In late summer 2021, as a sort of final “hoorah!” before holiday ended and the term began again, I whisked my family off on a three-day vacation to San Antonio, Texas. While bopping around the city’s touristy go-tos, it came to my mind that in the dozens of trips I have taken to this Texan landmark, I had never visited the Missions, save the Alamo, and that only because of its status in popular lore and proximity to the Riverwalk. In a manner nearly as spontaneous as pure chance, I loaded my family up and drove out to the main mission of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, San Jose.

Though I had read that four of the five Missions remain in daily use as Catholic churches, upon arrival what I saw seemed to be nothing more than a well-preserved historical site. As we walked about the grounds of San Jose, we were able to examine the original fire pits dotting the outer perimeter of the grounds, duck into the low roofed dorms that once housed Apache and Coahuiltecan converts, and even take a seat in a small, domed schoolroom that would likely not hold more than a dozen or so small children for a single session. The living quarters of the Mission were historically captivating and, through the employing of imagination, told a beautiful story of community that is often lost in our current, socially distant, social media driven culture. However, it was not until we finally reached the epicenter of the mission and laid eyes on the Spanish Baroque Queen herself that I began to feel that there was something more to this site than initially met the eye.

Being raised Protestant, busts of saints and other grand symbolic or iconic images which spell out the salvific good news of God humbling himself to take on flesh and conquer flesh and death for all who would believe have never been a part of my religious experience — that good news has typically been relegated to the pages of Scripture. But when my eyes scanned the sculpted exterior of San Jose, I could not help reading into the deeper story her face told, a story of more than just history, whether that of the cross or the site’s architects. Her face, this Queen of the Missions, told me the story of when that One beyond all nature, images, and comprehension, that One who is goodness, beauty, and truth, tabernacled among us. Unexpectedly, that simultaneously transcendent and all-pervading goodness, beauty, and truth that I beheld in the face of San Jose’s Baroque architecture called me through the opened arched doorway to experience a sanctity that I can only hope the Native converts of centuries ago felt.

After walking through the door and down the steps of the church, the narrow sanctuary forced my vision to focus on the sky-blue wall, adorned with golden imagery and a quartet of saints behind the altar, the only trace of Baroque in the interior of the church, where a large gold-trimmed, blue cross occupied by the crowned King of the Jews hung in the middle. Along with this vision, the constant echoing of simple choired chants of a time older and simpler than the church’s Baroque façade, befitting the atmosphere though not befitting the historical roots of this entrancing site, nearly completed the experience. Standing behind the last pew, I glanced to my left and saw both of my daughters, four and seven, taken in by the beauty of San Jose. I could see in their eyes, especially the eyes of my oldest, that they knew this place was, without being told, holy. They knew, without the fuller capacity of reason that opens and clouds the minds of those more advanced in years, that in this place, goodness, beauty, and truth rested and gave rest to wandering souls. In that moment, in their eyes, my experience was complete. I felt a holiness that is often hard-earned in the secularly driven life of modern men like myself, no matter how devout we may suppose ourselves to be.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo

There she sits. I step through her arched doorway,

The Queen of the Missions bestows a kiss

On cheeks of blessed souls come to San José

To pray, give thanks, to cry, to die and rise.

Beauty in the air above me — beauty.

The Good echoes: hymns of praise all around.

And Truth — the truth holds firm under my feet.

Holy ground. I step in. Yes, I step down.

And here a world sits apart for hearts,

Souls and minds of wandering kind who seek mercy.

The sights — sculptures, woodwork (a work of art),

They speak: “Come all, find rest, who are weary.”

No beads to spin. I pray. Weeping. Breaking.

“Lord, Jesus, . . . the Son, . . . have mercy . . . my sins . . .”

Citation Information

Donald W. Catchings, Jr., “Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo,” An Unexpected Journal: Saints and Sanctuaries 5, no. 1. (Spring 2022), 83-98.