In 1769, Spanish Franciscan St. Junipero Serra crossed from Mexico into what is today California and founded the first of 21 in a chain of missions that would run up the length of the state. The purpose of Franciscan missions was to teach California ’s Indian tribes the Catholic faith, improve their standard of living, and make them citizens of the Spanish state. The missions prospered in their early years, winning Indian converts and often thriving economically.
But after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the missions were taken from the Church and their lands sold off to private parties. After California became a U.S. state in 1850, many of the mission buildings were returned to the Catholic Church, but they had passed from being a center of Catholic life in the state to decaying remnants of an earlier era.
Yet by the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century, preservationists began to take the initiative to restore many of the mission sites, preserving disintegrating adobe buildings, repairing or replacing rotting wooden window frames and doors, and going in search of mission artifacts that were held in private hands. Throughout the state today, the missions are often popular tourist attractions, their original structures preserved to varying degrees. They contain some common elements, such as mission-style architecture, adobe buildings, arches, fountains and winding pathways, gardens, and Spanish colonial-era art. But each has its own unique characteristics and history. Here is a glimpse at three.
Mission San Juan Capistrano – best preserved, bells still ring
The seventh of nine missions founded by St. Junipero Serra, California’s most famous missionary, Mission San Juan Capistrano is the “best preserved” of any mission in the state, according to docent Bob Spidell. Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter holds its meetings at the Mission every month, and hosted the 2019 Summit’s opening evening there.
Established in 1776, its 9-acre site includes Serra chapel, an adobe structure that is one of California’s oldest buildings. The long, narrow chapel is still used for daily Mass, and includes ornate Spanish art that predates the mission itself.
Another of the Capistrano mission’s unique features include its Great Stone Church, an impressive stone structure completed in 1806, but which collapsed in a massive earthquake during morning Mass on December 8, 1812. More than 40 worshippers were killed in the disaster.
Among the Capistrano mission’s most notable features are its historic bells, rung annually on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, during the mission’s most famous celebration, the Return of the Swallows.
Other structures on the grounds include 18th-century soldiers’ barracks, a kitchen, storage house, and dining room. There are also remnants of the mission work areas, such as its winery and metal smelting area.
The Capistrano mission calendar shows many impressive annual events, such as its Music Under the Stars summer concert series. The historic mission site is located alongside a new parish mission church and the parish school; take a stroll into the new church and see its magnificent Golden Retablo (altarpiece) installed in 2007.
Mission Santa Barbara – CA’s first Catholic Cathedral
The tenth of California’s missions, this is the first not founded by Fr. Serra himself. Fr. Fermin Lasuen, a protégé of Serra’s, established the Santa Barbara mission in 1786 after the saint had died. It served the Chumash Indians; during the period 1786-1846, over 4,700 Chumash were received into the Catholic faith.
Popular features include the Sacred Garden with its tall palms and fountain; the oldest quadrangle of the mission that was originally a work area, but was transformed into a garden in the 19th century. The 1820 mission church with its neoclassical façade is another noteworthy feature. It is actually the third adobe church built on the site, and it replaced a previous church which collapsed in an 1812 earthquake (a few weeks after the one that destroyed the Capistrano church).
Other original buildings include a convento wing where the mission’s museum is housed, with a second story added later in the 19th century. The museum depicts the role of baptized Chumash as artists, musicians, singers, and artisans, said Mónica Orozco, the mission’s executive director, and it houses a recording of the acts of faith, hope, and charity recited in Barbareño Chumash by Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto, whose mother was the last fluent speaker of Barbareño Chumash.
The mission’s 15-acre site also includes a cemetery and historic mausoleum. Look for the large Ficus tree dating back to the 19th century, and the plaque marking the site where the famous Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island was buried (she lived alone on an island off California’s coast for nearly 20 years before coming to the mission; the children’s novel The Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on her story). Also enjoy an olive grove with Stations of the Cross, and La Huerta, a historical garden.
A recreated 17th-century kitchen gives visitors the chance to see the original building materials of adobe and sandstone, and a treasures room includes the mission’s original tabernacle and altar constructed by Chumash artisans in 1789.
The mission is home to 23 Franciscan friars and the order’s Franciscan Novitiate Program. It also served as the state’s first Catholic cathedral, and was the residence of its first bishop, Bishop García Diego. He is buried behind the altar in the church.
Mission San Miguel – founded for Salinan Indians
Located about halfway between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area along the 101 freeway is Mission San Miguel, another mission founded by Fr. Lasuen, this one in 1797. Founded by Franciscans to serve the Salinan Indians, it was administered by diocesan priests for a time, but since 1928 has again been given to the care of the Franciscans.
Its old adobe church was built from 1816-21, and is notable for its interior frescoes created by artist Esteban Munras. There is an adobe kitchen, dining room, reception area, and large open courtyard. Exhibits tell the story of the Salinan people and life in the early mission era.
Mission San Miguel’s history includes the most appalling mass murder ever committed on the grounds of a California mission. In 1848, the mission was the residence of William Reed and his family. It was the start of the Gold Rush, and Reed bragged he had struck it rich. Six men came to the mission to steal his gold. An orgy of killing began when one of the killers struck Reed from behind with an axe (you can still see the fireplace in front of which he was murdered). They went on to kill the rest of Reed’s family and his servants, including an Indian boy who begged for his life. A total of 11 died. No gold was discovered. A posse caught up with five of the killers; two were killed in a shootout and three captured and later executed. The sixth was never found.
Also part of the San Miguel mission’s story is the 2003 earthquake that severely damaged its buildings and led to its temporary closure. The diocese raised $15 million for repairs, and the mission has since reopened to the public. But, as with all the missions, repair and restoration is ongoing.
When visiting California, make time to visit one or more of the missions. They are a rich part of the state’s history, and the birthplace of the Catholic faith in California. Check websites for hours, costs, and tour information. Most are functioning parishes, so look for Mass and Confession times. It will be a greatly treasured experience.
JIM GRAVES is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.