Franciscan priests built the Mission Espiritu Santo on the San Antonio river in 1749, moving it from its earlier location on Matagorda Bay. It became both a spiritual home and the first large cattle ranch in Texas before being abandoned in 1830. For years it fell into ruin, but was restored first by the Civilian Conservation Corps and later by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It remains a work in progress.
The main entrance to the church opens to a small chapel and an altar with four religious panels. Pull on a rope in the room just to the right of the entrance to ring the mission bell. Adjacent to the church are the former priests quarters and granary, which is now a mission museum. A workshop across the courtyard provides a glimpse of mission life, with a blacksmith’s forge, spinning and weaving tools and period pottery.
The park’s interpretive guide describes mission life:
Supervised by the Franciscan fathers, the men branded cattle, tilled the soil, chipped stone and mixed mortar. The women spun wool for clothing, made clay pots used for storage and cooking, ground corn into meal with stone manos and metates and harvested crops…. Thousands of wild long-horned cattle and horses roamed the mission lands. Mission Indians adapted Spanish riding and roping styles to their own and soon became accomplished vaqueros. Renowned for its livestock, the mission regularly traded cattle with other settlements.
The Presidio, a frontier fort on the other side of the river that once protected the mission, is now run by the local Catholic diocese and requires an additional fee to tour. The complex includes the Our Lady of Loreto Chapel, officers’ quarters and enlisted barracks, all enclosed by a tall rock wall. The church still conducts Sunday mass in the chapel, which has a large fresco behind its altar that was painted by a Texas artist in 1946.
The ruins of the Mission Rosario a few miles down the road are accessible by appointment only.
While the river surrounds the park, it is hidden most of the time. The River Hiking Trail (1 mile) follows the river’s path for the length of the park, but vegetation and tall banks obscure the view most of the way, except for a short stretch on the far side of the road with a platform for launching canoes and kayaks. In addition to the river trail, the shorter Aranama Trail (0.25 mile) comes off the back of the mission and loops through the forest, with bridge crossings over a creek and the ruins of a kiln around one bend.