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Borderlands: Area Missions are Part of Living History 17 (1998)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Area Missions are Part of Living History

Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.   See 2017 update

By Blanca Reyes, Natalie Nevarez, Charity Saenz and Bernice Ornelas

" "Missions built along the Rio Grande by the Spanish served as bases from which to Christianize the natives. At the same time, they 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 provided tranquil sanctuary for their parishioners.

Ysleta Mission

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 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.

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.

Image caption: "Mission San Antonio de los Tiguas" is also known as the Ysleta Mission. Photo by Charity Saenz

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 back 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.

Image caption: Monument to the Ysleta Mission. 






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Socorro Mission

In 1680, the Piro Indians fleeing form 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.

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.

""Image caption: Part of the profits of El Paso's Quadricentennial festival will go for repairs of the Socorro Mission. Photo by Norma Ornelas

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 ceiling almost twenty feet tall. The vigas are crossed with branches called latillas in a herringbone pattern.

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These beams, the bell and a statue of Saint Michael remain in the mission today. One story says that the statue was being transported on an ox cart and while traveling through Socorro, the cart became stuck in the mud and the oxen would not move. It was decided that God wanted the statue to stay at the mission in Socorro; thus Saint Michael became the patron saint for the mission. However, according, to church records, the statue was donated by a Holguin family who were 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. 

Chapel San Elizario

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.

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 still remains the centerpiece of the main plaza.

""Image caption: The San Elizario Mission Restoration Committee is raising funds for repair of this historical chapel. Photo by Blanca Reyes

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 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.

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Mission Valley Sources

Borderland Treasures: Exploring the Socorro Mission

San Elizario (EPCC Along the Rio Grande project #48)
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