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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Oldest Mission in Texas: Ysleta Mission

Ysleta Mission, one of the longest continually
occupied religious buildings in the United States, is the
spiritual center of the only Indian Pueblo in Texas.

In 1907, the caretaker of the Ysleta Mission (La Misión de Corpus Christi de San Antonio de la Ysleta del Sur) climbed high into the church’s domed bell tower, intending to rid the belfry of an infestation of bats. He carried buckets of sulphur and other noxious chemicals and left them overnight. By morning, the bats were gone. So was much of the historic mission that since 1744 had served the Tigua Indian community of Ysleta del Sur, a 17th-century settlement on a West Texas stretch of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro locally known as the Mission Trail.

The chemical fire, which collapsed the belfry, nave and transepts, was not the first disaster to impact an Ysleta del Sur mission since Pueblo Revolt refugees from New Mexico’s Isleta Pueblo settled in the lower El Paso valley between 1680 and 1684. Frequent flooding on the Rio Grande floodplain also shaped the mission and its community’s story of destruction, displacement and renewal. Despite adversity, the losses were strictly physical. As one of the longest continually occupied religious buildings in the United States, Ysleta Mission has a spiritual heart that even centuries of challenges cannot extinguish.

From its first log, mud and willow reed chapel built in 1680 to
the 1908 mission of today, Ysleta del Sur has been home
to a series of churches representing the spiritual heart
and cultural heritage of the Tigua Indian peoples

Today at the mission, the community’s unique integration of Indian tradition with Christian religion is expressed in a profusion of Native motifs—rain clouds, corn stalks, baskets, blankets and more—that flow through the church’s neoclassical interiors. The display is an unexpected contrast to its Spanish Colonial Revival facade with sparse architectural décor. The cultural, architectural and spiritual juxtapositions reflect the disparate influences that have impacted Ysleta Mission during the more than 300 years since residents first made their way down El Camino Real to face an unknown future in El Paso del Norte (present-day Juárez, Mexico) in New Spain.

Ysleta del Sur is one of various Indian communities established in the region following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, when many Tiwa, Piro, Tompiro, Tano and Jemez Indians fled south from New Mexico with embattled Spanish settlers. The Tigua had left Isleta Pueblo, which was founded as a Spanish Franciscan mission after the Spanish colonization of New Mexico in 1598. Many Isletans stayed at the pueblo following the revolt. When Spaniards made a failed attempt to reclaim New Mexico a year after the revolt, additional Isletans joined their retreat back down El Camino Real to join the Tigua settlement on the south banks of the Rio Grande. Some of the Native Americans feared the revolt and chose to follow the Spaniards south, while others where forced to retreat to El Paso del Norte.

Ysleta del Sur’s first Mass was celebrated on October 12, 1680, in a chapel made of mud, log and willow reeds. Various factors prevented the establishment of a permanent community and adobe church until the 1691 construction of the Misión de Corpus Christi de la Ysleta del Sur (Mission of Corpus Christi of Ysleta of the South). Governor Diego de Vargas, who was en route to reclaim New Mexico for the Spanish Crown, more formally recognized the community in 1692, when he bestowed a formal grant to the mission and surrounding lands. With Vargas’s re-establishment of the province, some Tigua and Spanish residents of Ysleta del Sur returned to New Mexico. Those who stayed emphasized their ties to their sister pueblo and its patron saint, St. Anthony, referring to the mission as Misión de San Antonio (Mission of St. Anthony) and building a traditional adobe pueblo with a plaza and ceremonial kiva.

It was all swept away in the flood of 1740, but by 1744, it had all been rebuilt. Despite the challenges of frontier living, Ysleta del Sur moved into the early 19th century as a community of successful farmers and artisans whose pottery, baskets, textiles and other traditional arts were frequently traded along El Camino Real. The government transition from Spain to Mexico in 1821 increased trade along the newly opened Santa Fe Trail. Many goods traveled down El Camino Real, then known as the Chihuahua Trail, while Anglo-American settlers were drawn to the region.

But the greatest community changes were naturally influenced. In 1829, a massive flood changed the Rio Grande's course and set Ysleta del Sur and its neighboring communities of Socorro del Sur and San Elizario on the river's north bank. The flood heavily damaged the 1744 mission. By the time it was restored, Ysleta del Sur was under the governance of the United States and situated in the State of Texas. New roads, mail and stagecoach routes now merged into El Camino Real and expanded the community’s commercial, social and cultural connections. By the century’s end, however, the railroad would make El Camino Real obsolete.

 A statue of the American Indian saint Kateri Tekakwitha
adorns the Ysleta Mission

In 1891, meanwhile, actions by church officials implied that elements of the mission were also out of date. Tigua residents took great offense at the changing of the mission’s name to Nuestra Señora del Monte Carmelo (Our Lady of Mount Carmel), which they believed relegated their beloved St. Anthony to a lesser role despite the saint’s importance to their cultural identity. The church’s traditional Spanish New Mexican architecture also saw extensive alterations, including changes to the facade and the addition of a grand bell tower dome—the same belfry that, in just over a decade, was felled by the 1907 chemical fire.

Parts of the mission walls, as well as the sacristy, church bell and a cherished Spanish statue of Santo Entierro (Christ Interred) survived the fire. A subsequent reconstruction reutilized all these elements and today's Ysleta Mission has firmly stood its ground since 1908. An elegant, though smaller, domed belfry pulls the viewer’s eye to the facade’s right side. Its silvery form soars into the sky above the mission like a fist raised high in tribute to the church’s survival and to the Indian community that has maintained its cultural heritage against all odds.

As members of a federally recognized tribe and sovereign nation, the only Indian pueblo in Texas, Ysleta del Sur’s native peoples maintain a strong presence in the lower El Paso Valley. Despite the modern development of many tribal lands, and ongoing legal disputes over land titles, Ysleta Mission remains a spiritual hub of the Tigua. Inside the mission today, statues of St. Anthony and Kateri Tekakwitha, the Catholic Church’s sole American Indian saint, share close quarters. Outside, El Camino Real runs along Socorro Road to the east and parts of Alameda to the west. Ysleta del Sur’s complex cultural landscape endures, distinguishing it as a place where missions and roads may rise and die, but history prevails.