Structure and Function: The Conceptual Plan of a Mission

Throughout its life, the mission always supported certain essential activities. The construction and maintenance of the acequia and the fields it watered were of first importance. Next in order of priority were the construction of a permanent church; housing, offices, and kitchens for the fathers and staff of the mission; housing for the Indian neophytes; workshops; storage facilities for goods and later to store the produce of the fields; corrals and stables, facilities for livestock herding, pasturing, care and branding; and the maintenance of the supply trains to and from the mission, which brought the many items not available on the new frontier.

This complex system of functions was established virtually overnight on a new site. Although they varied in relative importance and the structures underwent physical changes, the functions themselves never ceased to exist throughout the operation of the mission system. This system was flexible and could be adjusted to the changing priorities arising out of a mission’s development. It was organized into a series of separate but interacting processes managed either directly or indirectly by the missionary:
  1. secular activities of a low technological level, requiring little or no training and monitored by the missionary through his staff [lay persons or resident military (soldiers and their families)];
  2. production and support activities requiring higher technology, training, and specialized tools and personnel, directly monitored and in some cases even directed by the missionary;
  3. religious activities, conducted directly by the missionary
This “separate but interacting” arrangement was reflected in the general plan of a mission. Mission lands outside the walls of the complex were used by knowledgeable persons for raising animals and crops, under the daily supervision of the missionary. The complex itself had a large area devoted to the houses of the Indians. In this area they also conducted their lives as families and as members of a community under their own town government, again under the supervision of the missionary. These were the predominantly secular processes of a mission.

The more technical processes were usually grouped together in a second separate area immediately adjacent to the priest’s quarters, or convento, usually referred to as the “second courtyard.” Here, under the direct influence of the missionary, specialists carried out the work of the mason, the blacksmith, the carpenter, and the weaver in workshops designed for these tasks. Also included in this complex were the storage areas for products and supplies, including the granary, where the all-important produce of the fields was stored against famine and storm for distribution at intervals to the neophytes and to supply seed for the next year’s planting.

Within the convento the missionary conducted his business as a priest. He kept records of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths, the annual accounts of the mission’s supplies and money or credit exchanges with the missionary college or members of the secular world, a running inventory of all the furnishings of the mission, and so on. Here, too, was the cloister, where the missionary could continue the structured life required of him by his vows to the Church and to his order.

In the first years of a mission these separate processes were intertwined; that is, there was little separation of the activities of the mission into specific areas or structures. This period would end within three to five years. During their first days together in a new mission, the missionary wanted frequent and close contact with his neophytes. As time passed, however, and the physical system and technological base developed, many areas of activity became separate functions accommodated in specialized structures.

Although the plans of the missions exhibit differences, the structures and spaces evolved in response to functional requirements and were essentially the same for all the missions. From the initial founding and throughout the development phase, these were typically as follows:

The Church
Nave: The central space for the congregation, who sat, kneeled, squatted or stood for services. It could contain a baptismal area, confessionals, and a banco (bench) for meetings of mission pueblo authorities. The nave was usually separated from the sanctuary by a railing.
Sanctuary: Normally a raised area at the end of the nave opposite the entry. It contained the main altar, side altars, and, retablo.
Other Elements: The final church may have had transepts with side altars, and a baptismal area in the base of one bell tower.

The Sacristy
The sacristy usually was adjacent to the sanctuary or immediately outside the sanctuary railing; it contained storage space for vestments and a vesting area for the celebrant.

The Convento
The convento was made up of a group of structures usually called the casa, or “house,” by the Franciscans. It was arranged around the primary patio, and contained the following:
  1. Celdas: living quarters for the missionaries, consisting of cells for sleep and work. Sometimes each celdas were divided into the cell proper and an alcoha (alcove). The father would work in the cell and sleep in the alcove.
  2. Hospedería: hospice, guest room for visiting friars.
  3. Enfermería: sickroom for friars, frequently the same room as the hospedería.
  4. Lugar Privativo: privy, sometimes located under a staircase or in a separate room of the convento.
  5. Oficinas: work areas where goods, equipment and supplies of mission are stored
  6. Cocina: kitchen for the convento; frequently had associated rooms for food storage and preparation, such as a bread-making room and a pantry.
  7. Refectorio: dining hall for friars and convento staff.
The permanent buildings of all three Querétaran missions founded in 1731 were laid out following the same basic plan. This consisted of a rectangular convento about 125 feet wide, east to west, and 140 feet long, north to south, centered on a patio. The friary, the portion of the convento where the cells or living quarters of the missionaries were located, was along the short side of this square and was about 80 feet long. At Concepción, in the l750s the master mason Hieronymo Ybarra apparently reduced the residential area of the convento to fit around a patio. The intent was for the residential rooms to be located on the second floor, with storerooms for mission property on the first floor of the same building. Of the three missions following the post- 1725 plan, only San Juan Capistrano never managed to build a second story on its friary.

The two other missions, San Antonio de Valero and San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, founded a decade earlier, were built according to the older plan, used in northern Mexico and New Mexico, although San José was later modified until it echoed the same Querétaran plan. The convento of San Antonio de Valero was never finished, and never modified to the new plan.

The Second Patio
Some missions have a second patio adjoining the convento, where the following structures could be located. These could also be associated with the primary convento patio.
  1. Obraje: weaving room
  2. Quartos de tareas: the “quota room,” associated with the weaving room, used for cleaning, drying, and processing cotton and wool before weaving
  3. Tapancos: lofts built into rooms creating a partial second floor where goods are stored
  4. Albañilería: stonemason’s shop
  5. Frugua: forge, or blacksmith shop
  6. Carpintería: carpenter’s shop
  7. Troje: granary

Last updated: December 14, 2016

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