Compared with the pristine missions of San Antonio, the missions of El Paso are ugly ducklings. Floods and fires have ravaged the original structures over the past three centuries. After they were rebuilt, moisture seeped in and crumbled the adobe walls. All three churches have been reconstructed and renovated so many times by priests and parishioners that no one knows anymore which parts are original. The result is that they are a hodge-podge of old and new: dilapidated, primitive, dirty, even a little homely. Tourists seldom seek them out.
Now, through new renovations, zoning restrictions, and landscaping along what civic leaders call the Mission Trail, the city of El Paso hopes to transform the churches into a major attraction. They needn’t try too hard. The El Paso missions may be run-down, but they have an idiosyncratic charm. In fact, they may well be the best-kept secret in the state—just as they are.
The churches are strung out like a chain along the Rio Grande to the southeast of El Paso, tracing a stretch of the old Camino Real that once connected Mexico City to Santa Fe. A trip along the Mission Trail—from Ysleta to Socorro to San Elizario—is only eight miles long, but it leads away from city noise and smog toward a slower time, when the missions formed the religious and social anchors of far-flung, isolated communities. Today no one knows the precise location of the Camino Real. Instead, the two-lane Old Socorro Road connects all three churches, through what El Pasoans call the Lower Valley, past cotton fields, quick stops, gift shops, gas stations, and some of the most impoverished communities in the state.
What makes the trip worthwhile is that, despite their imperfections, the churches are in some ways astonishingly beautiful. At Ysleta, founded in 1680, the church sits at a congested, fumy intersection at the edge of a vast expanse of pavement, part parking lot, part playground. Yet its silhouette is graceful. On one end is the silvery dome of a bell tower, home to dozens of rustling pigeons. At Socorro, also founded in 1680, the church’s roof and ceiling were restored nearly ten years ago with rough-hewn wooden beams, or vigas, decorated with geometric Indian designs and overlaid with latias, or smaller branches, in a herringbone pattern. Some of the vigas supposedly date back to the original church and were rescued after one of the great floods. At San Elizario—which was actually never a mission but a fort—the chapel stands in front of a shady plaza with a bandstand and wooden benches painted turquoise. To one side is an orchard. An antique formality dictates the layout of the town of San Elizario: The chapel (built around 1780), the roads, the irrigation canals, the jail, and the stagecoach house all seem to correspond to a Spanish presidio plan.
In all three churches the adobe suffers from serious water damage. Moisture creeping down through the roof or up from the soil has made the interior walls friable. In various spots the plaster has been stripped away to let the adobe dry, making the walls look like patchwork. Eventually the impervious cement plaster will be replaced with a porous lime mixture, and the walls will again be smooth and white. But for visitors, the water damage has yielded side benefits. Restorers have discovered, hidden behind the plaster, the outlines of long-lost windows and niches. There is also the opportunity to see the raw stuff the churches are actually made of: a mixture of nothing more than soil and straw.
But perhaps the best reason to visit the churches is to appreciate the sense in which they are all beneficent institutions serving needy people in a way that has not changed substantially in three centuries. At Ysleta, sweaty children still run in from the playground to genuflect before the altar. Not long ago at Socorro, members of the Texas Historical Commission showed up for a tour and discovered a wedding in progress, with the parking lot full of lowriders and hot rods. And at San Elizario, the locals refer to the chapel as “San Eli,” as if it were a real person, a chum. When would-be restorers broached the idea of removing a modern rock grotto with a statue of the Virgin that sits to one side of the chapel, the parishioners stubbornly resisted. The chapel, after all, belongs to them.
To conclude the Mission Trail journey properly, you might cross the border into Juárez for a stop at the oldest of the valley churches, the Mission Guadalupe. It sits next to a larger, more imposing cathedral, in the heart of gritty, chaotic downtown Juárez, where it has become far more of a tourist attraction than its counterparts across the border. Nearly ten years ago the church was meticulously restored by the Catholic diocese. Invisible steel beams support the roof, so that the carved vigas no longer bear the load. Heating and cooling units are hidden within the thick adobe walls. The result is that even though the Mission Guadalupe is the only one of the churches that still occupies its original structure, it has a polished, impeccable look.
Members of the El Paso Mission Trail Association hope to find money to restore all the Lower Valley churches to this standard. First, they are trying to bring back visual coherence to the Mission Trail by enacting a zoning law—one that would be the same in El Paso (which includes Ysleta) and the cities of Socorro and San Elizario. But the Lower Valley is abysmally poor, and the plan has opponents. In March, Socorro’s city council came close to abolishing the historic district within its city limits. One councilmember argued that the historic zone was an unaffordable luxury in light of the community’s desperate need for water and sewage systems.
Still, El Paso’s civic leaders dream of souvenir shops and guided tours. Studies show that turning the Mission Trail into a tourist destination could pump millions of dollars into the Lower Valley. But surely something would be lost were busloads of Scandinavians to swarm the tiny plaza at San Elizario. What a loss not to be able to sit undisturbed in the church at Socorro, while the afternoon light angles through the windows onto painted wooden pews, contemplating the sense in which the churches are a direct link to the past. The paradox is that restoring the mission churches might sacrifice that quietude, robbing them of the quality that makes them so special—their quirky, haunting presence.