Strength in Community and Culture at Mission Concepción
Founded in 1731 in San Antonio, Texas, Mission Concepción is one of the oldest unrestored stone churches in America—dedicated in 1755, it appears much as it did when it was first built. Today, the church is a National Historic Landmark, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to an active Catholic community. As one of the Old Spanish Missions of San Antonio, the structure is an example of 18th-century Spanish architecture and, in addition to the more than 135 families that worship there, is visited by more than one million people each year as part of the National Park system.
“It is incredibly unique [not only] because of its structure and architecture style, but also for the congregation and the sense of community,” states Rebecca Simmons, executive director, El Camino de San Antonio Missions, part of the Archdiocese of San Antonio. “When you think of all the baptisms, weddings, and funerals in the 100-plus years, and the fact that descendants are still part of the congregation … it’s just very special and unique from a historic and community standpoint.”
Preserving the Dome
One of the defining features of Mission Concepción is the central dome, which at over 50 feet high, adds a sense of awe to all who enter the space. However, like many older buildings, structural challenges developed and in the case of the dome—after 200 years—serious and significant cracks were caused by the outward lateral pressure from gravity on the bottom of the dome’s shape.
In 2016, the architectural firm Ford, Powell, & Carson with structural consultant Sparks Engineering, conducted an assessment and found that work was necessary to prevent additional damage to the dome. As a result, a continuous metal tension band “girdle” was added around the drum of the dome to resist the lateral forces and ensure the stability of the structure for many years to come. Additionally, as stabilization work commenced, they discovered there was considerable mortar and rubble inside the dome, leading to a need to adjust plans to provide additional support in the form of steel stitching rods set in grout.
To help fund this work Mission Concepción received $250,000 in funding from the National Fund for Sacred Places to repair the dome. Initial estimates for the work were $703,000, but after the additional research occurred and the rehabilitation project plans were expanded to address those findings, the cost increased to approximately $850,000. Work began in January 2020, and the project was successfully completed in summer of 2020 within budget.
From a historic preservation standpoint, much was learned about the original construction of the dome and the use of rubble as filler material, and during stabilization painted plaster fragments and graffiti from original builders were uncovered and documented. Unexpectedly, while planning for the dome work the architectural firm discovered significant issues with the church's north tower. Thankfully, connections made during the initial capital campaign for the dome helped facilitate the additional fundraising needed to also complete these repairs.
A Place for Partnerships and Community
As with most projects of this scale, the dome stabilization project and its success was also dependent on working with partners and the community. Since the Mission is part of the National Park Service (NPS) system, theLas Misiones organization—which is responsible for the preservation of the historic churches—already meets with the NPS regularly. In addition, the group worked closely with the San Antonio River Authority which manages the popular river and bike trails used by people seeking to visit all the missions which are also a destination for architectural and religious tourists. During Covid-19 restrictions, the path was a safe way for people to visit the outside of the Mission, so communication with the river authority was important during construction.
The Mission was able to also use the training and resources that grant recipients receive as part of the National Fund for Sacred Places program to support additional fundraising efforts and relationship building. Since the Mission is a beloved church not just for the congregation, but for the entire community and state, they were able to seek support from churches of other denominations within San Antonio, as well as family foundations in other parts of Texas. Father David Garcia played a leadership role speaking on behalf of the Mission and the congregation.
“[The mission is] beloved by the entire community, and the community wants them to be successful,” said Simmons. “We, as a congregation, welcome everyone, so we were able to get a lot of community support and support from outside of the community.”
Partnership was also critical in addressing some other critical repairs. In addition to work on the North Tower, the 2016 assessment also noted significant issues with the HVAC system and how that was impacting the interior fresco deterioration and masonry walls at Mission Concepción.
With support from the University of Texas at San Antonio, the mission performed a year-long climate management analysis to verify the moisture damage caused by the old HVAC system. Using skills learned from their participation in the National Fund for Sacred Places program and the dome capital campaign, the parish created a finance committee to raise funds for a new HVAC system. The campaign was successful, and a new HVAC system was installed while the church was closed for the dome stabilization project in 2020.
Looking to the Future
While the Mission was closed for part of 2020—though the parish was sustained through online and remote services—construction continued so people could drive by and see the work in progress.
“There was real sorrow within the parish,” notes Simmons in reflection about the last year, with closure of the church in February due to Covid-19 and the impacts of the virus on the community. “There were many funerals, but the parish remained strong because the…worship that continued on Sundays.”
However, as pandemic restrictions begin to ease, there is a lot to look forward to for the future of Mission Concepción. They are anticipating the return of in-person events, such as the large mass they host each fall during World Heritage Festival. Each December there is an event with Matachine dancers who have been part of the culture and life of Mission Concepción since the 1770s. The dancers express prayer through dance and perform their devotions traveling from the river up to the Mission. There are typically more than 400 Matachines on the grounds in colorful, traditional dress.
The Mission is currently working to raise funds for Phase 2 of their capital campaign, which will provide event and office spaces near the Mission for the congregation.
“It did bring the community together to see the work being done,” said Simmons. “The parish has gone through hardship, but then to come back and see the shiny white dome restored, coming back together to worship was special.”
Learn more about the National Fund for Sacred Places and the 2020 grant recipients.
The National Fund for Sacred Places
The 100,000+ historic houses of worship across America play a crucial role in shaping the character of our communities, and many are works of art whose beauty and history make them irreplaceable parts of our national cultural heritage. All are places that bring people together, strengthening and enlivening communities.
The National Fund for Sacred Places, a program of Partners for Sacred places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, provides training, planning grants, technical assistance, capacity-building support, and capital grants up to $250,000 to congregations of all faiths for rehabilitation work on their historic facilities.
The National Fund for Sacred Places has now accepted 67 houses of worship from Birmingham, Alabama to Alaska into the grant program. The National Fund will ultimately award $20 million to support projects that range from steeple stabilization to exterior masonry repair to HVAC replacement.
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