Tour guides, Bexar County try keep missions ready for visitors

Missions left semi-accessible during federal government shut down

SAN ANTONIO – Locked doors may hide away much of the knowledge at San Antonio's Spanish Missions, but Steve Wood is willing to share what he knows with visitors.

Whether explaining the story behind the sculptures on the Mission San Jose church facade, or where people were buried, the president of the Professional Tour Guide Association of San Antonio has been offering free tours and "interpretations" at some of the missions during the ongoing federal government shutdown -- and encouraging other guides to do the same.

As such, he's helping to fill a role normally occupied by park rangers or docents.

"These people are coming down here," Wood said of visitors. "They want to see this. They've heard about it. So the least we can do is to provide some information for them."

Wood does what he can with what's available. Four of the five missions; San Jose, San Juan Capistrano, Concepcion and Espada -- are controlled by the National Park Service and have remained semi-accessible. The fifth mission, the Alamo, is state-owned and unaffected by the shutdown.

Visitors have been able to get on the grounds of the federally controlled sites, and occasionally into the churches, and Bexar County Parks staff has been helping by keeping restrooms open at the four missions sites since Dec. 28.

However, there are no official tours, and educational facilities like the visitor centers are closed. 

"Normally, the living quarters would be open here," Wood said Friday at Mission San Jose where he was assisting tourists. "The grist mill and the granary would all be open."

Fortunately for visitors, at least the grounds inside San Jose's walls were open Friday, as was the church. That isn't the case for every site, though. 

Father David Garcia, the director of the Old Spanish Missions, said some of the other mission churches, the main draws for the sites, have only been open for church services.

This is not the first government shutdown to affect the missions, but Rosebud Coffey, the executive director of Mission Heritage Partners, a friends group for the historic sites, said this one has been different. 

"In previous shutdowns, the entire park has been closed," she said. "So there really hasn't been this opportunity for other agencies and other people to help out in any park. It's been locked completely."

Coffey said she is trying to see if there's anything Mission Heritage Partners and other agencies can do if the shutdown continues, whether it's getting the grass mowed or giving Bexar County a break from taking care of the restrooms.

"Nobody wants the shutdown to go on and continue longer than it already has," Coffey said. "But we do have to think to the future if it does, 'what are other steps that we can take, and how can we help the park?'"

But whatever visitors find when they arrive at the missions, Wood wants to do his part.

"We can take care of what we can to provide them with a good guest experience," he said.

About the Author: