There’s something about sacred spaces that draws us. Through the ages, people around the world have made pilgrimages to places where they feel in touch with their gods. The Hajj brings about 2 million Muslims to Mecca each year, to walk in the Prophet Muhammed’s footsteps for five to six days and up to 50 miles. In December, some 3 million gather at Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on her feast day. From Argentina’s pilgrimage to the Virgin of Lujan to St. Olav’s arctic waterway that leads pilgrims from Sweden to Norway, the faithful of many religions travel by air, car, bike, boat, on foot and even on bleeding knees to worship at cathedrals and caves, shrines, stupas and hundreds of spots with spiritual significance. Hikers, history buffs, nature lovers and curious tourists often join for day trips or, in some cases, challenging journeys.
Among the most challenging are the Caminos of Santiago de Compostela, a network of European trails leading to the historic Spanish town where the tomb of the Apostle St. James and the magnificent cathedral have brought Christian pilgrims since the 9th century. Four Northern routes in Spain (930 miles combined) and the 460-mile Camino Frances, as well as the town of Santiago de Compostela itself, are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Last year more than 400,000 pilgrims took one of those routes, or another of the many established trails, to Compostela. In the Middle Ages, the church began issuing passports to pilgrims to grant them safe passage on the long journey. Today the passports are stamped at stations along all the Camino routes, and allow travelers to stay at free or inexpensive albergues (hostels) on their treks. The stamped passports also prove that the pilgrim has walked at least 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) to reach Santiago de Compostela. That gives the pilgrim the right to a Compostela – a document that certifies your pilgrimage.
San Antonio has its own holy road – El Camino de San Antonio Missions. It’s a rare partnership between San Antonio’s Spanish Missions and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Mission Trail that links the four historic missions with active Catholic parishes, and the beautifully restored Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Walk are now official partners of the Camino de Compostela.
At the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio’s new Camino Center, adjacent to Mission Concepción, pilgrims can get passports for San Antonio Camino. Those are stamped at each mission and the historic San Fernando Cathedral. Those who show they have walked the 30km trek receive their own Compostelas. (You don’t have to walk it all at once – as in Spain, you can walk the route in as many installments as you wish – just get the stamps.) The Mission Compostelas have a practical use as well as a spiritual application – you get 30km credit towards the 100km requirement if you make a later pilgrimage on the English Camino de Santiago route.
The new Camino Center isn’t just for pilgrims or Catholics – it has information and exhibits about Camino culture, pilgrimages and the Spanish Missions themselves, and like the Camino de Santiago, they are a popular UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2021, 1.33 million people visited the Spanish Missions, according to the National Park Service.
Rebecca Simmons, a highly distinguished attorney and former appellate judge, is following her passion today as Executive Director of Las Misiones, the support group for the Spanish Missions, and also of the Camino Center, which opened this spring. But she has taken people on unofficial pilgrimages to the Missions here for decades.
“Father David Garcia and Archbishop Gustavo García Siller had been thinking about doing pilgrimages here. I saw that Ireland has a Camino society, and they partner with Santiago de Compostela to get credit for pilgrimages to sacred places there. I thought ‘San Antonio was Spanish!’ I went over to Spain and they were thrilled to partner with us. Ireland is the only other place that does this,” she said.
“We have a map – it’s mostly on the Mission Reach trails. You can go by bike or car and get a Peregrino certificate, but you can’t use that in Spain,” she added.
San Antonio also has its own Camino group – the Alamo Chapter of American Pilgrims On the Camino, a national group of pilgrims or friends of the Camino de Santiago. Alamo Chapter co-coordinator Susie McCalla says the group has about 400 registered members, many of whom have done multiple routes of the Camino de Santiago. They share support, information and fellowship. When we spoke, McCalla was getting ready for a dinner for a group of Texas pilgrims who were leaving on their trip soon. “We’ll have a blessing of the shells – scallop shells are the symbol of St. James, and pilgrims tie one to their backpacks,” she said.
Whether you’re a pilgrim or a hiker or a history buff, El Camino de San Antonio is an interesting walk in the National Park – and for pilgrims, it comes with a passport. As they say along the journey to Santiago de Compostela, “Buen Camino!”
On the Camino De San Antonio Trail
Mission San José
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo is known as the “Queen of the Missions.” The largest of San Antonio’s Spanish missions, San Jose was restored in the 1930s. Some colorful designs remain on the limestone walls. The famous Rose Window, a reconstructed convent, granary and gristmill, and the visitor center for the National Park Service’s San Antonio Missions National Historical Park are here, too. Sunday services: 9:00am English outdoors (bring a chair); noon Spanish/Mariachi Mass indoors.
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísma Concepción de Acuña is (Mission Concepción for short) is about three miles outside of downtown San Antonio. Today’s mission looks much as it did in the 18th century, with two bell towers framing the entrance, but the original colorful geometric designs have faded from the stone walls. Inside you’ll find painted frescoes of the Franciscan friars and Coahuiltecan natives who lived here. Sunday services: 10:00am bilingual; noon English/Mariachi Mass.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada, the southernmost on the Mission Trail, was mostly destroyed by a fire in the 1800s, but was partially rebuilt, like the other Spanish Missions, by WPA laborers in the ‘30s. The chapel, granary and some original walls remain. It’s a beautiful place, and its iconic bell tower still stands. The Espada Dam and Espada Aqueduct north of the mission are masterpieces of Spanish engineering, and still help irrigate mission fields today.
Mission San Juan
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s third church, built in the 1760s, still stands near the ruins of the second church building. Parts of the walls around the compound, the foundations of living quarters, granary and convent are there. A home built in the 1820s is the only remaining example of residences built on mission property in the 1800s, after the Catholic Church abandoned the missions for some time. San Juan’s farms, irrigated by sophisticated acequias, were very fertile – their melons, grapes, peppers and squash found markets as far as Louisiana. Today, in partnership with the National Park Service, the San Antonio Food Bank farms 45 acres of the mission’s land to grow fresh produce. Another five acres are used to demonstrate historic farming methods. Sunday services: 9:00am English outdoors; 11:00am Spanish indoors. At 7:00am on Dec. 10, hundreds of young dancers in feathered Spanish matachine headdress and costume will parade from Mission San Juan to Mission San Jose to mark the pilgrimage of Juan Diego to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, first appeared. Spectators are welcome to join the procession.
San Fernando Cathedral
Founded in 1731 in the center of town, San Fernando Cathedral is the oldest church in Texas, and the oldest continuously functioning cathedral in the nation. It was among the first projects of the 16 Canary Islands families sent to San Antonio by Spain to form the town’s first civil government. The walls of the original church are incorporated into the current cathedral. Although it was not a mission church, San Fernando was closely connected to all the Spanish missions here. San Fernando’s Masses draw 5,000 participants a week. And “San Antonio – The Saga” is a must-see brilliant light show projected onto the façade of the cathedral, with free showtimes throughout the week (MainPlaza.org).