The Spanish Missions of California
Overview. California is endowed with some of the most diverse geography and geology in the world but its historical legacy is relatively new dating only to the late 18th century. In comparison Arizona’s Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson and Tumacacori Mission date to 1699 and 1691 respectively. New Mexico’s mission churches are even older as are the ones in Texas, such as the Ysleta Mission outside of El Paso. The Spanish made the first claims in Alta California by populating the province with 21 Franciscan missions that lined the El Camino Real. Alta California was the region which is now the U.S. state of California, not to be confused with Baja California, now part of Mexico. Baja California extends from Tijuana to the tip of the Baja peninsula. As part fo the Spanish empire, Baja had been settled much earlier. Some of the towns and missions in Baja date to the early 17th century. At the time of the establishment of Alta California’s missions, the first in 1769, the Spanish empire was in decline. Nevertheless these 21 missions served the dual purpose of converting Native Americans to Christianity, sometimes under dubious and coercive circumstances, and to secure a presence, or foothold, in Alta California for the Spanish crown. It was at this point that other empires were making similar claims in the region, such as Russia, which had established fur trading forts in the northern part of the state.
History. The oldest of the 21 missions was founded in San Diego. Named Mission San Diego de Alcala it was originally built in 1769 and was located on Presidio Hill in what is now Old Town San Diego. In 1773 it was moved 8 miles away to a more isolated spot because there was a better source of water. Today the mission still stands on that spot, largely rebuilt from the original foundations. Father Junipero Serra was the founder of the Alta California missions. Friar Serra, a Franciscan, came from Majorca, Spain in the Balearic Islands, where he was born in 1713. He died in 1780 at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Second, c. 1770) near Carmel, California, where he is currently buried. Under his visage nine of the missions of Alta California were established. Following Father Serra's death, Fray Fermin Francisco de Lausen (1736-1803) took over as presidente of the misisons. He founded nine missions after 18 years and is also buried at San Carlos Borromeo Mission Church in Carmel. There is staute commemorating him at the Mission San Fernando, Rey de Espana (c. 1797) ($4 adult, $3 child as of April 2011) in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Today almost all of the missions remain active Roman Catholic congregations. However, this wasn’t always the case. When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1810 the missions were left to fend for themselves between 1810 and the 1830s. The final blow was struck in 1833 when Mexico passed a secularization decree. The Mexican government sold the mission properties and the proceeds went towards the colonization of Alta and Baja California. At that point the Franciscans abandoned the missions and many of the missions fell into disrepair and disuse - their materials plundered for construction. Earthquakes also did their part in destroying many of the original buildings. The ruins at Mission San Juan Capistrano (Seventh, c. 1776) ($8 adult as of October 20110) remains the most visible example of nature’s toll on the buildings. When the United States raised the flag over California in 1850 after the Mexican-American War they naturally confiscated the lands on which stood the missions as well as other property such as those belonging to the Native Americans and recipients of former Spanish land grants.
Architecture. Many of the missions have a mixed architecture which makes their hybrid styles unique. They were also almost exclusively built of abode brick with wood support which made them easily susceptible to damage from earthquakes. Containing Moorish, Spanish, Colonial, and Mexican lines were common and many of these features can be seen in the missions. Still other elements such as Greco-Roman and Byzantine are exhibited in the ruins of the San Juan Capistrano Mission and its unique vaulted walls that are still standing. Up until the time it was built in 1776 it was the only of the missions not be constructed of abode and was known as the ‘Great Stone Church’. Most of it collapsed in the earthquake of 1800. Before that the sandstone edifice stood 50’ high, by 40’ wide, by 180’ long, and had a 120’ high bell tower. Known as the Jewel of the California Missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano has beautiful gardens and walled compounds which include soldiers barracks (1791), Museum Rooms along its South and West Wings, the North Corridor, which housed warehouses, a Central Courtyard, the ornate Serra Chapel (1788), the Mission Cemetery as well as gardens. The risk of natural disaster such as earthquakes still remains a threat to some of these simples structures built of abode brick and wood. Built in 1771 as the fourth mission, the moorish-styled Mission San Gabriel ($5 adult, $3 child as of April 2011) in San Gabriel was damaged in an 1804 earthquake. Another earthquake in 1812 further damaged much of the rebuilt mission and many of the mission walls are as much as four to seven feet thick which keeps them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Despite frequent reconstruction, Mission San Gabriel is the oldest structure of its kind in California south of Monterey, CA. The interiors of the churches are no less spectacular and many have typically ornate altars, some imported from Spain and Mexico that predate the churches. There are also artifacts such as bells, baptismal fonts, and statues that were imported from Spain. Almost all of the missions were built along similarly uniform layouts of a quadrangle with the chapel anchoring one end or corner. Around the sides of the quadrangle were typically located work shops, dormitories, food stores, and convents. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is unique in that it has an L-shaped floor plan with the altar in the middle,or at the joint of the L. Its location is in downtown San Luis Obispo at the center of a beautiful historic square.
Visiting the Missions. Eash mission is unique in its own right. Some are more interesting and spectacular than others but they were all really founded with the central and collective purpose. Interestingly, if you travel up the old El Camino Real, you will find they were not necessarily founded in order from north to south, an easy assumption. The first one founded in 1769, in today’s San Diego, was followed by the mission in Carmel, San Carlos Borromeo (Second, c. 1770), in 1770, about 300 miles to the north. In the coming years more missions were founded in Alta California until there were twenty-one by 1823. The last of the missions founded is the farthest north, Mission San Francisco de Solano (21st, c. 1823) in present day Sonoma. The misison in Solano is part of Sonoma State Historic Park and one of two that no longer serves an active congregation. Another interesting fact about this last mission is that it was established by independent Mexico, not Spain, as a bulwark against Russian colonization. Another was planned to be built in Santa Rosa, but it did not materialize. There were also sub-missions that were established, or missions known as asistencia to the main mission. For instance today’s Mission San Antonio de Pala Asistencia (c. 1816) served as the asistencia, twenty miles to the east of it’s parent mission San Luis Rey de Francia (18th, c. 1798), one of the largest in the Alta California missions located in Oceanside, California. The Pala Mission, across the street from the mega casino, is the only California mission on an Indian Reservation and serves an active parish. Please be mindful that most of the missions are active churches and a respectful behavior and attire is appreciated. Most fo the missioons can be accessed from U.S 1 and U.S 101, especially north of L.A. See the maps below for exact locations and addresses to each mission. The misisons that area still active congregations have entrance fees and entrance ways that are often accessed throug the gift shops. Prices vary between missions. If you want to see only the church, it is possible to avoid paying if you check the mass schedule and attend the mass or arrive before or after the mass. Be respectful and avoid taking pictures while the mass is in session. For the curious and surprised one of the most famous personalities interred on the grounds of the missions is Bob Hope, who is buried in the cemetery of Mission San Fernando behind the chapel.
South to North (The Missions in Brief). 1. Mission San Diego de Alcala. Located in San Diego and the first of the twenty one missions founded in 1769. The original was located on Presidio Hill in what is now Old Town but nothing of that building remains. The current mission was relocated 8 miles inland and estbliahed in 1773. The current building dates from about 1803.
2. Mission San Luis Rey de Francia (Oceanside, CA). Dating to 1798, this mission was the eighteenth to be founded and is also the largest. It was also the most successful at converting Native Americans. The oldest part of the church remaining, the abode walls, dates from 1811.
3. Mission San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano, CA). Orange County's only mission, this is possible the most famous of the twenty one and well known for its timely migration of sparrows. The ruins fo the original stone basilica provides the visitor with some sense of magnitude which rivals that of great churches in Europe. Known as the 'jewel of the California Missions', San Juan Capistrano was the seventh mission to be founded in 1775. The Serra Chapel is said to be the oldest building in California and the only extant building where Father Serra said Mass.
4. Mission San Gabriel Arcangel (San Gabriel, CA). The fourth in order of estblishment, founded in 1771, Mission San Gabriel is three miles south of Pasadena. The current church dates to 1805 although significant damage was done through neglect and the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake.
5. Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana (Los Angeles, CA). Wedged between I-5 and I-405 and located in the Mission Hills of the San Fernando Valley this was the 17th mission in order of foundation established in 1797. The highlight is the convent with four foot thick walls and twenty-one Romanesque arches and built in 1822.
6. Mission San Buenaventura (Ventura, CA). Founded in 1782, the ninth in order, and the last to be founded by Father Serra. The first church burned down in 1793 and after 16 years the second, and current church, was completed by neophyte Chumash Indian labor.
7. Mission Santa Barbara (San Barbara, CA). The 'Queen of the California Missions' was established in 1786 as the tenth mission. The structure seen today, a stone church, dates from 1820. The mission is currently a Franciscan friary as well as a parish church. Admission is $5/adult as of August 2011.
8. Mission San Ines (Solvang, CA). Founded in 1804 as the nineteenth mission, it is known as the "Hidden Gem of the Missions", and the original structure was destroyed by an 1812 earthquake. The current building, except the bell tower, dates to 1817. The belltower dates to 1948 after the orignal collapsed in 1911.
9. Mission La Purisima Concepcion (Lompoc, CA). The eleventh mission founded in 1787, it is one of only two that is not currently an active church. Despite that it is the complete example of a Spanish Catholic mission complex. Restored by the C.C.C. and dedicated in 1941 as the La Purisima Mission State Historic Site, it is governed by the State of California. Located off Purisima Road near Vandenberg Village, there are hiking trails around the state park and the setting is beautiful.
10. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (San Luis Obispo, CA). Founded as the fifth mission in 1772, marking the halfway point between Santa Barbara and Monterey the mission was renovated between 1794 and 1819 with a complete quadrangle.
11. Mission San Miguel Arcangel (San Miguel, CA). Founded in 1797 as the sixteenth of twenty-one the active parish church was recently reopned after repairs from a 2003 earthquake. The church building, 144 feet in length and 40 feet high, dates to 1818 and the cemetery holds the remains of 2,249 Native Americans. Before the recent repairs from earthquake damage, Mission San Miguel was considered one of the most authentic - little had changed from 1818.
12. Mission San Antonio de Padua (near Jolon, Ca, on Fort Hunter-Liggett). Founded in 1771 as the third mission, the buildings of the mission experiened various renovations following a 1906 earthquake. It is still an active parish and beautifully isolated on Fort Hunter-Liggett. Check times for visitation (10 am -4 pm) as the mission is located about a third mile after a gate in dirt road. The gate is closed after hours. This sprawling mission complex features many peripheral structures such as mills, cemetery, wells, and an olive press. The olive tree in the front of the mission dates to 1836 and was planted by the priests.
13. Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad (Soledad, CA). Known as 'the lonely mission' it was founded in 1791 as the thirteenth. When restoration begin in the 1950s the mission was little more than a few crumbling adobe walls, which sit a few yards east of the newly constructed mission church. Not often visited, the Soledad Mission, has beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and now functions as a working parish.
14. Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA). Also known as the Carmel Mission, it is one of the better known misisons along with Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano. Founded in 1771 as the second mission, Father Serra moved the original from Monterey to this location to distance himself from the rowdy soldiers found at the city's presidio. Beneath the altar is the burial crypt of Father Junipero Serra and it was here that Father Serra established his base before his death in 1784. The beautiful grounds contain gardens, a cemetery, museum, and the iconic quadrangle centered by a traditional fountain. The present stone church dates to 1793 and after the secularization in 1834 it was left abandoned. Rebuilding efforts began in earnest in 1931 and the Carmel Mission is not to miss for anyone who visits the Monterey area. As of February 2012 entrance fees for adults were $6.50.
15. Mission San Juan Bautista (San Juan Bautista, CA). The fifteenth mission founded in 1797. Some of the clips from the 1958 Alfed Hitchcock classic Vertigo were filmed on site. By area, it's the largest of California's mission churches and the adjacent to San Juan Bautista State Historic Site which includes the Plaza Hotel, town plaza, and Castro House. The San Andreas fault lies just north of the mission boundaries and a concrete staircase leads down to the trough. Entrance fee for adults is $4.00 (August 2013).
16. Mission Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA). Completely reconstructed, the original was the twelfth mission founded in 1791. Today's church, located down the street, functions as a museum, half the size of the original, and the Holy Cross Church now sits on the original location of the mission. The replica is administered by the state of California as part of the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park and the Holy Cross Church is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey. There is an entrance fee for the replica and a small museum which includes a reliquary. Both churches sit adjacent to a park and older buildings of what can best be described as 'old town' Santa Cruz.
17. Mission Santa Clara de Asis (Santa Clara, CA). The eighth mission founded in 1777 has been destroyed and rebuilt six times and relocated as well but its presence has persisted continuously despite disruptions brought by fire, flood, and earthquake. The current structure dates to 1929 as a 1925 fire destroyed the church that was rebuilt in 1828. Also, the current location is not the original spot which was near the banks of the Guadalupe River. The present site dates to 1828. Today the Mission is the historical centerpiece of Santa Clara University, a Jesuit-founded university and the oldest institution of higher learning in California dating to 1851. It functions as both a parish church and university chapel for the Diocese of San Jose. Admission is free but it is recommended that you join a campus tour or get a visitor pass during weekdays. Original abode walls give some sense of its history and the wooden cross from the original 1777 mission still stands in front of the church today.
18. Mission San Jose (Fremont, CA). The white-washed, stout, angular church building is the current version of this mission which was founded in 1797 as the fourteenth mission. The current structure is a reconstruction of the 1809 adobe church and was rededicated in 1985.
19. Mission Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores) (San Francisco, CA). Said ot be the city's oldest remaining building the older mission chapel sits adjacent to the beautiful church built in the early twentieth century. The chapel dates to 1782 and has changed little since its construction.
20. Mission San Rafael Arcangel (San Rafael, CA). Founded in 1817 as the 20th mission it originally served as an asistencia to the mission in San Francisco and was also used as an infirmary to treat sick Native Americans. The current church building dates to 1861 which were restored in 1949.
21. Mission San Francisco Solana (Sonoma, CA). The last and most northerly of the twenty one missions, founded in 1823, this mission was the only one never under the jurisdiction of the Spanish. The Mexican government founded it to continue the formerly Spanish efforts to check southward Russian expansion in the region. It is also one of two missions that are not currently active churches and it is governed by the State of California as part of the Sonoma State Historic Park.
Cristianitos State Historcial Marker. Located on Camp Pendleton the state historical marker (No. 562) commemorates the site of the first Christian baptism in Alta California which occurred in 1769.
Las Flores Estancia. The ruins and a state historical marker (no. 616) for the former asistencia mission of Mission San Luis Rey . All that remains is a small section of eroded adobe wall. Located on Camp Pendleton.
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