Mission Concepción was originally established in East Texas in 1716 and moved to its present site in San Antonio in 1731. Concepción is the best preserved Spanish mission in Texas. Its stone church, which was completed in 1755 and has never fallen into ruin, is considered by some historians to be the oldest unrestored church in the United States. Concepción was the second of six Franciscan missions established on both sides of the present Texas-Louisiana border by the Ramón expedition of 1716–17. Three of the missions were to be administered by the missionary College of Santa Cruz de Querétaro, the other three by the College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas (both in Mexico). Fray Isidro Félix de Espinosa, president of all Queretaran missions in Texas, founded Concepción on July 7, 1716. Its site, a wooded area near two springs, was located not far from the site of present Douglass, on the east bank of the Angelina River. The upper part of the river basin was the traditional habitat of the Hainai Indians-one of the leading Caddoan groups, which formed the Hasinai confederacy collectively called the Tejas by the Spaniards. Espinosa chose the mission as his headquarters and named it Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de los Hainais. Fray Gabriel de Vergara became its first resident minister. Within days, 3,000 Tejas Indians were reported as candidates at the first three missions founded. At Concepción, temporary huts for church and dwellings were soon built by enthusiastic natives, and baptisms were recorded almost immediately. But the missions and presidio had to struggle for almost two years without receiving any supplies from distant Mexico. A severe drought resulted in a poor harvest and hunger. Espinosa reports that mission inhabitants were forced to hunt crows for food. A serious epidemic broke out, and hundreds of Indians died. The expedition of Martín de Alarcón arrived in 1718 but brought little relief. The mission pueblo was reorganized and given the name Concepción de Agreda, in honor of María de Jesús de Agreda, the "Lady in Blue."
In 1719 Spain and France went to war in Europe. News reached the French in Mobile first. Losing no time, they captured Spanish Pensacola. In June the commander of Natchitoches, Louisiana, the French garrison on the border, crossed to the Spanish side and seized San Miguel de los Adaes, the most remote Franciscan mission. Espinosa and Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús (the Zacatecan president) wanted to stay but finally joined the Spanish retreat, which was performed by stages. In November the retreating Spaniards arrived in San Antonio and waited there for the Aguayo expedition, which eventually reestablished all the East Texas outposts in 1721 and strengthened the frontier by adding a presidio and settlement at Los Adaes (near the present site of Robeline, Louisiana).
Four hundred Indians, including eighty Cadodachos from the Red River area, were present at the solemn ceremony of reestablishment of Mission Concepción on August 8, 1721. Espinosa and Vergara resumed operations. The mission buildings were restored, and new ones were erected. But the missionaries experienced great difficulty in congregating the Tejas Indians within mission compounds and had to make frequent pastoral visits to the small farm villages that dotted their territory.
After an official inspection tour in 1727, Brig. Gen. Pedro de Rivera y Villalón recommended partial abandonment of East Texas, drastic cuts in expenses, the suppression of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Tejas Presidio, which was originally established by Ramón, and a substantial reduction in the number of soldiers stationed at the frontier. Rivera's recommendations were put into effect in 1729. Vergara, president since 1728, chaired a meeting at Concepción of the seven Queretaran missionaries in the area, who cosigned a protest against the decision. The guardián (superior) at Querétaro supported their arguments and requested permission from the viceroy to remove the three missions to a more suitable location. By July 1730 the missions were relocated at the Colorado River (possibly near the site of present Austin) in hopes of attracting Central Texas Indians. The Zacatecan missionaries stayed until 1773 in East Texas and were solely responsible for the spiritual care of all mission Indians there.
Conditions proved to be unfavorable at the Colorado, and the missions were finally moved to the San Antonio area a few months later. On March 5, 1731, Vergara refounded Concepción on the east bank of the San Antonio River about halfway between the already existing missions of San Antonio de Valero (Queretaran, 1718) to the north and San José (Zacatecan, 1720) to the south. The mission was renamed Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña in honor of viceroy Juan de Acuña, Marqués de Casafuerte. Archeological findings suggest that Concepción was built on the site of a previous mission-either that of San Francisco Xavier de Nájera (1722–26) or San José's original location. Efforts were made to bring Indians from various, mostly Coahuiltecan, tribes to the new Queretaran missions. One thousand natives were reported willing to join. Temporary shelters were built at Concepción, and an acequia was started. This canal, perhaps already started before Concepción's relocation, came to be known as Pajalache (a derivative of Pajalat, the name of one of the groups served by the mission). After completion years later, it irrigated the surrounding fields for more than a century.
The new missions were in debt during their first year. A loan had to be secured to purchase cattle, as well as a supply of corn to last until crops could be harvested. At Concepción construction of buildings continued. The mission had more initial success in congregating its new hunting-and-gathering converts, who sought protection from aggressive, mounted Apaches, than it had ever had with the farming Hasinais of East Texas, who faced no such threat. Communication, however, presented a problem. Between 1718 and 1793 at least 150 separate Indian groups, speaking numerous languages and dialects, were represented by one or more individuals at the five San Antonio missions. The "nations" most frequently mentioned in early Concepción marriage records were Pajalat, Tacame, Siquipil, Tilpacopal, Patumaca and Patalca-all of them Coahuiltecans who lived south of San Antonio on the Frio and Nueces rivers. The Pajalats, whose chief was the first governor of the new Concepción pueblo, became the most influential group in the mission. Trying to find a standard language besides Spanish for Concepción, Vergara published a glossary of Pajalat in 1732, of which only a fragment is now extant.
Concepción prospered during the early 1730s, despite frequent Apache-led raids and quarrels between the missionaries and the civilian Canary Islanders, who formed the elite of San Antonio, over land ownership and other mission rights. In 1733 Vergara urged that missions be established among the Apaches and that conciliation with them be attempted. In 1736 Governor Carlos Franquis de Lugo supported the settlers and enacted policies detrimental to the missions. The Apache depredations and the civil-religious tension continued, resulting in Indian desertions from the missions. In 1739 a devastating epidemic of smallpox and measles swept the missions, and many Indians died. The population of Concepción dropped from 250 to 120.
The mission recovered, however, and by 1740 the number of neophytes had grown to 210. Adobe buildings gradually replaced the original huts. The farms were producing surplus food, cattle had multiplied, and several workshops were in operation. Viceregal decrees in 1739 and 1743 ordered the missionaries to let the settlers use mission Indians for labor, to stop trading in kind, and to curtail farm production so as not to exceed mission consumption. The friars protested vigorously. The order was finally rescinded, and an agreement was reached between the missionaries and the settlers in 1745. The report of an official visit from Querétaro by Fray Francisco Xavier Ortiz notes a stone wall surrounding the mission compound at Concepción. Inside, there were already a few stone structures; a large church of cut stone and mortar was half finished. Outside, the well-irrigated fields produced 800 bushels of corn a year, plus large quantities of beans and other vegetables; a ranch, farther away, was well stocked with cattle and horses.
Throughout the 1740s Vergara's successor, Fray Benito Fernández de Santa Ana, tried to persuade both the Spaniards and the Apaches to make peace. The Apaches trusted him as a friend; they generally refrained-even in reprisal attacks on San Antonio after Spanish campaigns against them-from raiding Concepción. Peace finally arrived in 1749, opening the way to a new field of missionary activity. By 1756, when Ortiz made his second visit, Concepción was flourishing. The church had been completed and dedicated on December 8, 1755. Measuring roughly eighty-nine by twenty-two feet, with walls forty-five inches thick, the cruciform structure had, among other features, a cupola, two towers, a carved portal, a polychromed façade, latticed windows, and a choir loft. A new friary with arched ceilings was under construction. Most of the 247 residents lived in adobe houses. Tools and supplies abounded, orchards had been planted, and cotton was becoming a staple crop. The mission had 40 yokes of oxen, more than 700 cattle, 1,800 sheep, and many horses. About 200 Indians, newcomers from the coastal group nicknamed Manos de Perro, were expected soon. When the bishop of Guadalajara visited Concepción in 1759, he found the sacristy in perfect order and 167 Indians ready for confirmation.
In addition to Manos de Perro, the names of other new groups begin to appear in the marriage records of the time. (The Concepción baptismal and burial records are lost.) The most frequently mentioned group is the Sanipao. The Pajalats and the Tacames, however, were still the most numerous and influential residents at Concepción. Their elected chiefs alternated every year the offices of governor and mayor of the mission pueblo. This practice, along with detailed descriptions of work activities, social customs, and religious ceremonies, is recorded in an anonymous instruction guide written for the use of the missionaries at Concepción around 1760. The document offers valuable insights into the mission's method of government and daily routines; an atmosphere of faith, fairness, and order is reflected on its pages.
A slight decline in numbers occurred at Concepción during the 1760s. In 1762 the Indian population numbered 207, chiefly Pajalats, Tacames, and Sanipaos. Hostile bands of northern tribes, mostly Comanches, started to commit depredations, making more acute the desertion problem increasingly faced by all five San Antonio missions. In 1767 Charles III, Bourbon king of Spain, published the "Pragmatic Sanction," an important decree by which the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire and the crown claimed absolute power over Spanish church affairs. This new government policy eventually brought to an end the relative autonomy of Franciscan missions on the frontier and contributed to their final collapse. The college at Querétaro took over the Jesuit missions in Sonora and Pimería Alta (Arizona) and prepared to transfer all of its Texas missions to the governance of the college at Zacatecas. In 1772 Fray José Saenz de Gumiel, last Queretaran president, made a meticulous inventory of Concepción. Mission Indians numbered 171, of whom seventy-five were Pajalat, eighteen Tacame, fourteen Sanipao, forty-eight Manos de Perro, and eighteen newly arrived Toareque. The inventory describes, among other things, the river dam, the chicken coop, the infirmary, the archives, the blacksmith shop, the cemetery, the baptistery, the art work, the granary, the cells of the friars, the food supply. The ranch had been closed down since 1767 because of hostile Indian raids. The mission owned 3,840 sheep, 60 horses, and 465 other animals. The transfer to Zacatecas was completed in 1773. Fray José Francisco López became resident minister.
In 1777 Teodoro de Croix, now commandant general of the Provincias Internas, a newly established, powerful colonial position, visited San Antonio. His chaplain and diarist, historian Fray Juan Agustín Morfi, spent a day at Concepción. He describes the quarries, the four long rows of Indian quarters, the vaulted-roofed sacristy, the fortified quadrangle enclosure. Morfi mentions, without giving figures, a population decline. The 1783 census shows eighty-seven living on the grounds. By 1786 only seventy-one Indian residents remained: Pajalat, Siquipil, Sanipao, Pacao, Tacame, Borrado, and Manos de Perro. López explains, however, that they had practically been reduced to, and commonly called themselves, Pajalat, the Pajalat language being the most used. He adds that the vast majority spoke Spanish, but rather imperfectly. He also indicates that most residents were baptized as adults and points out that some dwellings had started to fall into ruins. López blames the decline of the missions on smallpox and nanaguates (buboes?) epidemics; on Croix's decree making crown property all unbranded mission cattle and horses, and the resulting poverty; on some other government policies; and on lack of soldiers to escort missionaries in expeditions designed to attract new converts or reclaim fugitives.
In 1793 San Antonio de Valero was suppressed as a mission. In December of that year, a census at Concepción revealed a population of fifty-three, of which only forty-one were Indians, the rest being hired servants and their families. The same month, in an official report, Viceroy Conde de Revilla-Gigedo compares the decadence of the remaining San Antonio missions with their previous "opulence," as recorded by the Marqués de Rubí in 1767. The viceroy blames lack of government support for the decline and expresses disapproval of the secularization process. In spite of any protest, the missions of Texas were no longer under the patronage of the viceroy, but under the jurisdiction of regional military commanders. On April 10, 1794, Commandant General Pedro de Nava issued a decree by which the four San Antonio missions were to be partially secularized. Governor Manuel Muñoz presided over the implementation of that order at Mission Concepción on July 31-August 1, 1794. Surveyor Pedro Huizar, a Spaniard, was appointed justice of the pueblo, then consisting of thirty-eight Indians. Mission land was distributed to them in the presence of their elected governor and Fray José María Camarena, the last resident minister. Lots were set aside for government taxes and for common cultivation, and the depleted mission stock, tools, and supplies were also distributed. The exempt church buildings were placed under the care of the missionary from San José. Religiously, Concepción was reduced to a sub-mission of San José. Politically, it came under the control of the civil authorities of San Antonio.
Thirty-seven Indians were still living at Concepción in 1796, and Zacatecan president Fray José María de Cárdenas reports election of Indian officials still held at the pueblo. But as years passed, Spaniards began to settle at the mission and to occupy the land. By 1809 there were twenty-one Indians and thirty-two Spaniards living there. The land was mostly uncultivated, and there was no longer a herd of cattle. The city of San Antonio attempted to confiscate Concepción's land in 1812 with help from the governor. In 1813 the revolutionary forces of Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara chose Concepción as headquarters. Most mission records (although kept by then at San José) were destroyed. From 1815 on, Concepción merged with San José but was not completely abandoned. By 1819 church services were no longer held at the mission.
Mexican independence brought final secularization. The new government issued a decree to that effect on September 13, 1823. The last Zacatecan president, Fray José Antonio Díaz de León, surrendered the mission churches and remaining inventory to Francisco Maynes, military chaplain of San Antonio, who represented the Diocese of Monterrey, on February 29, 1824. With the exception of the churches and fifteen acres of land that now belonged to the diocese, all mission property, including dwellings, fences, and stone walls, was sold at auction by the government. The number of Spanish settlers steadily increased. The Indians were absorbed and impoverished. In 1835 the mission grounds were the site of the battle of Concepción, in which Texas revolutionaries under James Bowie defeated Mexican troops under Martín Perfecto de Cos; some of the buildings were apparently damaged during the fight. In 1841 the Republic of Texas conveyed the title of ownership of the Concepción church and land to the Catholic Church, represented by Bishop J. M. Odin. But Concepción's church continued to be used as a barn by the settlers and was later used, after annexation, as a supply depot by the United States Army.
In 1855 Odin gave use of Concepción's land to Marianist brother Andrew Edel, founder of St. Mary's Institute in San Antonio. The Marianists obtained clear title to the mission in 1859 and purchased additional land for farming, intended to supply and support the school. The church was cleaned and repaired, blessed, and reopened for services on May 28, 1861. A Marianist novitiate was in operation at Concepción for a few years. In 1869 the San Antonio City Council closed down the Pajalache Ditch and removed the dam. That same year the Marianists leased out the mission farmland, but they continued to use the church. Minor restoration work was done by San Antonio bishop J. C. Neraz, who rededicated the church in 1887.
The Marianists transferred the title of Concepción to the bishop in 1911. Soon afterwards an orphanage was built on mission grounds, staffed by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who also built a convent there in 1926. Construction of the main building of St. John's Seminary, a minor seminary on the mission grounds, started in 1919 and was completed the following year; Margil Hall was added in 1935 and St. Mary's Hall in 1947. St. John's was closed in 1970. During the 1930s, the federal government undertook limited restoration work, mostly roof repair and replastering, on the mission church. Archeological excavations started at that time, but the most serious investigations were conducted in the 1970s: ruins of the first friary, the adobe church standing in 1745, the granary and associated workshops, and three rows of Indian quarters were found. Still standing today are the virtually unrestored stone church, the sacristy and the president's office (often called the infirmary), and portions of the second friary and adjacent arched corredor. All were built between 1755 and 1760. Modern Mission Road bisects the former mission compound, separating the cluster of buildings from the quarry. Concepción is a state and national historical landmark, now part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and is open daily to the public. Masses are celebrated at its church on Sundays, holidays, and special celebrations.