El Paso has a long history beginning centuries ago with the first Native-Americans that settled in the region. El Paso entered a new historical era that would forever change everything in the region when the first Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 1500’s. The Spanish brought many things with them that the Native-Americans had never seen before such as horses that greatly changed the lives of the Natives. However, nothing impacted the lives of the Native-Americans more than the introduction of religion. Sprinkled throughout the American Southwest are the various churches and missions that the early Spanish clergy constructed in their effort to convert the native peoples to Catholicism as well as provide a place of worship for the Spanish colonists and soldiers. The greater El Paso area is home to three of the most prominent of these churches that can be explored along El Paso’s Mission Trail:
The first church along the Mission Trail is the Ysleta del Sur Mission that was built in 1680 by the clergymen Antonio de Otermin and Fray Francisco de Ayaeta. Like most of the churches constructed by the Spanish in their early conquest of the American Southwest this mission was constructed by the native Tigua Indians that were relocated to the El Paso area by the Spanish from their native pueblo at Isleta, New Mexico. The mission went through various renovations and updates over the decades, which has allowed it to be oldest continuously active parish in the state of Texas. The community of Ysleta where the church is located happens to be the oldest town in Texas, which dates back to 1682, but the city has long been overwhelmed by the growth of El Paso and feels like it is just another neighborhood in the city even though it is a completely different town. Unfortunately since this is a very active church I was not able to take any pictures of the inside of the mission since a service was going on, but it was still quite nice to see the church from the outside:
From the Ysleta Mission I then proceeded to drive to the Socorro Mission located just a few miles south from Ysleta along the banks of the Rio Grande. Due to this mission being located so close to the Rio Grande it has had to be rebuilt twice due to flooding in the 1800’s. The mission dates back to 1682 when Piro and Manso Indians moved to the region with the Spanish colonists who had been expelled from New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 that removed all the Spanish from New Mexico. The Piro and Manso Indians lived in the Soccoro, New Mexico area and when the Spanish fled south after the revolt these tribes helped them with food and shelter. The Piro had long been friends with the Spanish from when Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate first visited the area in 1598 and was offered water and aid by the locals. That is why the area was given the name Socorro which means “help” in Spanish. Some of the members of these tribes left with the Spanish after aiding them once again because they feared retaliation by other Pueblo tribes and the Apaches. This ended up being a wise decision because the Piro and Manso that remained in Socorro were wiped out. The Piro and Manso refugees first met for church services in a hut in their new home along the Rio Grande until they completed construction of the Socorro Mission in 1691 that was named after their home land:
There was no services going on when I visited the Socorro Mission I was able to take a peak in side and admire the beautiful wood beams carved by the Piro Indians when they constructed the church:
The statue on the left side of the altar is the famous statue of St. Michael. Legend has it that the statue was being transported from Mexico City to Santa Fe in 1845 when the oxcart that was used to move the statue got stuck in mud near the Socorro Mission. Parishioners at the mission believed that this was a sign that the statue wanted Socorro to be its home and the statue has remained at the Socorro Mission ever since:
From the Socorro Mission I then drove 6 miles further south to see the third church along the Mission Trail, the San Elizario Mission. Along the way to the mission I was amazed to see that such a water intensive crop like cotton was being grown in the middle of such an arid desert, but apparently the Rio Grande provides enough water to make this a profitable crop for the local farmers:
Anyway the San Elizario Mission was first constructed in 1789 as a Spanish military fort with a chapel inside. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 the fort was abandoned and the structure fell into disrepair. The present day San Elizario Mission was constructed in 1887 on the ruins of the original chapel:
The mission was all locked up when I visited so I wasn’t able to get any pictures of the inside of this church either, but from the outside it is a nice looking historic building that anchors the pleasant plaza in the middle of San Elizario. Besides these missions there are also other historic missions located across the river in the Ciudad, Juarez region of Mexico that you will not see me visiting any time soon since I value my life. For those that haven’t been following the news Ciudad Juarez is currently in the middle of a brutal and deadly drug war that has made travel to the very dangerous. Fortunately no one has to travel to Juarez to see historic Spanish missions when El Paso’s Mission Trail provides three great churches for those interested in Spanish history and historical architecture to admire.