Follow famous Mission Trail for historic step back in time

My latest travel article is now in the Fort Bliss Bugle.  Here is a link to the virtual version.  I hope you enjoy this guide to the famous Mission Trail in El Paso!

  The beautiful white adobe exterior of the Presidio Chapel in San Elizario is an iconic fixture of the famous Mission Trail. 

The beautiful white adobe exterior of the Presidio Chapel in San Elizario is an iconic fixture of the famous Mission Trail. 

By Amy Proctor, Special to the Fort Bliss Bugle:

One of the obvious places a Soldier or family member should check out when stationed at Fort Bliss is the famous Mission Trail. After all, there are boxes to be checked so that someday there’s no regret in not visiting all the well-known local attractions.

So as I set out to travel the Mission Trail south of El Paso, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this would be much more than just checking a box at this duty station; it was quite a fun, timeless exploration in the deep Southwest that held a little bit of controversy and intrigue as well.

  A grotto used by Catholics for spiritual contemplation sits to the left of the Presidio Chapel in San Elizario along the Mission Trail.

A grotto used by Catholics for spiritual contemplation sits to the left of the Presidio Chapel in San Elizario along the Mission Trail.

The nine-mile route, which begins approximately 29 miles south of Fort Bliss, retraces the expedition of 500 early Spanish explorers, Catholic clergy and colonists across the Chihuahuan desert into present-day San Elizario, Texas, in January 1598. These settlers put down roots and established three main Catholic mission churches in San Elizario and Socorro in the 1600s around which local life revolved. Essentially, the Catholic Church and these mission churches were life’s epicenters for hundreds of years.

This is where some of the fun and controversy come in. It is said that the first real Thanksgiving took place April 30, 1598, in San Elizario with a Catholic Mass and meal, some 23 years before the famous Thanksgiving meal at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The official tourism page of El Paso, VisitElPaso.com, promotes the marking of the first Thanksgiving celebration saying:

“Don’t believe everything you learn in school! The first Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated at Plymouth Plantation – it happened right here on the Borderland. That is the concept behind The El Paso Mission Trail Association’s yearly reenactment of the festivities. This historical portrayal commemorates the arrival of the first Spanish settlers in this area in April 1598.”

In fact, the Texas House of Representatives passed a resolution in 1990 naming the San Elizario First Thanksgiving on April 30, 1598, as an official holiday and in 2001 Gov. Rick Perry proclaimed the day as the First Thanksgiving, resulting in the Texas school systems adding it to their history curriculum.

  The facade of the Socorro Mission gives the illusion of a prop but walking through the doors reveals the depth and length of this old mission church.

The facade of the Socorro Mission gives the illusion of a prop but walking through the doors reveals the depth and length of this old mission church.

owever, earlier this year the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society suggested the El Paso Mission Trail Association to abandon its claim of the first Thanksgiving, saying there is no actual proof of the event, attributing the story to a tourism ploy to attract visitors to San Elizario. The San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society does concede that a “Thanks-taking” took place, but technicalities aside, a Thanksgiving did indeed take place here and both sides argue the merits of historical accuracy.

Interestingly enough, Florida claims the very first Thanksgiving took place in St. Augustine when a Spanish explorer landed there Sept. 8, 1565, and celebrated a Thanksgiving feast with the Timucua Indians, 56 years before the Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Regardless, the first Thanksgiving in America was a Catholic celebration and this may be a disagreement between Catholics and Protestants rather than an argument to be made of a historical nature.

The annual Thanksgiving re-enactment takes place in San Elizario in April of every year, so there are lots of facts and details to be sorted out then.

Another pretty interesting annual event is the Billy the Kid Festival in San Elizario every June, which is marked with a re-enactment of the famous1876 breakout of Billy the Kid’s friend from the old El Paso County Jail by the legend himself. Details can be found on the visitelpaso.com/events page.

  The Socorro Mission church attracts visitors with its golden altar and wooden structures.

The Socorro Mission church attracts visitors with its golden altar and wooden structures.

The most recognizable of the mission churches, and the one farthest south from Fort Bliss, is the Presidio Chapel in San Elizario. This is also where the Mission Trail begins. Although 29 miles sounds like quite a distance, it’s in the El Paso vicinity and a short drive. After traveling about 22 miles on 54 West and I-10 East, follow the Mission Trail signs and exit I-10 East toward Clint/San Elizario/1110, taking a right onto Clint/1110. From there, signs will take you another six miles to the Presidio Chapel.

San Elizario itself is a quintessential little southwest American Tex-Mex town. Weekends are especially bustling with restaurants and mariachi bands playing for diners eating alfresco. There is a very active arts community there as well, and as you drive through town to the Presidio Chapel you might be tempted to stop and shop for authentic gifts for family back home.

After visiting the iconic mission chapel in San Elizario and taking some photos of the classic adobe exterior, it’s easy to head back the way you came in and follow the signs to the next location, which is the Mission Socorro. This mission church has a stunning golden interior and an unusual graveyard with headstones dating back, well, a long, long time, along with recently deceased. Records show that Socorro was officially founded during a Catholic mass Oct. 13, 1680.

Just down the road marked by easy to follow signs is the final destination, Mission Ysleta and is Texas’ oldest active Catholic parish. It also arguably has the most colorful interior of the three mission churches as the long, narrow aisle leads to a large crucifix above the gold gilded altar backed in baby blue skies with white cloud. Looking upward is a narrow ceiling made of wooden planks matching the pews.

Keeping in mind that these are still active Catholic churches, Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings are not the time to visit as a tourist because mass is being celebrated. Weekdays and Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. are optimal, following the order suggested above, with Presidio Chapel in San Elizario first, the Socorro Mission second, ending at the Ysleta Mission.

Visit www.VisitElPasoMissionTrail.com for more information on the Mission Trail.