San Antonio Missions: Community Quest for World Heritage Status

By Special Contributor posted 11-27-2013 10:13


By Susan Snow

 San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Mission San Juan looking east-west from the "unfinished" church to the current church.  | Credit: Robert Howen

The World Heritage List, established in 1978 by the World Heritage Convention, is administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. Today the list includes 981 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage that the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value. Currently 21 sites in the United States are on the list. Going forward, however, it is unclear how U.S. nominations will be considered by the World Heritage Committee in light of current U.S. international policies.

In September 2011, UNESCO recognized Palestine as a state, which triggered two laws from the early 1990s requiring the U.S. to withdraw funding from any organization that recognized Palestine. As a result, the U.S. has not only stopped paying its World Heritage dues, but has lost voting privileges.

As a result, the four U.S. sites actively undergoing the multi-step process to become a World Heritage site face increasing uncertainty. These include Poverty Point in Louisiana, Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings, the San Antonio Missions in Texas, and Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Ohio. Poverty Point is scheduled to be voted on in June 2014 at the next World Heritage Committee meeting. San Antonio Missions and Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings continue to work on their nominations. Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks awaits the official “green light” from the Department of Interior to officially prepare its nomination.

The San Antonio Missions

 San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Mission San Jose church and indigenous quarters. | Credit: Robert Howen

In spite of U.S. membership status in UNESCO, supporters of the San Antonio Missions are pushing ahead.

The San Antonio Missions’ ensemble is the most complete and intact example of the Spanish Crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize, and defend the northern frontier of New Spain during the period when Spain controlled the largest empire in the world. These missions were the center of efforts to evangelize the area’s indigenous population into converts loyal to the Catholic Church; they also include all the components required to establish self-sustaining, socio-economic units composed of Spanish-speaking subjects loyal to the Crown.

Today the missions have more than 50 standing structures, archaeological resources, and landscape features that include labores, a rancho, residences, a grist mill, granaries, workshops, wells, lime kilns, churches, conventos, and perimeter walls. The ensemble of missions includes extensive irrigation systems or acequias (one operating continuously for more than 265 years), dams, and an aqueduct.

The enclosed layout of each mission complex and their proximity to each other, the intensive communal activities such as construction and farming undertaken there, the widespread sharing of knowledge and skills amongst their inhabitants, and the early adoption of a common language and religion resulted in a people and culture with an identity neither wholly indigenous nor wholly Spanish that has proven exceptionally persistent and pervasive.

Application Process

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Espada Acequia with the Espada compound in the background. | Credit: Robert Howen

In 2006 the NPS Office of International Affairs sent out a request for sites to submit their application to be considered for the Tentative List—the first step in the nomination process to become a World Heritage Site. Led by the San Antonio Conservation Society, a working committee consisting of individuals from the National Park Service, Bexar County Historical Commission, Los Compadres de San Antonio Missions, and the Society was quickly formed to nominate the five missions of San Antonio. In 2008 the missions became one of 14 sites selected for the Tentative List.

In March 2012 when a Federal Register notice requested input on which sites should submit a Nomination File (the second step in the process), the National Parks Conservation Association sent out an e-blast to its membership and within hours the Office of International Affairs had received more than 18,000 letters in support of San Antonio Missions bid. In June of 2012 at the US/ICOMOS National Conference held in San Antonio, Secretary Ken Salazar announced that San Antonio Missions had the approval to prepare a nomination for submittal in 2014 for consideration by the World Heritage Committee in 2015.

Economic Benefits of Listing

The San Antonio Missions’ quest for World Heritage status has been two pronged--first to write the nomination document to show the Outstanding Universal Value of these five missions along the San Antonio River; second to educate the public about the economic benefits of World Heritage status and the necessity to find a solution to the World Heritage Convention/UNESCO dues issue.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park 
 Mission Concepcion convento and church.| Credit: Robert Howen

In January 2013, Bexar County, where the missions are located, released the first ever study on the economic impact of World Heritage status on the local economy in the United States. That report found that when used as a marketing tool, designation would bring up to an additional $105 million in economic impact, up to 1,000 new jobs and up to $3 million in increased hotel-venue tax revenues. This is money and jobs that can’t be exported. The recognition also highlights the important role that the San Antonio Missions and the San Antonio community played and continue to play in the global community. The greater San Antonio community is very supportive of this quest and is working diligently to ensure success both for the local community and for the United States in general to ensure that the entire world knows of the great treasures our country has to offer.

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Susan Snow is the World Heritage Coordinator at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

Note: This article is part of a web companion series for the Fall 2013 Forum Journal: Study Abroad: Global Perspectives. Make sure to also check out The Industrial Heritage of Rijeka, Croatia by Melita Jureša-McDonald.

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