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Area Missions Are Part of Living History (with 2017 update)
By Blanca Reyes, Natalie Nevarez, Charity Saenz, and Bernice Ornelas
(Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998)
Missions built along the Rio Grande by the Spanish served as bases from which to Christianize the natives. They also attracted settlers and were the center of farming and ranching communities. Three of these missions still stand in El Paso’s Lower Valley and are on the National Register of Historic Places. Each has seen disaster and has had to be rebuilt, but they still provide tranquil sanctuary for their parishioners.
The site of this mission was first used as a refugee camp in 1675 for Pueblo Indians who were escaping Apache raiders. The Spanish settled Tigua Indian refugees of the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico at Ysleta in 1680. The original church is believed to have been built of mud-chinked logs and willow reeds and was named Corpus Christi de la Isleta del Sur. Tigua labor built a permanent mission from adobe in 1682.
Image caption: The Ysleta Mission is also known as "Mision San Antonio de los Tiguas." Photo courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso.
Every time the Rio Grande overflowed, the small church flooded. Heavy waters destroyed the mission twice: once around 1742 and again around 1829. Several years after the flood of 1829, the mission was rebuilt in 1851 on higher ground, its present location.
In 1881, the Jesuits took control and renamed it Misión de Nuestra Señora del Monte Carmelo or Our Lady of Mount Carmel. A bell tower was added in the 1880s. In 1907, the mission suffered its last disaster, when a fire destroyed the roof and the bell tower. The parishioners repaired the damages within a year, with the silver roof of the bell tower reflecting tradition and continuity of the mission and the strength and determination of the community.
In 1980, 300 years after the arrival of the Tiguas, the mission’s name was changed once more to “Misión San Antonio de los Tiguas.” The church serves the community of Ysleta and is the second oldest continuously used church in the United States.
In 1680, the Piro Indians fleeing from the Pueblo Revolt were settled at a camp which became the Socorro Mission. The mission itself was actually located in present-day Fabens and was no more than a hut of cottonwood branches plastered with mud. It was named Nuestra Señora de La Limpieza Concepción de Socorro del Sur (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of Socorro of the South), in time simplified to La Purisima Concepción del Socorro.
Image caption: A statue of St. Michal resides in the Socorro Mission to this day. Photo by Isabel Hernandez.
In 1683, the natives attempted to kill the priest, and, as a result, the governor moved the camp and mission closer to Ysleta but kept the name Socorro. Construction of the permanent mission was completed in 1691. The adobe building was destroyed by floods in 1740 and rebuilt four years later, only to be destroyed by the flood of 1829. In 1843, the main part of the present structure was built just northwest of its prior location.
Identical to the former structure, the building used the original hand-carved beams or vigas to support the roof. The building is in the shape of a cross with
ceilings almost 20 feet tall. The vigas are crossed with branches called latillas in a herringbone pattern.
These beams, the bell and a statue of Saint Michael remain in the mission today. Legend says that a cart carrying the statue became stuck in the mud with the oxen unable to move, thus signaling God’s desire for the statue to remain in Socorro and Saint Michael becoming the patron saint of the mission. However, according to church records, the statue was donated by a family named Holguin who was devoted to Saint Michael.
Today, extensive renovation is in progress, especially of the interior, including the shoring up of the vigas and restoration of walls.
San Elizario Chapel
San Elizario, named for the French Saint Elcear, is one of the oldest communities in the El Paso area, with a fort or presidio established to protect the Camino Real and area settlements. The fort saw a great deal of military action and was moved 37 miles up the Rio Grande in 1789 to the site that still bears its name today.
Image caption: San Elizario chapel is the ceterpiece of a growing historical and cultural center. Photo by Isabel Hernandez.
By 1848, San Elizario had a population of over 1,200 people and was becoming the most populated town near El Paso. A small chapel was built in 1853, with construction of the present church beginning in 1877. This church remains the centerpiece of the main plaza.
A fire destroyed the original interior in 1935. The church’s interior dates to 1944. Major restoration of the exterior began in 1993, but exterior walls once again need repair. Much work needs to be done, and parishioners are continuing to raise funds for renovation.
These three churches were built south of the Rio Grande in what we know as Mexico, but the Rio Grande changed course often, and the missions ended up in what would become the United States.
The Mission Trail Association, formed in 1986 by Sheldon Hall and other El Paso lovers of history, have worked hard to develop plans to promote the missions as well as to help restore and preserve them. This year, many people stopped along the Mission Trail to visit these historical churches on their way to or from Cougar Park where the 1998 reenactment of the First Thanksgiving was held April 24-26.
Although the Socorro Mission and San Elizario Chapel appear fragile, they, along with the more robust Ysleta Mission, retain a beauty and strength derived from hundreds of years of faith.
The missions and Mission Valley have had many improvements in the last 20 years, initiated by community groups such as the El Paso Mission Trail Association, and including government agencies, the Catholic Diocese, the Tiguas, artists and small business owners and the public — a concerted effort to preserve and promote these jewels.
Today the missions are designated Texas Historic Sites and are included in the National Register of Historic Places. They are treasures along the Mission Trail, a nine-mile segment of the Camino Real, the original trade and supply route from Mexico City to Santa Fe, which has been named a National Historic Trail. In 2016, U.S. Representative Will Hurd and County Judge Veronica Escobar met with community leaders to begin the long process of having the Trail declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as Congressman Hurd accomplished with the San Antonio mission area.
Because the two missions and chapel are adobe sites, they need constant renovation and upkeep, both inside and out. The Socorro Mission underwent a 10- year, $1.7 million renovation completed in 2005. It involved volunteers at all skill levels, making 20,000 adobe bricks by hand, doing masonry and carpentry work and holding fundraisers of all kinds. The parish began restoring the Socorro rectory in 2009 when Preservation Texas declared it one of 11 threatened historic sites.
The Ysleta Mission’s interior was refurbished in 2017, and the Diocese and the Tiguas regularly host fundraisers to support the missions.
The San Elizario Chapel received a loan from the Diocese and was closed in 2012 for renovations but is now open for parishioners and visitors alike.
The website visitelpasomissiontrail.com offers complete information on the missions, including audio tours; a tourist guide highlighting art galleries and monthly art walk, restaurants, and more; and annual events from April through December. The Mission Valley Visitor Center is located across the street from the Ysleta Mission, 9065 Alameda Ave., and is staffed by volunteers from the Mission Trail Association. The Mission Valley Express bus route was launched in 2015 to aid tourists and residents alike (transit.sunmetro.net/documents/pdf/routes/current/county50.pdf).
Visitors from all over the world, including Thailand, Japan and Brazil, come to visit the missions, and volunteers host field trips to local schools. These
missions are 50 years older than those in San Antonio and 100 years older than the California missions. After decades of hard work and dedication, the Mission Valley is gaining the recognition and support it deserves. If you haven’t visited the missions in a long time, do so now!