El Paso's lower Rio Grande valley is home to several graceful Spanish
missions that are older than some better-known missions in Texas and
California. They are an important part of the history of El Paso and
illustrate the substantial influence of Spanish missionaries in the
region. Over the centuries these missions attracted settlers and became
centers of towns and farming/ranching communities.
They still are. Although two of the three I saw are open daily
for visitors, each is still used for religious services.
According to the
El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau and the AAA
Texas Tour Book, whose information I'm using in this entry, three of
these missions are now on the National Register of Historic Places:
Missions Ysleta and Socorro and Chapel San Elizario. They are
situated within a few miles of each other
along the former banks of the mighty Rio Grande.
Freeway art depicting El Paso's
three historic missions
(too much traffic at this
intersection to get a picture without a vehicle in it!)
There are at least two ways to view the historic Spanish missions
-- an organized half-day tour aboard a trolley that departs from the
Civic Center, or a self-guided drive in your own vehicle.
to the missions are easy to follow; Jim wasn't as interested in
seeing them as I was, so one afternoon I took off alone in the truck and
followed a map along the Mission Trail without getting lost. As already
mentioned, I felt like a foreigner in my own country -- but that
enhanced the experience and I didn't even need a passport!
Here are brief descriptions of the three missions I visited. If you'd
like more information on any of them, just do an internet search.
Mission Ysleta has been known by
several names throughout its history.
Tigua and Piro Indian and Spanish refugees from the
Pueblo Revolt of 1680 fled northern New Mexico, settled in this area on
the south bank of the Rio Grande River, and built temporary living
quarters. A permanent Tigua settlement was established in 1682 and is
considered to be the oldest settlement in Texas. The Spanish named it Corpus Christi de la Isleta del Sur.
A pueblo mission was built on the south side of the Rio
Grande in 1691. It was washed away by flood waters about fifty years
later, rebuilt in the same location, and renamed San Antonio de la
Ysleta for Saint Anthony, the patron saint of the Tiguas.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 the mission and
settlement became part of Mexico -- it was on the south side of
the Rio Grande, remember. Another major flood in 1829 created a new
channel south of the old one, forming an island of sorts. The mission
was on this island, which was still considered Mexican territory. It was
south of the old channel but north of the new one.
Guess what happened again in 1844? Yep, the mission
became the victim of yet another flood. Only the foundation remained.
What's more interesting to me, however, is that this island
-- and everything that was on it -- became a part of
Texas in 1848 after the U.S. won its war with Mexico! If the river
hadn't re-channeled itself, this mission and the ones below would
probably still be on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
The Ysleta mission was finally relocated to higher ground (!)
and rebuilt in 1851. This is mostly the structure seen in these photos.
The silver bell tower was added in the 1880s when the mission was placed under
Jesuit administration and renamed Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The Tiguas,
who live on an adjacent reservation, still refer to it as Mission de San
Antonio in deference to their patron saint. In guidebooks it's abbreviated
to Mission Ysleta.
By the way, that last flood wasn't the last disaster
this mission has experienced. In 1907 a fire destroyed its roof and bell tower.
According to the Chamber of Commerce's mission guide, "The
silver dome roof of the bell tower reflects the tradition and continuity
of Mission Ysleta after three centuries of natural disasters."
Near Mission Ysleta is the historic Camino Real
("Royal Highway)," which was once used by Spanish settlers to connect
Ysleta and two other Rio Grande Valley missions -- La Purisma
Socorro and San Elizario. This is the Mission Trail I followed.
Continuing about three miles southeast on the Mission Trail you'll come to another historic mission that
also ended up on
the Texas side of the Rio Grande when the river's course changed:
Mission Socorro, originally known as Mission Nuestra Señora
de la Concepción del Socorro
when it was established in 1682 for the Piro, Thano, and Jemes
The first adobe structure that was built in 1691 was washed away
by floods in the 1740s. Its replacement was also destroyed by a
flood in the 1800s. The main part of the present structure was
built in 1843; the bell tower and an expansion were added by
Mission Socorro was administered by the Franciscans until 1852
when the church was placed under secular authority. Since 1872
it has been administered by the Jesuit Order.
A charming hand-written sign inside the
sanctuary entrance describes the history
of the mission, points out interior
features, and discusses current restoration efforts.
This mission is considered to be an outstanding example of
Spanish mission architecture, combining the best of both Indian
tradition and Spanish design. Some Indian-decorated vigas
(carved ceiling beams) date from earlier structures:
Mission Socorro's interior is
a little simpler than that of Mission Ysleta.
Archeological excavations near the present structure have
uncovered what is believed to be the foundation of the original
1691structure. I didn't see that.
CHAPEL SAN ELIZARIO
Presidio San Elizario was established in the mid-1770s as a
Spanish military garrison to protect the Camino Real and the
missions and settlements along its trail. The fort was moved to
its current site near Mission Socorro in 1789 and the village
that grew up around it was named San Elizario. The original
chapel built here was another victim of one of those massive
After the war between the U.S. and Mexico (1846-8) the village
of San Elizario also became a part of the U.S. -- it was
located on that same island created by the rechanneled river.
For a while it served as the country seat of El Paso.
A small adobe chapel was built in 1853. When the parishioners
outgrew it, the present church was built in the main plaza in
This chapel is considered to be an outstanding example of late
adobe church architecture of the West Texas and New Mexico
tradition. It also reflects the influence of European
architectural styles and is referred to as
Spanish Colonial Revival Style
I wasn't able to tour the inside of the chapel. The original
interior was destroyed by fire in 1935; the present interior
dates from 1944. It is described as having interior pillars,
detailed in gilt, that are gracefully connected by arches
sweeping to a painted tin ceiling.
I took these photos of the buildings across from the church:
The structure on the left is the Los Portales Museum and
Information Center. It was built in the mid-1850s by a local
rancher named Garcia for his family residence. Built in the
Territorial Style, it features milled wood detailing and a
distinctive inset gallery (portal), which gave it the name Los
Portales. In the 1870s it was converted into a schoolhouse.
If you enjoy viewing old architecture as much as I do, I
encourage you to drive to these missions or take a formal tour.
The self-guided tour is easy to drive and takes only one or two
hours, depending on how long you are inside each of the
missions. I remember visiting several missions in the San
Antonio area that took longer because there were more buildings
on the grounds to see. These appeared to be one-sies.
come along for our touristy view of Fort Bliss, a really big U.S. Army
Air Defense Center
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil