Exact location of first Catholic mission in Texas remains unknown
By Fred Swegles
Everyone remembers the Alamo. We learned about it in school.
For all its notoriety, the Alamo was but one of 28 Catholic missions built across Texas from 1632 to 1793. It was far from the first.
The first was Mission San Clemente.
Never heard of it?
The website TexasMissionGuide.com describes a modest wooden structure, erected in 1632 in the wilderness near the junction of two rivers, the Rio Concho and Rio San Clemente. After six months, the Spaniards departed, harassed by hostile Apaches, promising to return. The local Jumano Native Americans desired an alliance, historians said.
More than 50 years later, Mission San Clemente was restarted “by the expedition of Juan Dominguez de Mendoza while it was camped on a river named ‘the Glorious San Clemente,’ from March 16 to May 1, 1684,” says the Texas State Historical Association. Once again, the mission didn’t last.
The Alamo didn’t appear until 1718—86 years after the first Mission San Clemente. The fortress called the Alamo actually was Mission San Antonio de Valero.
Today, the Alamo is the pride of San Antonio. A national park there showcases four other San Antonio missions. One is Mission San Juan Capistrano, established in 1731, with a church that is still active, eight miles south of the Alamo. Visitors can explore trails, ruins, a Mission SJC museum and a San Antonio River walk.
“There is also a Mission San Juan Capistrano in the California mission system,” the website TexasMissionGuide.com says.
Visitors to the Alamo relive Texas’ daring 19th Century revolt from Mexico and a brutal 1836 battle in which 200 vastly outnumbered Texan defenders were overwhelmed by Mexican forces.
“Remember the Alamo!” became Texas’ independence battle cry.
History barely remembers Texas’ first mission, San Clemente.
Where Was It?
“The exact location is not known,” says TexasMissionGuide.com. “There are several different historical markers in the area claiming to mark the site of the mission.”
The best-known marker is along Highway 83, between Ballinger and Paint Rock.
Ballinger, south of Abilene, calls itself “The Greatest Little Town in Texas.” Some 260 years after Mission San Clemente’s birth nearby, Ballinger gave birth in 1892 to David Guion, a concert pianist and composer. His infectious 1930 arrangement of a hand-me-down ballad transformed “Home on the Range” into an American cowboy anthem.
Paint Rock, 16 miles south, is known for Native American petroglyphs. A river once called the “glorious” San Clemente flows through Ballinger. The Rio Concho bisects Paint Rock.
The two rivers join, east of Paint Rock, at a reservoir, where a little-known historic marker salutes Mission San Clemente. It’s on private property, inaccessible to the public. Ten miles south, in Millersview, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church erected its own marker in 1984 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the second Mission San Clemente.
Neither historic marker mentions “Rio San Clemente.” The name Rio San Clemente faded into history, just as the mission did in 1684. The river once called “San Clemente” now is just a short leg of a much longer river, the Rio Colorado.
Texas’ Colorado River
Texas’ grandest river runs 862 miles from northwestern Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. It shares names with a more famous Colorado River that winds 1,450 miles from Colorado into Mexico. That Colorado supplies the South Orange County cities of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano with much of their water.
Texas’ Colorado is no slouch. It’s “truly the lifeblood of our state,” the Colorado River Alliance states.
Imagine if explorer Mendoza, eyeballing “the Glorious San Clemente” river in 1684, had known he could have followed it all the way to the gulf.
The state capital, Austin, showcases the Colorado with a riverwalk. About 150 miles downstream, the Colorado empties into the gulf.
There, in 1685, French explorer La Salle tried to establish a French colony. Its brief, unsuccessful presence startled the Spanish, who then directed their energies to eastern Texas to prevent French settlement.
Mission San Clemente was abandoned forever.
French & Spanish Legacies
La Salle “landed 180 colonists at Matagorda Bay in Spanish-claimed territory,” the Texas State Historical Association says. A granite statue of La Salle rises 40 feet above the bay shoreline, near Indianola, Texas.
Modern-day explorers who want to search the upper reaches of the Colorado for evidence of the vanished Mission San Clemente can start at San Angelo.
Stroll along a scenic Concho River Walk. A historic marker there recognizes the 1632 “founding of the first mission ever in Texas, near this site.” There’s also a bigger-than-life statue of a Spanish nun, “The Lady in Blue,” depicting her ministering to a Jumano child.
Legend states that Sor Maria de Jesus de Agreda never physically left Spain, yet her apparition appeared in America more than 500 times between 1620 and 1631, bestowing comfort and Christianity on native Jumanos.
Spanish missionaries arriving to explore Texas “were often approached by groups of native peoples, mainly the Jumanos, who asked not only for baptism but additional religious instruction, claiming that a woman had come to them and preached to each of them in their own language,” San Angelo’s diocese proclaims.
At McCamey, Texas, a historic marker at the Mendoza Trail Museum describes how Mendoza’s expedition began in 1683, 12 miles below El Paso. A party of 35 was tasked with exploring the Pecos Plains, harvesting pearls from Texas rivers and Christianizing Jumanos.
“They found ‘many pearls’ near present-day San Angelo,” the marker says. “And at the confluence of the Concho and Colorado Rivers, they founded San Clemente Mission.”
History Rolls On
Franciscan missionaries were said to have baptized 2,000 Jumanos, long before other Franciscans would perform California’s first baptisms in 1769 just outside a coastal plain that in 1925 would be named San Clemente.
Meanwhile, Mission San Antonio de Valero became the second Spanish outpost in what is now the city of San Antonio, where the National Park Service operates San Antonio Missions National Historical Park to showcase the city’s other missions.
“Each was a fortified village, with its own church, farm and ranch,” a Mission San Juan storyboard states. “Here, Franciscan friars gathered native peoples, converted them to Catholicism, taught them to live as Spaniards and helped maintain Spanish control over the Texas frontier.”
This Capistrano mission came 45 years before the one that Franciscan Junipero Serra would establish, 1,200 miles west, in 1776.
Tourists visiting Texas’ Capistrano mission are unlikely to find any swallows or swallows’ nests, the claim to fame of our San Juan Capistrano.
But about 200 miles northwest of Texas’ Mission San Juan, swallows sometimes do swarm outside Ballinger, inhabiting a rural stretch of the river once dubbed “the Glorious San Clemente.”
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 46 years of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at email@example.com.