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The California Missions

One of the most famous roads in all the world is California Route One, a coastal highway that traverses the entire length of the state. A portion of this highway ls known as El Camino Real (The Royal Road), which begins in San Diego, runs 600 miles north, to the far side of the San Francisco Bay, where it concludes in the Sonoma Valley. It is, indeed, a royal road, strewn with 21 jewels that are the ancient remnants of a once thriving empire--Spain. These ancient remnants are, of course, the 21 California Missions. Many of them have lent their name to the suburbs, towns and cities that sprung up around them: San Diego de Alcalá, Santa Barbara, San Buenaventura (the city of Ventura), San Francisco de Asis, San Fernando Rey de España (suburban San Fernando Valley), San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel-By-The-Sea), San José de Guadalupe, San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel Arcángel (suburban San Gabriel Valley), Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara de Asis (present day Santa Clara University).

The missions were built during a seventy-year period, from around the 1760s to the 1830s, and no two are alike. As with the plantations of the Old South, they were independent, self-contained units, that created, raised, planted, and cultivated everything they would need, and produced a cash crop--wine. They also created a unique architecture that has influenced California architecture ever since--the California Mission Style.

Each mission is built around a church. Indeed, the "mission" of the missions was to convert California's native Indians into christians. Each church is surround by a quadrangle fortification that houses sleeping quarters, stables, carpentry and blacksmith shops, warehouses for storing barrels of wine, and rooms for tanning hides, making candles and soap, weaving raw fabric into woolen blankets, and a mill for grinding wheat into flour.


For the first five years of our marriage, every summer Cindy and I would drive up El Camino Real, beginning in Ventura, stopping for a couple days in Carmel, and ending just north of Santa Clara, in Palo Alto. It was during this time that we began visiting many of the Missions. What follows is a highlight of what we found--the best of the best. I like to think of them as . . .


1 - SANTA BARBARA (founded 1786). Santa Barbara is one of the few missions never to have stopped holding church services. It's called "The Queen of the Missions", because the church building features a magnificent Roman temple facade, twin bell towers, and a commanding view of the vast shimmering Santa Barbara Bay. Built entirely of stone at a time when most mission churches were constructed of mud adobe bricks, it was primarily the work of one highly-trained Chumash Indian craftsman. According to mission records, the design was copied from "The Six Books of Architecture" by Vitrivius Polion, written in 27 B.C.

Besides the church, Mission Santa Barbara is noted for an elaborate water system, the most complete of any of the missions. It was a sophisticated system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts, that transported water from nearby Pendregosa Creek, to the fountain in front of the church, and then on to the laundry, gardens, and fruit orchards. A second aqueduct carried drinking water to a settling tank and filtration system. Parts of the water system are still in use today.

Santa Barbara was always an active and prosperous mission, partly because of its location near a busy port. The buildings and grounds never suffered the destruction that occurred in other missions, after the secularization of the 1830s, because the property remained continuously in the hands of the Catholic Church.

The 21 missions are spaced approximately thirty mile apart, or a day's journey on horseback, just as the Franciscan Father Junipero Serra planned it. While he didn't live to see the completion of the mission chain, the welfare of the missions dominated much of his life, particularly that of the native Indians who did much of the manual labor. One of his great joys was to walk up the state on El Camino Real, beginning in San Diego, spending one night in each of the missions, until reaching his destination, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo.

In their glory years, the Missions welcomed travelers with a bed and hot meal, and, no doubt, a cup of their finest wine.

2 - SAN CARLOS BORROMEO DE CARMELO (founded 1770). The Carmel Mission, as it is known today, was Father Serra's favorite. As with Santa Barbara, the church edifice is built entirely of stone, and is the work of one man, Manuel Ruiz, a professional stone mason, from Mexico. The bell tower, topped with an onion-shaped half dome, is a curious blend of Moorish and European architecture. Unlike most of the missions today, which suffered from years of neglect, much of the Mission exists in its original state--the quadrangle complex and interior courtyard, working fountain, a stand of olive trees, and attractive gardens.

3 - LA PURISIMA CONCEPCION (founded 1787). Located in an inland valley, approximately 60 miles northeast of Santa Barbara, La Purisima is the only mission not to be encroached upon by urban sprawl. Indeed, if you desire to see how the missions looked and operated in their original state, La Purisima is for you.

Today, the mission is a 966-acre State Historic Park, completely reconstructed and restored during the 1930s, by the Civilian Conservation Corps. If you visit, you can see how cow hides were processed, and how animal fat was rendered to make material for soap and candles; what you won't see are cloaked padres conducting mass, as the church is defunct.

4 - SAN FRANCISCO DE ASIS (founded 1776). Looking at the church today, flanked on every side by the bulk of large modern buildings, it's hard to imagine that here once sprawled a fully functioning mission, with surrounding quadrangle, extensive orchards, and vast fields of grain, as well as grazing grounds for sheep and cattle, and, could it be? a stream and a lake. Of course, nothing of this remains today, except the original church, a small, white-washed brick and mortar structure that has survived a number of earthquakes, including the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Though small and diminished, it remains the little church that lent its name to a great urban center.

5 - SAN GABRIEL ARCANGEL (founded 1771). Living in Glendale, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was practically in our backyard, which meant we didn't have far to drive to see it. While the out buildings are made of adobe bricks, the church itself is built with stone at the base, and higher up with fire-treated bricks. The church is unlike any in the mission chain, a fortress-like structure, its stout walls flanked with evenly-spaced horizontal buttresses, and, in between, high, narrow windows. The overall appearance is that of the Moorish cathedral in Cordoba, Spain, reminiscent of the diocese where mission founder Father Antonio Crusado, studied for the priesthood. The attached campanario (bell wall) displays six bronze bells, that when tolled, can be heard in the pueblo section of Los Angeles, eight miles away.

In its prime, San Gabriel Arcángel was the most prosperous of all the California missions, the leading grain producer, and boastful of producing the finest wine in the Spanish territory, as much as 50,000 gallons annually. The mission also features an orchard of 2,333 fruit trees, the variety of which grow oranges, lemons, apples, pears, peaches, and figs.

The saddest testimonial at San Gabriel is the graveyard, for 6,000 Indians, primarily epidemic victims. In California in 1769, there were an estimated 100,000 Indians, the most populous concentration of Indians on the North American continent. In California, during the mission era, the white man's diseases, such as measles and smallpox, devastated whole Indian communities, as the Indians had no natural immunities to protect them. When the question is asked, "How did the Indian fare under the mission system?" According to one historian, the first answer must be: in any prolonged contact with white Europeans, the California Indian was doomed to near extinction by disease alone.

6 - SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO (founded 1776). Located 30 miles due south of the San Gabriel Mission, is San Juan Capistrano. Founded by none other than Father Junipero Serra, the history of San Juan Capistrano is a romantic tale that reaffirms how fragile the best-wrought works of man can be.

In 1806, a gifted stone mason from Culiacan, Mexico, named Isidor Aguilar, was called up to replace the small adobe building that served as the mission's church. He fashioned the new church from sandstone, quarried six miles away, a structure that surpassed in sophistication and professionalism, any other edifice in California, up to that time. The building featured vaulted ceilings and seven domes. To top it off, literally, he built a 120-foot tower that displayed four large bells. For six years the impressive church stood proudly, until a morning in 1812, when a severe earthquake struck the area, causing the walls to sway and buckle, and the entire structure to collapse in on itself.

From that point on, indeed, until today, church services are held in the original adobe church, now called "Father Serra's Chapel." Ironically, the chapel is the only building still standing at any mission in which Junipero Serra is known to have conducted services. Aguilar's glorious building was never rebuilt, but remains a magnificent wreck, partially overgrown with vines.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is best known for the annual return of the swallows, on St. Joseph's Day (March 19), from their winter home in Argentina.

The mission received attention from a Bostonian traveler named Richard Henry Dana, who in a scene from his book "Two Years Before The Mast" describes how the cowhides ("California banknotes") from the Mission were delivered to a Yankee cutter moored in a harbor, at the foot of an ocean cliff. "This was the way they were got down," writes Dana. "(The hides) were thrown down one at a time, a distance of 400 feet. Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far out into the air as we could; and they were all large, stiff and doubled over like the cover of a book, the wind took them, and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it had broken its string." (note: the site of this activity is known today as, Dana's Point).

- END -

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