Spain claimed California in the early 1500s but for more than 200 years did nothing to advance that claim. Then, in 1769 as Russian interest in the area rejuvenated following the ascension of Catherine the Great and as British ships intruded on the Alta California coastline, Spain began to mark its territory by establishing a series of missions.
The missions were not only religious institutions. They were intended as anchors for further colonization. The missions were largely self-sufficient communities that grew crops, raised animals, made clothing and other essentials and garrisoned a military force. They engaged (sometimes voluntarily, on other occasions not so voluntarily) local Native Americans as workers.
In 1769 Spain established its first California mission. This was in San Diego. The following year Spain’s Carmel outpost was the site of the next mission. Eventually twenty-one missions extended over 1040 kilometers along the western side of California, each mission roughly a full days journey from the other. The last mission was built in 1823 in San Francisco. The missions more or less followed the path of El Camino Real – today’s U.S. 101.
Today these twenty-one missions are in varying states of repair and accessibility. Many are still active as centers of worship. However, they are also open-air museums that depict a California past that has been both romanticized and demonized. Film and popular fiction sometimes idealize California’s mission period and its immediate aftermath. On the other hand the manner in which Native Americans were treated by the mission fathers and the Spanish military is debated and frequently vilified. The recent canonization of Father Junipero Serra, who had been tasked to establish the missions, heightened the debate.
Unless you have a special interest it is not necessary to visit every mission in order to understand their role in California’s history. Their physical layouts are similar. Their stories overlap. However, visiting one or two does provide a better understanding of California’s heritage – a heritage that still impacts contemporary California life.
Of the five missions I will mention, three are located in areas where there is more to see and do than just visiting the mission – San Juan Capistrano, Ventura and Santa Barbara. On the other hand, while their surroundings may not be deemed tourist worthy the San Gabriel Mission, as the godmother of Los Angeles, and the San Fernando Mission, as the closest and in some ways the most charming, have their own allure.
Established at the same time as the American colonies declared their independence, Mission San Juan Capistrano is perhaps California’s best-known mission. Its Serra Chapel is said to be the oldest building in California still in active use.
Swallows made this mission famous. For many years on March 19, give or take a few days, American cliff swallows culminated their 10000-kilometer migration from Goya, Argentina and returned to the Capistrano mission. For the past few decades however, few if any birds have returned. An effort is currently being made to entice the swallows back.
The mission has been beautifully restored. The ruins of the original church (as opposed to the chapel) are inside the mission’s interior quadrangle, which is attractively landscaped. The quadrangle also includes barracks, warehouses, a cemetery, a jail and a number of rooms used to display historic items.
As opposed to the gift/book shops found in most of California’s missions, this bookstore has a relatively balanced selection of historic books and offers items that are not limited to religious artifacts.
Orange County’s San Juan Capistrano is a quaint town, about eight kilometers from the ocean. It’s a place for pleasant strolling and dining. Other areas of interest such as Dana Point and San Clemente are within easy driving distance.
In 1771, as a group of London underwriters met in a coffee shop 8900 kilometers distant and founded Lloyds of London, Father Junipero Serra established the San Gabriel Mission.
Sometimes referred to as the “Godmother of the Pueblo Los Angeles” the first non-native settlers began the final stage of their journey to Los Angeles from the San Gabriel Mission. Although the eleven families arrived in Los Angeles separately, the mission’s museum nevertheless displays what it identifies as the settlers’ Processional Cross.
The mission’s museum and grounds contain artifacts from the original mission. Its patio area is among the best preserved of the California missions with work areas for different functions, such as candle making. The mission and its vineyards were the principal source of wines for the other missions and were the source of what became southern California’s booming wine industry before it was supplanted by northern California.
The city of San Gabriel was an unplanned town that grew adjacent to the mission. In the 1890s Chinese laborers worked in the area’s orange groves. Today, Asians constitute nearly half of the town’s population and items such as steamed pork dumplings have supplanted the Spanish dishes that were the previous hallmark of the area.
In 1769, following a grueling journey from Mexico to San Diego and after helping to start the mission in San Diego, Don Gaspár de Portolá, the appointed Governor of California, led an overland expedition to explore the route from San Diego to Monterey. Along the way the expedition’s diarist, Padre Juan Crespí, documented a large valley he named Santa Catalina de Bononia de los Encinos (Sant Catherine of Bologna’s Valley of the Live Oaks) – today known as the San Fernando Valley. It was here that in 1797 the seventeenth of California’s missions, the San Fernando Mission was founded. Today it is located in the middle of a triangle formed by the I-405, I-5 and 118 freeways. Notwithstanding its location the mission’s environment is peaceful and serene.
Because of its proximity to Los Angeles and perhaps also because bedding there was free, it became a popular stopping place for travelers. The padres kept adding to the convent wing until the roadhouse became known as the “long building” of El Camino Real.
Governor Pio Pico leased the mission lands to his brother Andres, who made it his summer home. Later, the church and roadhouse were used as a warehouse and stable, while the quadrangle became a hog farm. In 1923 the mission became a church again. Today it has been restored and is an active church.
The beloved American comedian Bob Hope and his wife Dolores are buried within the mission walls.
Located in the city of Ventura, the ninth of the California missions, the Mission San Buenaventura was founded in 1782. It was the last of the California missions personally founded by Junipero Serra who died two years later.
The mission was subjected to attacks from Native Americans and pirates. It suffered damage from earthquakes and fires. But, perhaps most devastating was the actions of a well-intentioned priest. In the 1890s he decided to modernize the mission by covering the ceiling and floor with wood panels, installing stained glass windows and tearing out parts of the mission’s church including a hand-carved pulpit that hung on the side wall.
The mission has now been restored to its original design. Notwithstanding the restoration, for reasons I don’t fully understand, it is still one of my least favorite missions to visit. However, the city of Ventura is a pleasant place to spend a weekend afternoon and if you are already in the area, a visit to the mission will do you no harm.
The self-proclaimed “Queen of the Missions” was founded in late 1786, the tenth of the California missions. The structure was redesigned in 1815 following major damage in an 1812 earthquake. This time the exterior design was copied from a Roman book of architecture written in 27 B.C. resulting in its unique, neoclassical façade.
Elements of the mission’s aqueduct system are still visible and in use. Water was channeled from a dam built above the mission. Two separate aqueducts carried water to the mission.
Since the 18th century the mission has developed a tradition of choral programs. Monks taught Native Americans to sing hymns and play musical instruments. The mission also houses one of the largest collections of early Franciscan sheet music.
While the mission reminds me more of a movie set rather than an historic structure and it doesn’t compare with northern California’s Mission San Juan Bautista or Mission San Antonio, if you’re in Santa Barbara I would place a visit to it somewhere in the top quarter of your list of places to see and things to do.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.