My grandmother lived right across the street from San Jose, so I would go there for Easter egg hunts, midnight mass, she would take us over there and we would run around.

Colleen Swain Director, City of San Antonio World Heritage Office

Mission San Jose was founded in 1720 and quickly became a social center in the frontier of New Spain. Many regarded it as the “Queen of the Missions” and the “Showplace of the Southwest.” Hundreds of years later, it was still being utilized as a local church. Among its visitors was Colleen Swain, a child from the Southside of San Antonio.

“My grandmother lived right across the street from San Jose, so I would go there for Easter egg hunts, midnight mass, she would take us over there and we would run around.” The Missions, which span from the Southside all the way to the Alamo in the center of downtown, dotted the trail that Colleen’s family took for excursions. “Every Friday we would catch the bus off of Roosevelt and come hang out downtown in Travis Park. They would have brown bag lunch day.” She recalls.

Mission Concepción. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

Her career led to even more in-depth downtown involvement as she tackled asset management in the Downtown Operations Department. “I was involved with anything from the Riverwalk to La Villita, Market Square to the Spanish Governor's Palace and the Alamo.” Swain eventually moved from Downtown Operations to the City Manager's Office to Center City Development Office. It was at this point that the Missions which had been such a major part of her childhood were being considered for World Heritage status by UNESCO, a designation which no other site in Texas and only 22 others in the U.S. could claim. After the designation became official in 2015, city leaders recognized that an office dedicated to the sites needed to be created.

“It was kind of serendipitous that it all fell into place. This is where I grew up and now I'm back.”

Colleen Swain

Colleen became the Director of the World Heritage Office in April of 2016. “After getting this position… there’s been a lot of stuff that’s familiar. I had one meeting with this guy who said ‘I grew up on the Southside. I went to Harlandale-Class of 55’, and I said ‘My dad too!’ I had no idea, but they go to lunch once a month.” Though she had never truly left her roots, being the Director of the World Heritage Office gave Colleen a new perspective on the area in which she was raised. “It was kind of serendipitous that it all fell into place. This is where I grew up and now I'm back.”

Mission Concepción. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

The significance of the Missions is not lost on her either. For many visitors, the World Heritage sites are the first impression they have of the city. “If they start at the Alamo and journey to the other four missions they are receiving the full story and that story is a continuum-it enhances the experience.” And for locals, the missions represent a vital piece of shared history. As a local herself, Colleen understands the heavy responsibility of managing the sites. “It is really important to me that, because of the connection, what happens here is what's appropriate. It has to be good for everyone involved.”

The future of the Missions looks bright, full of not only international recognition, but community engagement. The World Heritage Festival, an annual event, will take place September 6-10, 2017. Kicking off with a press conference in Alamo Plaza, the event will include a symposium with guests from all over the world speaking about ‘living heritage.’ There will be events at all the Missions, such as a Sunset Picnic on-site at Mission San Juan Farm. 

Courtesy of City of San Antonio World Heritage Office

Beyond the festival, the sites offer new experiences every day. The bike trails leading through the Mission Reach are accessible to even those who do not own a bike, thanks to B-Cycle and it’s strategically placed stations. The VIA VIVA bus route makes regular stops at the Missions. Locals and visitors can catch a “Star Party” at Mission Espada, or enjoy murals at the restored Mission Drive In, now called Mission Marquee Plaza.

"They were established to start a city, especially Mission San Antonio de Valero, and that mission did its job. It did exactly what it was established to do."

Colleen Swain

As for Mission San Jose, which served as everything from a place of worship to a playground for Colleen as a child, it stands as a reminder of what the Missions mean for this city. As an adult, Colleen came to realize the true importance of her childhood church, along with its sister sites, not only to her neighborhood, but to San Antonio and the world at large. Namely that, without these Missions, our city and its rich history would not exist. “They're the reason why we’re celebrating a tri-centennial. They were established to start a city, especially Mission San Antonio de Valero, and that mission did its job. It did exactly what it was established to do.”

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