San Antonio Missions National Historical Park was established on November 10, 1978, by the joint efforts of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the San Antonio Conservation Society, and the United States Department of the Interior. The park includes the sites of San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission, which was restored in the 1930s, and three sister missions, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada. An additional property exists in Floresville, Texas—Mission Espada’s off-site livestock operation Rancho de las Cabras. The park began operation on April 1, 1983, under the direction of José A. Cisneros, who was appointed superintendent in September 1979.
Initial restoration work began on San José Mission in 1933. Congressman F. Maury Maverick and Archbishop Arthur J. Drossaerts had agreed to work for the formation of a mission park. The church, Bexar County, and the San Antonio Conservation Society hired architect Harvey P. Smith to coordinate the restoration of San José. Local authorities agreed to furnish materials, and federal relief agencies provided labor. By 1935, in preparation for the Texas Centennial, the United States Department of the Interior and the Texas Centennial Commission agreed to work to preserve San José and other historic sites. The agreement of 1941 among the National Park Service, the Texas State Parks Board, and the San Antonio Conservation Society formalized the joint efforts of local, state, and national agencies to preserve the mission as a historic site. This document assured the Catholic Church of the right to retain title to the mission church; empowered the parks board to preserve, manage, and interpret its mission properties; and enabled the Department of the Interior to designate San José Mission as a national historic site.
Once San José was established as a state park and declared a national historic site, local interest turned to joining all four missions along the San Antonio River into a single national park. Through the efforts of the local congressional delegation, headed by Representative Abraham Kazen, a bill authorizing a park was introduced and passed in 1978. In the Senate, Lloyd Bentsen introduced the bill, which was cosponsored by John G. Tower. The park was authorized to acquire the four missions and adjacent lands, a total of 475 acres, through purchase, donation, exchange, and cooperative agreements. In a subsequent cooperative agreement signed on February 20, 1983, the National Park System agreed to provide for the preservation, restoration, and interpretation of missions Concepción, San José, San Juan Capistrano, and Espada. Concerns over the issue of separation of church and state were resolved in a legal opinion by the Department of Justice on December 2, 1982, allowing the National Park Service management of the missions, while the archdiocese continued use of the missions as active parish churches. Additional agreements with the city and the San Antonio River Authority gave the National Park Service authority to use its lands along the river for historical-park purposes; recreational use remained under the auspices of the city Parks and Recreation Department and the river authority. In 1995 the National Park Service acquired Rancho de las Cabras in Floresville from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department .
In 1982 the park had also acquired a donated scenic easement over San Juan Acequia, and by the early 1990s various public and private groups, including the National Park Service and the San Antonio River Authority, worked to raise funds to restore the historic water flow in the irrigation canal. During San Antonio’s missions era, Indian residents had excavated an extensive network of ditches, called acequias, off of the river to provide water to irrigate the farmlands of each mission. While urban development in San Antonio compromised most of the mission acequias, two of the original ditches remained flowing and in use—the Espada Acequia and the San Juan Acequia, both currently managed by the National Park Service.
The San Juan Acequia has remained intact since construction began in 1731; however, water flow was halted in 1958 when the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized the San Antonio River, effectively cutting off its headwaters. While the San Juan Dam remains visible in its original location within the San Antonio River, its utility was terminated during the 1958 river channelization. However, after a decades-long restoration initiative, water returned to the 6.7-mile San Juan Acequia in 2011. Since then, the National Park Service has begun to develop a Spanish colonial-style demonstration farm at Mission San Juan to illustrate and teach the Spanish-style agriculture that took place almost 300 years ago.
The Mission Reach project was initiated in 2008 by the San Antonio River Authority, the city of San Antonio, and several other partners to connect downtown San Antonio to all four missions within the National Park Service boundary by way of a 15-mile hike-and-bike trail. The eight-mile section of the “Mission Reach” trail was completed in 2013 and includes landscaping, walkways, and recreational features along the San Antonio River. Visitation to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park grew from 521,705 in 2013 to 1,395,337 in 2014 with this increased accessibility. Portions of this trail are maintained by the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The entire park contains almost 950 acres, including 137 acres proposed as park boundary expansion and enacted by the United States Congress in 2013.
Since 1983 Los Compadres, a non-profit friends group, has helped raise funds for the continued preservation of the missions. By 2015 Los Compadres had donated more than $2 million to fund projects such as the restoration of the San José Grist Mill, the development of the demonstration farm at Mission San Juan, and many interpretive and educational resources. Los Compadres is dedicated to promoting pride in San Antonio’s rich cultural heritage and enhancing the historical value of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
On July 5, 2015, the Alamo and the missions of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park were designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—the first such designation in Texas and one of twenty-three in the United States. The first San Antonio World Heritage Festival, commemorating the one-year anniversary of World Heritage Site designation (as well as honoring the centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service), was held at the park in September 2016.
In addition to the four mission compounds, the National Park Service operates a visitor’s center and museum at Mission San José and smaller visitor’s contact stations and museums at each mission site. The Western National Parks Association also operates a bookstore inside the visitor’s center at Mission San José. Park rangers are available daily for scheduled tours and to provide visitors with informational and educational resources.