San Antonio missions closer to becoming World Heritage Site
By Carol Baass Sowa
Catholic News Service
Just as an incredible amount of time and craftsmanship went into the construction of San Antonio’s centuries-old Spanish missions, compiling the World Heritage Site nomination document was a labor-intensive undertaking in its own right.
The document was sent in January to the Paris headquarters of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.
Seven long years of work on the project have paid off though, as the San Antonio Missions are now one step closer to a World Heritage Site designation, where they would join the ranks of the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Stonehenge and Angkor Wat.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced Jan. 17 that the official U.S. nomination had been made.
“We are very happy and excited about the news,” said Father David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions, “and at the same time, we are a little cautious because the attempt to get the U.S. government to pay the dues for the World Heritage Program to UNESCO have stalled for now, so we are a little disappointed in that.”
The United States has withheld payment of dues to UNESCO (U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) for the past two years based on a law prohibiting funding of any branch of the United Nations that admits Palestine as a full member. Congressional efforts are underway to change this, as there is apprehension it could possibly affect affirmation of San Antonio’s five missions as a World Heritage Site.
Lead author of the nomination, historian Paul Ringenbach, is hopeful this will not be a problem. An initial draft was sent off in the fall, he related, resulting in suggestions for minor changes and the nomination team was told to resubmit the corrected files by Feb. 1.
“If they thought they were absolutely not going to consider it,” he said, “why would they ask us to send it to them?”
The core San Antonio Missions World Heritage team was assisted by a larger advisory committee, including Father Garcia, plus additional helpers involved in research, writing, map preparation and countless contributors. Mission descendents and indigenous members of the local community also had input, as did national and international experts.
“This project has been a great collaboration of the community from our local scholars and leaders to experts from around the globe,” said archaeologist Susan Snow of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The missions are: San Jose, Concepcion, San Juan, Espada and San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo.
No stone was left unturned in compiling a compelling dossier to make the case that San Antonio’s 18th-century string of mission complexes meets UNESCO’s criteria. “We have rewritten portions of it dozens and dozens and dozens of times,” Ringenbach told Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the San Antonio Archdiocese.
The project began in 2006 when Virginia Nicholas, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, learned that a tentative U.S. list for World Heritage Site nominations was being reopened.
Nicholas formed a group to compile the nomination materials, but at first their proposal did not elicit many positive responses. “They didn’t think that our missions were unique enough or different enough,” said Ringenbach. There were already missions on the World Heritage List from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico.
“A site has to be of outstanding universal value,” noted Ringenbach. “So what outstanding universal value did we have that the other sites did not have?”
Other countries had more impressive mission churches, but those involved in the project felt nobody could beat the historical completeness of San Antonio’s missions in visually demonstrating their socioeconomic impact on the Spanish colonial frontier in the formation of the city of San Antonio and culture of its people.
This proved to be a turning point for advancing the nomination, along with the convening of a panel of international experts in a variety of pertinent fields to tour and discuss the San Antonio missions in April 2012. “Many people who originally did not support the San Antonio Missions were sold after they saw them,” Ringenbach said.
The final 344-page dossier included highly detailed maps, photos, slides, plans and extracts, along with extensive bibliography and glossary and was accompanied by audio-visual materials. The properties’ history, authenticity, integrity, state of conservation, management and guidelines for protection and monitoring were all detailed.
The next step in the process will be an on-site inspection sometime within the next year.
“Our missions have a value for the whole world,” said Father Garcia. “We certainly believe that. We’re going to hope for the best and work for the best and see how it goes.”