El Paso’s Mission Trail

El Paso, Texas is a city with an interesting history as it relates to the early interactions between Spanish explorers and the indigenous peoples of the region. Among other things, El Paso has laid claim to our nation’s first Thanksgiving, in honor of the feast held in 1598 (23 years before the celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts) between local native people and an expedition of Spanish explorers led by Don Juan de Oñate. This celebration was held near the banks of the Rio Grande in the area near modern-day San Elizario, Texas to give thanks after finding the river, which had saved the explorers from dying of thirst as they made their way through the Chihuahuan desert.

Reminders of these early Spanish explorers can still be found today throughout the southwest in the form of church missions established to bring Christianity to the local indigenous people. In El Paso, we have three examples of such churches, with the road connecting them now known as El Paso’s Mission Trail.

Although I had visited the missions a few times before, during my last visit in 2012, I became aware that the San Elizario Chapel was undergoing renovations and, one year later, I was curious to learn how the renovations had turned out. With camera (and tripod) in hand, my wife and I set out to take a fresh look at the churches making up El Paso’s Mission Trail.

Although we began our photographic expedition in San Elizario, for purposes of this blog we will address the three churches in the chronological order of their construction, beginning with the Ysleta Mission, then the Socorro Mission, and then ending with the San Elizario Chapel.

The Ysleta Mission dates back to 1682 when it was built by Spanish colonizers using labor from the Tiwa and Piro indian tribes following the Spaniards’ escape two years earlier from the Pueblo Revolt in northern New Mexico. Located within the city of El Paso on tribal land belonging to the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, the Ysleta Mission has suffered damage or destruction on several occasions due to floods and fire, but each time it has been rebuilt and it is now recognized as the oldest continuously operated parish in Texas.  Interestingly, when the mission was first built, the Rio Grande actually flowed north of the area, but the river later changed course following a massive flood, with the result being that the mission ended up on what is now the Texas side of the river.

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Just a few miles to the southeast and just outside the El Paso city limits, we find the Socorro Mission, which was also built in 1682. Like the Ysleta Mission, the Socorro Mission had to be rebuilt after destruction by flooding in 1829, with the new structure completed in 1843.

Although all three of the Mission Trail churches are still active, all my previous visits to the Socorro Mission found the front doors to be locked. As luck would have it, on this occasion an elderly gentleman was just about to lock up for the day, but once he saw us pull into the parking lot, he kept the doors open for us to enter.

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A few miles further to the southeast, we find the San Elizario Chapel, whose roots date back to 1789 when the Spanish military built a chapel within the walls of its military presidio in the area now known as San Elizario, Texas. Just like the Socorro Mission, this chapel was destroyed by flood in 1829, and a replacement structure was built that lasted until 1877 when the larger, present structure was built to accommodate the needs of the growing community. While technically not a “mission,” as religious conversion of Native Americans was not the intended purpose of this facility, the Chapel shares the Spanish colonial architecture and history common to other missions found in the southwestern United States.

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Although it took three separate trips before being able to get past the locked doors of the Chapel, on our second unsuccessful trip we discovered just behind the Chapel a hacienda that once served as a stop on the Butterfield-Overland Stage Trail during the 1850s. Constructed in 1840, the hacienda now serves as a private residence. A nice gentleman by the name of Roberto, who lived next door and who was keeping an eye on the place while the owners were away, was kind enough to invite us in so that we could take these photos.

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