having students look at the large illustration of Mission Concepción for a few minutes. Adapt the method set forth in the Teaching with Historic Places Photo Analysis Worksheet link from the National Park Service site. Then divide the class into three main groups (and smaller subgroups of each, if the class is large). Have each group read about one of the three communities that came together in the mission:
The Native Peoples, The Spanish, and the Franciscan missionaries. If desired, students can do further research on these groups by searching the EDSITEment-reviewed Handbook of Texas Online. Now have the three groups of students read about the work of the mission such as "Farming" and "Ranching" and the way a day might have been spent at the mission..
For each of the selected communities, ask students to make a list of the reasons that these people came together to live in one place. Then ask them to imagine what the daily activities were for each community at the mission. Ask each of the student groups to choose a person from their researched community, such as a teenage Indian boy or girl; a Franciscan priest; and the young child of a Spanish officer. Ask students to imagine what a day was like at the mission for each of these group members. What would their tasks have been? How would they have interacted with members of the other groups?
Ask students to look at a map of the mission area available here from the National Park Service website and figure out where each of the people in the communities they are researching lived and worked. Have them find further activities by researching the Handbook of Texas Online.
Along with the missions, the Spanish built presidios or forts to protect those associated with the mission from hostile Indians or European rivals. Soldiers stationed at the presidios recovered runaways, served as a policing force within the community, and taught the resident Indians a variety of military skills. One of San Antonio missions, Mission San Antonio de Valero was turned into a fort in the early 19th century. The soldiers referred to the old mission as "The Alamo" after the Spanish word for "cottonwood" in honor of their hometown Alamo de Parras, Coahuila. Have students read about presidios and the importance of the Alamo in U.S. History. For further research have them use the Alamo Images part of Humanities Interactive a project of the Texas Council for the Humanities Research Center, an EDSITEment-reviewed website and the Handbook of Texas Online.
1 class periods