Wednesday, September 23, 2015


The Spanish missions in Alta California comprise a series of 21 religious and military outposts; established by the Franciscan order between 1769 and 1833, to spread Christianity among the local Native Americans. The missions were part of the first major effort by Europeans to colonize the Pacific Coast region, the most northern and western of Spain's North American claims. The settlers introduced European fruits, vegetables, cattle, horses, ranching and technology into the Alta California region; however, the Spanish colonization of California also brought with it serious negative consequences to the Native American populations with whom the missionaries and other Spaniards came in contact.

The government of Mexico secularized the missions in the 1830s and divided the vast mission land holdings into land grants which became many of the Ranchos of California. In the end, the missions had mixed results in their objectives: to convert, educate, and "civilize" the indigenous population and transform the natives into Spanish colonial citizens. Today, the surviving mission buildings are the state's oldest structures and the most-visited historic monuments. And everyone has their favorites.

Patient years of labor, heroic decades of sacrifice by St. Junipero Serra, his Franciscan Padres, and the California Indians who supplied the labor lie behind the founding era of the 21 missions. Most of the missions still stand, sources of wonder and beauty originally a day's ride on horseback apart, along 600 miles of California's beautiful coastline. By the time the last mission was built in 1823, the Golden State had grown from an untamed wilderness to a thriving agricultural frontier on the verge of American statehood.

San Miguel- Ferdinand Deppe (First painting of a Mission)

The first leg of El Camino Real was forged by General Gaspar de Portola on his journey from San Diego to find Monterey Bay. Tracing his path, missionaries, colonists and soldiers all traveled its dusty stretches; it was the only road between the few civilized outposts. The road was later identified with the missions because the padres maintained the roadway and offered hospitable lodging to all. It served as the north-south stagecoach route after California became a state in 1850, and in the 1920s bronze mission bells were placed along the highway to let motorists know they were traveling the historic El Camino Real.

Interesting to note, St. Junipero Serra only founded seven of the missions, the first being San Diego in 1769 and the last in 1782, San Buenaventura (Ventura).  In between came: St. Charles Borromeo (at Carmel), San Antonio de Padua, San Luis Obespo, San Juan Capistrano (my favorite), and Santa Clara.

Julius Ludovici- 1860s

Julius Ludovici- 1860s

 Father Fermin Lasuen founded nine of the missions and the remaining were found singly by other Franciscan friars.  Father Lasuen founded Santa Barbara in 1786 followed by: La Purísima Concepción, Santa Cruz, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, San José, San Juan Bautista, San Miguel Arcángel, San Fernando Rey, and lastly San Luis Rey de Francia in 1798.

San Gabriel Arcángel was founded in 1771 by Fathers Pedro Cambon &  Angel Somera and
San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) in 1776 by Father Francisco Palóu.

Santa Inés in 1804 by Father Estevan Tapis, San Rafael Arcángel (1817) by Father Vicente de Sarria and the last mission founded, San Francisco Solano in 1823 by Father Jose Altimira.   

Capistrano- Karen Winters
The 21 missions that comprise California's Historic Mission Trail are all located on or near Highway 101, which roughly traces El Camino Real (The Royal Road) named in honor of the Spanish monarchy which financed the expeditions into California in the quest for empire. From San Diego to Los Angeles, the historic highway is now known as Interstate 5. From Santa Clara to San Francisco, the road is called State Highway 82. North of San Francisco, Highway 101 again picks up the trail to the mission at San Rafael. From there, State Highway 37 leads to the last mission at Sonoma.

Largely reconstructed after the ravages of time, weather, earthquakes and neglect, most of the missions still operate as active Catholic parishes, with regularly scheduled services. Some interesting facts about a few of the missions:.

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, 2nd mission
Founded by Father Serra in 1770 on Pentecost Sunday, this mission was considered to be his favorite, and both he and Father Lasuen are buried here. It served as the ecclesiastical capital of California and also as Father Serra's headquarters for administrative duties as presidente of the missions. Set against the sea and mountains 115 miles south of San Francisco, this beautiful mission presents the complete quadrangle courtyard typical of mission architecture.

San Carlos- Shelley Cost
San Gabriel Arcangel, 4th mission (The mission I visited most as a child)
Founded in 1771 by Junipero Serra, this fortress-like structure with five-foot thick walls and narrow windows is a design not found in any other mission. Located nine miles east of downtown Los Angeles, at one time it covered several hundred thousand acres; one fourth of the wealth of California missions in stock and grain was credited to San Gabriel. One bell, which weighs a ton, can be heard eight miles away.

Edward Vischer

San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 5th mission
The humble chapel built of logs was dedicated to St. Louis, Bishop of Tolosa in 1772, and was the first mission to use tiles extensively on the roof due to repeated attacks by Indians who used flaming arrows to ignite the original thatched roof. Situated in the fertile, well-watered Valley of the Bears, the mission produced an abundance of crops, and two water-powered grist mills processed foods normally ground by hand. The mission underwent an extensive restoration program in the 1930's and today welcomes visitors to its nearly-original condition.

San Francisco de Asis, Mission Dolores, 6th mission
On a site selected by Juan Bautista de Anza, the first mission church was a 50-foot long log and mud structure that was eventually moved to higher ground, adjacent to Lake Dolores which gives it its second name, Mission Dolores. Dedicated to Saint Francis by Father Serra in 1776, today the mission sits in the heart of San Francisco and is the oldest building in the city. Much of the original church interior is intact and the guilded reredos and colorful wall paintings are good examples of early California art.

San Juan Capistrano, 7th mission (My Mother lived just miles away after my Father died- so a family favorite).
The chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, built in 1782, is thought to be the oldest standing building in California. Known as "Father Serra's Church," it is the only remaining church in which Father Serra is known to have celebrated the rites of the Roman Catholic Church (he presided over the confirmations of 213 people on October 12 and October 13, 1783).

San Juan Capistrano
Named for Crusader Saint John of Capistrano and designed in the shape of a cross, the great stone church once held seven domes and a bell tower so tall it could be seen from ten miles away. Severely damaged by an 1812 earthquake, the ruins are currently being preserved by archaeologists and engineers.  A gilded altarpiece illuminates the Serra Chapel of 1777, the oldest building still in use in California and the only surviving church where Father Serra said mass. Each year on St. Joseph's Day, March 19, the mission celebrates the return of the cliff swallows from Argentina with a traditional Mexican fiesta.

Santa Barbara, 10th mission
Founded in 1786, the "Queen of the Missions" was the first to be christened by Father Lasuen, and has continuously served as a parish church for the local population since its founding. The church was destroyed in 1925 by earthquake; however, restorations have returned it to its original grandeur of wrought iron, terra cotta and carved wood. Patterned after an ancient Latin chapel in pre-Christian Rome, its twin bell towers and Doric facade present an imposing impression of strength. Fr. Serra was present at the founding of the Presidio of Santa Barbara in  1782, but was prevented from locating the mission there because of the animosity of Governor Felipe de Neve.

Santa Barbara- Paul Grimm 1945

La Purisima Conception, 11th mission
Founded in 1787 by Father Lasuen the mission is located 50 miles west of Santa Barbara. Considered to be the best example of mission architecture.

Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, 13th mission
The padres named this mission for Our Lady of Solitude in 1791, which fits the isolated location of Soledad. Settled next to the Salinas River in the pastures and rolling hills 45 miles south of Monterrey, this lonely outpost was cold, damp and frequently whipped by winds. The soil was rich and the water plentiful however, and by 1805 Soledad was producing more than 100,000 bushels of wheat per year, owned nearly 17,000 head of livestock, and had become well-known for its hospitality.

San Juan Bautista, 15th mission
Founded by Father Lasuen in 1797 this mission was unwittingly located directly above the San Andreas fault. Much of the original structure remains and has been restored to once again be the largest California mission church and the only one with three aisles. It was named for John the Baptist. Musical arts were taught here and the mission owned many instruments, which the Indians readily took to. Father Tapis developed a colored musical notation system and taught the Indians to read music as well as play it. Some of the parchments with colored notations still survive and the reredos behind the altar is so well-preserved that the paint is still brilliant.

San Luis Rey- Mary Helmreich

San Luis Rey de Francia, 18th mission
Known as the King of the Missions, San Luis Rey de Francia lies in a sheltered valley just east of Oceanside on State Highway 76. Named for Louis IX, the crusading King of France, the cross-shaped church was dedicated on the Feast of St. Anthony in 1798 by Father Lasuen. Architecturally the most graceful of California's missions, it has been restored according to the original plans and designs.

Santa Ines, 19th mission  (my second favorite- just for the memories and emoteness- at least once a year in High school, friends and I would venture there with a picnic).
Named for a 13 year-old Roman martyr, St. Agnes, who refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods in 304 AD, Santa Ines was dedicated in 1804 by Father Estevan Tapis. Amazingly, it survived the numerous earthquakes. It has lovely gardens that appear today much as they did nearly 200 years ago.

Santa Inez- Edward Vischer

No comments:

Post a Comment