Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was founded by Father Antonio Margil de Jesus in 1720. Approval for its construction was granted in order to serve several Native American groups who would not settle at Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) because they refused to live with other Native American groups already residing there. As with the other missions, the primary goal of the Spanish missionaries at Mission San José was to convert local Native American groups to Christianity and to assimilate them into Spanish society. The mission was originally founded on the east bank of the San Antonio River south of the Alamo; however, it was relocated three times. It was moved to its current location on the west side of the river some time prior to 1730 (Ivey and Thurber 1983; Cruz 2013).
The earliest Native American groups to occupy the mission were the Pampopa, Pastia, and Sulujam, who seem to be closely related linguistically. Approximately 240 Native individuals were assigned to the mission upon its commission, but a deadly epidemic dramatically reduced the Indian population to 41 by 1739. Many different groups of Native Americans who belonged to different bands and who would have self-identified by different names settled at the mission during the eighteenth century. The National Park Service website, provides a complete discussion on the Native American groups who may have been living at each San Antonio mission.
The Native American residents of the mission were the predominant labor source utilized in the construction of structures in the complex and were also tasked with preparing the land for agriculture and constructing the associated system of irrigation canals known as acequias. Many of the structures on site prior to the 1760s were temporary in nature. In 1768, construction of the existing church began, and in the same year, the formerly open pueblo was enclosed behind stone walls to defend the residents from attack by hostile native groups unaffiliated with the mission. By this time, the mission compound also included a stone friary constructed in the 1740s, a granary, gristmill, and various artisan workshops, including a carpentry shop, blacksmith shop, and weaving workshop. The complex also included Indian quarters that were primarily located along the compound’s walls. These dwellings were simple limestone structures with one main room and a kitchen (Ivey and Thurber 1983).
The mission system as a whole declined dramatically during the late eighteenth century partially due to a lack of new converts as well as political turmoil within the Spanish empire. As a result, Mission San José was partially secularized in 1794. In the same year, the missions’ lands were divided into suertes or lots and distributed via lottery to the remaining Indian residents.
The church continued to offer services until 1824 at which time it was officially closed. During the subsequent decades, the property was occupied intermittently by Mexican and later Texian/Tejano military units, but the mission’s nineteenth century history was predominantly characterized by neglect (Ivey and Thurber 1983).
The church was briefly reopened for services between 1859 and 1868 until a portion of the north wall, dome, and roof collapsed during storms. Services resumed in the sacristy in 1872, but no formal attempts to repair or stabilize the structure were undertaken until the early twentieth century. In 1928, the collapse of the church’s bell tower signaled the need for additional preservation work at the site, and 1932 marked the start of a major restoration project at the mission complex. Though other entities such as the San Antonio Conservation Society and Bexar County were involved in the project, most of the funding and labor was provided through New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration and Civil Works Administration under the supervision of renowned local architect Harvey P. Smith. The current landscape of the complex generally reflects that envisioned by Smith during this period (National Park Service 1998).
Due to its reconstruction during the 1930s, Mission San José has been described as the most complete of the five mission complexes remaining in San Antonio. Additionally, though reconstructed, a significant portion of the original church remains intact and represents an outstanding example of Spanish Baroque architecture that was at its height in Mexico during the 1760s. The building’s ornate façade, which was carefully restored during the 1940s, is one of the most significant examples of carved mission stonework in the Southwestern United States. More specifically the intricately carved “Rose Window” on the south side of the sacristy is one of the most famous examples of Spanish Colonial sculpture in the new world (Cruz 2013) and has inspired both imitations and homage in art and architecture throughout the city and the nation. The mission has also been the site of numerous archaeological investigations, including investigations of the acequia system, a well, and the church sacristy.
The mission was designated as part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in 1978. There are several additional websites that provide information regarding the mission’s history as well as how to access the mission site. These include the National Park Service website and the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online. Additionally, the Library of Congress website includes a number of historic drawings, photographs, and other historical information about the complex.