The Alamo Story – Before the Battle of the Alamo (1715-1835)
The Alamo story that you have never heard!
Located in modern downtown San Antonio, Texas there happens to be a tiny abandoned Catholic chapel of Spanish American architecture. Straddled by tall buildings, a tourist friendly riverwalk, and the Alamodome (former venue of the San Antonio Spurs), it is a relic of the past that has managed to survive despite never having fulfilled its original functions.
As far as I know there have been no masses held there, no marriages, no baptisms. But yet every year millions of believers and nonbelievers alike, travel long distances so that they can stand in its small shadow. And if you would also like to go there, the pilgrimage from New York city, will take you 26 hours by car, from Los Angeles 18 hours, Chicago 17 hours. In contrast, the chapel is only 2 hours and 23 minutes from the Mexico border.
Long before the United States of America was a thing, the construction of the San Antonio mission (the location of the chapel), was approved by a Spanish King, but largely carried out by an international organization. Commonly known as the Franciscan order, they were a community of devout Christians that had members all over the world. They answered to Rome as much as they did to Madrid which is why years later the jealous monarchy would enact policies that would reduce their influence in the Spanish colonies in America, and everywhere else.
But before that happened, their presence was felt everywhere. Their legacy can be seen in the names of US cities. San Diego (Saint Didacus in English, San Antonio (Saint Anthony), and perhaps most importantly San Francisco, the city of Saint Francis, named after their founder.
St. Francis (1181-1226) was the son of a wealthy Italian merchant who gave away everything he possessed (and many things his father possessed too) to serve the poor, the sinners, and the many unlucky individuals afflicted with leprosy. In those days (Middle Ages) nobody wanted to get close to those “damned sinners.” But, Francis would.
His angry father took him to court, demanded a return of his property (probably consisting of silks originally brought to Italy from China). Francis responded by removing his tunic. He stripped down to his underwear – if they had any back then.
“Here Dad, you want your property back? Take it!” I don’t know what his Dad said after that.
But he walked the streets naked from head to toe, beginning his commitment not to total humiliation, but to absolute humility, a vocation of pure altruism. If you’ve read the Bible, you’ll notice he was following it to a tee.
Like Christ’s followers, he wandered from city to city preaching the gospel every chance he got. To the modern reader this may seem familiar, but at that time the practice seemed revolutionary. It was.
The existing religious orders of the time removed themselves from mainstream culture into pious communities. Maybe you’ve heard about them, some taking vows of silence. They spent their days preserving ancient pagan manuscripts from the past. St. Francis, on the other hand, began a sort of early reformation movement that sought a return to the Christianity as practiced by Peter and Paul. The emphasis was one of sharing the good news that Jesus died for our sins and that you will live forever in paradise if you humble yourself to God’s will. Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor. Do unto others as you’d have done to you. And turn the other cheek.
He preached this gospel to his family. When they rebuked him, sent him away, he preached to the city dwellers. When they were unavailable, he even preached to a flock of birds. And I’m not making that up. That’s how the story goes.
During the Crusades, that series of wars where Christians and Muslims killed each other over religion, he offered his services. There was a brief lull in the violence. He walked behind enemy lines and attempted to convert the Sultan of Egypt to Christianity. He tried and failed, but walked back to camp alive.
Cynics may tell you St. Francis was a pawn used for political motivations of the time by greedy invading forces. I would like to offer an alternative viewpoint.
How do we know who was using who? St. Francis joined the real Holy War, that of intellectual and spiritual competition not a competition of murder and theft. I’m no Catholic apologist, but let me ask a question : “What would have happened if the Sultan decided to become a Christian?” I think he would have said the following to the European Crusaders : “How wonderful it is to be a Christian just like you. Now we don’t have to fight anymore. You can go back home and all will be good. No reason to rape and pillage here.” Those various princes involved in the conflict would not have been satisfied with that answer.
And just to drive my point home even more, about 600 years later neither would the Spanish government, when Francis’s followers were allowed to set up missions in the Northern frontier of Mexico. (The North to Spain was what the West was to Britain's American colonies). Franciscans wanted to spread the influence of Christianity all over the New World. Spain wanted to convert Indians into Loyalists of the Spanish Crown to defend their poorly defined borders against the French Crown. Today Catholicism is influential in both South and North America and there are no loyalists to any European King (maybe a queen). Ask yourself, “who got what they wanted in this scenario?”
When the Franciscans began construction of the chapel many other houses, workshops, and temporary churches were already up. At the mission locals were preached too, but were also taught new skills that would improve their quality of life. The Coahuitecan Indians were hunter-gatherers. The geography of Texas is no tropical paradise. So sometimes when mother nature was not kind, food wasn’t in great abundance. And this is probably when many Indians would move into the missions where life was boring, but secure. At the missions in San Antonio, you could work in exchange for food and education.
And there was one other reason; however, why locals would live in the missions. There were other tribes whose economy was supplemented by frequent raids and pillaging. The Coahuitecan people lived in small communities, groups of only a few families – good survival strategy if there are few food resources available. They were well adapted to fighting nature, but not so much against aggressive human competitors. The Comanche and Apache would mercilessly attack them, stealing what little they had to live off of.
And so while the Alamo chapel was being built so to were its walls, fortifications to defend against raiders. The missions of San Antonio also became forts.
The Franciscan castles warded off attackers. But they could do nothing against the plague and government intervention that would dismantle their efforts. Many Indians died of European diseases and the San Antonio Mission eventually dwindled in size until the facilities became almost obsolete. The remaining Coahuitecan Indians stayed there, but the Franciscans did not.
The Spanish government demanded that parish priests take on the role that Franciscans once held. There was too much conflict of interest between an organization that had no national identity in an age where kingdoms were being transformed into today what we call nation states with clearly outlined geographical borders, official languages, and separation of church and state.
In 1776 as North American intellectuals drafted their famous declaration of independence, religion was being pushed aside and nationalism became the new universal ideology. The roof of the chapel was never built. And when it rained... it rained. There were no statues of saints, no candles, no incense, no altars...nothing...
People would forget about the town of San Antonio for generations and the un-venerated tiny abandoned Catholic chapel would be desecrated with unholy neglect for years. And it was during this period, that the chapel would receive the name for which we know it today, “The Alamo.”
The Alamo was probably given its modern name by the locals observing the Spanish soldiers stationed in their town, not by the religious order that originally set up shop there. “The Alamo company” was the name of the unit who repurposed the chapel into a makeshift fort.
Throughout the Mexican Wars of Independence, the Alamo Mission was used both as a prison and a hospital. When Mexico finally won its independence in 1821, Mexican soldiers continued to use the chapel as a fort. It defenses were improved as tensions between the Mexican government and newly arrived American settlers increased.
The Texas Revolution broke out in October of 1835. A few months later the soldiers stationed there were forced to surrender. They left behind 19 cannons that would later be used at the Battle of the Alamo from February 23 to March 6, 1836.