Mission #1—Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, San Diego, CA

Louise Speaks:  Thelma and I just can’t travel, we always have to have a project or something to complete.  In Patricia’s book “1000 Places To See Before You Die”, she has a listing called “The California Mission Trail”.  The Spanish Missions in California comprise of a series of 21 religious outposts; established by Catholic priests  of the Franciscan  order between 1769 and 1833, to expand Christianity  among the Native Americans.  The missions starting in San Diego going northwards to Sonoma, became what is today the  state of California.  There are more missions south of San Diego, but those are in Mexico so not part of the California Mission Trail.  These 21 missions are not in order from south to north, they are numbered by when they were established.  So as we go on the Mission Trail from south to north, you will see we are not seeing them in order.  The missions follow the coastal highway dubbed the “El Camino Real” which is Spanish for the “Royal Road”.  These missions are considered the most beautiful buildings in California and the most historical sites in the country.

Today we are visiting the first mission, and the one furthest south.  This makes number 5 for us out of the 21 missions to see.   This first mission marks the birthplace of Christianity in the west coast of the United States.   This remarkable and significant historical shrine provides an understanding and appreciation of the beginning of Catholicism in this corner of the world, so remote from the Mother Country of Spain and yet so similar.

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was founded on July 16, 1769 by Spanish friar Junipero Serra in an area long inhabited by the island.  The mission and the surrounding area were named for the Catholic didacus of Alcala,  a Spaniard more commonly known as San Diego.  The mission was the site of the first Christian burial in Alta California.  San Diego is also generally regarded as the site of the region’s first public execution, in 1778.   Father Luis Jayme, California’s first Christian martyr, lies entombed beneath the chancel  floor.  The current church is the fifth to stand on this location.  The Mission is also a National Historic Landmark.

Relatively, much is known about the native inhabitants in recent centuries, thanks in part to the efforts of the Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo, who documented his observations of life in the coastal villages he encountered along the Southern California coast in October 1542.  Cabrillo, a  navigator in the service of Spain, is credited with the discovery of the San Diego Bay.   On the evening of September 28, 1542 the ships San Salvador and Victoria sailed into the harbor, whereupon Cabrillo christened it “San Miguel.” During that expedition a landing party went ashore and briefly interacted with a small group of natives.  Some sixty years later another Spanish explorer,  made landfall some ten miles from the present Mission site.  Tres Reyes dropped anchor on November 10, 1602, and the port was renamed “San Diego de Alcalá.”   It woulld be another 167 years before the Spanish returned to San Diego. Ever since the voyages of Christopher Columbus, the Kingdom of Spain  sought to establish missions to convert the land to Roman Catholicism to save souls, and in part, to facilitate colonization  of these lands.  However, it was not until 1741 when the territorial ambitions towards North America became known that King Philip V  felt such installations were necessary in Upper California.

In 1769,  General  Jose de Galvez  sent the expedition of Junipero Serra  to find missions in San Diego and Monterey,  thereby securing Spain’s claim to the Pacific Coast  harbors recommended by Cabrillo,.  Two groups traveled from Lower California on foot, while a pair of packet ships bearing supplies  traveled up the coast from the Baja California Peninsula.  Many members of the overland expeditions fell ill along the way, and a majority of the crews from both ships contracted scurvy during their voyages,  In all, over a hundred men, including the crew of a third ship, died.  Portolà and the “Sacred Expedition” continued on to Monterey Bay  on July 14,  and just two days later, on July 16, a cross was raised and Father Serra held the first Holy Mass, praying for the Pope  and the King of Spain and the Mission San Diego de Alcalá was officially founded.

The padres’ initial efforts to establish an outpost at the San Diego met with little success. The Mission was founded at a site overlooking the Bay, but the natives  resented the Spaniards’ intrusion, and the settlement was attacked within a month.  By the first few months of 1770, food had run low, no permanent buildings were erected, and there had yet to be a single conversion.  Four soldiers, eight  volunteers,  one servant, and six Christian  Indians from Lower California had died from scurvy  since the expedition’s arrival;  serious consideration was therefore given to abandoning the site and returning to the Baja settlements.  It was therefore determined that, if a supply ship did not arrive by March 19, Saint Joseph’s Day,  the expedition would be recalled.  Father Serra feared that if San Diego were abandoned,  centuries might come and go before the country would again be revisited.  Finally, just before sunset on the 19th,  the San Antonio entered the harbor.  The ship had been bound for Monterey to deliver supplies to the expedition waiting there, but had lost one of its anchors and was forced to make port in San Diego, where a spare anchor from the San Carlos could be retrieved.  With the settlement in San Diego now properly outfitted with supplies, the missionaries set about constructing permanent buildings and  in 1773 the site of California’s first Christian burial.   The Mission was relocated to its present location  in August 1774.  The lack of a dependable water supply, coupled with the proximity of the military personnel at the presidio led Father  Luis Jayme to seek permission to relocate the mission from its original site, to the valley some six miles upriver to the east, where it remains today.  Almost immediately there was a noticeable increase in the number of baptisms, which in 1775 totaled 431 compared to 274 for the preceding four years combined.

The baptistry is one of only two sections of the original Mission Basilica still standing from the original construction in the late 18th century.  The restoration project, which began in 2011, was made possible by generous donations.  The restoration project began with an artist painting the baptistry and incorporating the symbols of baptism  such as blue for water and a shell.  Next came the decision as to what to do with the font itself.  The original baptismal font associated with the Mission is a portable copper vessel with a floral, petal motif on the lid that is now in the museum.  When the Mission church was restored in the 1930’s, the baptistry did not have a font.  It was not until the 1970’s that the current baptismal font was added.  The font is a replica of the stone basin from the Church of St. Peter  in Petra, Mallorca, Spain.  The Petra font was where Father Junipero Serra was baptized in 1713.  The original font from Serra’s baptismal place has a copper top that would cover the stone basin.


The bells at mission San Diego de Alcala were vital and important to daily mission life.  There were five bells arranged in two rows of two bells and one row of one bell.  The bells were rung at important events of the day such as mealtimes, to call mission residents to work, during a birth of a child or death/funeral of a resident.  The bells were also used to signal the approach of a ship or other artical, and were also rung for  rituals.

Much happened in history over the next 150 years.  On August 9, 1834 Governor Figueroa issued his “Decree of Confiscation.”  The missions were offered for sale to citizens, who were unable to come up with the price, so all mission property was broken up into ranchos  and given to ex-military officers who had fought in the War of Independence against Spain.  On June 8, 1846 Mission San Diego de Alcalá was given to Santiago Arguello  by Governor Pio Pico for servcices rendered to the government.  After the United States annexed California,  the Mission was used by the military from 1846 to 1862.  In 1848, after the Mexican American War, the United States Army occupied the mission grounds until 1858.  The Army made numerous modifications on the mission grounds, including the conversion of the church into a two-story building, and the establishment of a military cemetery.    President Abraham Lincoln  signed a proclamation on May 23, 1862 that restored ownership of the Mission proper to the Roman Catholic Church.  Following the Army occupation, the mission fell into ruin, and remained abandoned until 1891 when Father Antonio Dominic Ubach and the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet moved the Saint Anthony’s Industrial School for Indian children from Old Town San Diego to the mission grounds.   In the 1880s Father Anthony Ubach  began to restore the old Mission buildings.  Father Ubach died in 1907 and restoration work ceased until 1931.  Upon Father Ubachs death, the school at the mission closed  and was moved to Banning, California.  Two dormitories were built for the students of Saint Anthony’s, one of which exists today as the Religious Education Center of Mission San Diego de Alcalá.   In 1941, the Mission once again became a parish  church and is still an active parish serving the Diocese of San Diego.  As most Catholics know, a church becomes a Basilica when the Pope conducts mass in the church.   In 1976, Pope Paul VI held mass here and designated the Mission church as a basilica.

The mission is kept alive through donations and proceeds from a small gift shop on site.  Many tourists, like us, visit the mission every day.  Every year the missions are  visited by thousands of fourth graders from throughout the state studying California history.  I know 4 of my grand children have visited at least one mission.  My daughter tried to arrange it so that as each child reached 4th grade they would visit a different mission.  Many of the missions are within miles of each other so it is very easy to visit more than one mission per day.  This journey has been very adventurous, and although the missions are so similar they are all different and unique in their own way.  I can’t wait to get on to the next one.

Center of the World Museum, Felicity, CA

101_0228Louise Speaks:  The last time we were in Yuma, Thelma and I had stopped here before when looking for small churches.  We weren’t interested at the time so we didn’t pay the $5.00 admission to see the inside.  However, when looking for things to do on this RV trip, I started researching what was in the area.  Turns out this museum has more to offer than we thought.  Although Yuma is in Arizona, this museum is less than 10 miles across the border into California.

Jacques-Andre Istel has officially established the Center of the World here, and he has built a town around it to bolster his claim.  He’s the mayor. That’s his signature on the official certificate you receive for standing at the Center of the World.  Mayor Istel is a gracious, well-mannered man with a vision. Maybe a crazy vision, but a vision nonetheless, steadily becoming reality. Let me explain how this whole thing started.  Jacques-Andre saw this barren wasteland of desert while serving as a Marine in the Korean War.  He fell in love with it, and, with money made from his successful parachute schools business, bought thousands of acres stretching from I-8 northward to the Chocolate Mountains.  He told his wife, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with this bare land, but it has to be entertaining’.”  It wasn’t until the 1980s that he finally found an idea that peaked his interest, one that has now left a permanent impression on the landscape.101_0229
cafelcenter_grab2First, Jacques-Andre wrote a children’s book which helped convince Imperial County, California, to legally recognize a spot on his property as the official Center of the World,  It is also recognized as such by the Institute Geographic National of France.  Next, he had the town of Felicity incorporated, naming it after his wife, Felicia Lee.  According to our guide, it’s the first town in America named for a Chinese lady.  Felicity means ‘ happiness, culture.  An election was held, and Jacques-Andre became the first, and thus far the  only mayor of Felicity by a unanimous vote of 3 to 0.  Mayor Istel told us, in case you were wondering, that a justice of the peace and chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors recognized a vote by the invisible dragon in Istel’s book as legal for only once in California history. The Mayor  needed a way to mark his Center.  Felicia had the idea: “It’s in the desert, why not a pyramid?” Jacques-Andre was delighted, and had a 21-foot-tall, hollow, mirror-lined, pink granite pyramid built over The Spot, which is a dot in the center of a bronze disk set into the pyramid’s floor. Placing your toe on the spot is an occasion for ceremony in Felicity, with a town official recording the exact moment on your certificate and ordering you to make an obligatory wish.  You must pay an additional $2.00 to enter the pyramid and to receive the certificate.  One by one you place your foot on the dot in the center of the medallion and make your wish.  As you do so, the pyramid doors are open facing the church on the hill (to be talked about later).  As you face the church, make your  wish, your guide records the exact time and hands you  your certificate.  101_0239
101_0236The Mayor next decided to build a church for his town but first he needed a hilltop to build it on.  Jacques stated he wasn’t  particularly religious, but if you’re going to build a House of God, it’s got to be on the highest spot.  Jacques-Andre had 150,000 tons of earth trucked in and piled up into what he calls the Hill of Prayer.  The hill has been engineered to earthquake Zone 4 specifications.  On January, 2002, on the top of the hill Jacques built what he calls The Church on the Hill at Felicity, which is modeled after one that he likes in Brittany.  With blazing white, windowless walls and an aquamarine door, the church stands out against the otherwise dun-colored landscape.  Jacques-Andre had it dedicated to St. Felicity.  It was dedicated by Protestant and Catholic clergy in 2008.
101_0234As if these two attractions isn’t enough, Jacques has decided to add  more entertainment. 101_0243The Center of the World has become “the central point for memories” for Jacques-Andre’s latest, and longest running and most serious project. He calls it The World Commemorative Center at Felicity.  What he has done, is that on a series of two-inch-thick granite walls,  long, two-sided wedges , Jacques-Andre is having inscribed everything that he thinks is worth telling future generations.  Phase One consists of a hundred monuments stretching over a third of a mile. The Master Plan shows that the walls will eventually form a fish-shaped outline that encloses the Church and extends beyond, with its tail at the Pyramid and its nose way, way out toward the distant hills.  As of 2010: The Museum of History in Granite,  now consists of 18 monuments.   Once you pay your entrance fee, you are free to walk the grounds and read and explore as long as you wish.  These monument walls are every bit of a third of a mile.  It was pretty warm today but made for some interesting reading.  This would not be enjoyable in the summer as it is in direct sun light, that is why the Center itself is only open from December through March, when the outside temperature won’t kill you.  You walk out onto the field of memories to see for yourselves.  One long wall recounts the history of French aviation. There’s a United States Marine Corps Korean War Memorial monument, and  a series of eight monuments devoted to the History of Humanity.  Other walls include The 31 panel History of Arizona, The 31 panel History of California, The 62 panel Wall for the Ages includes the Hall of Fame of Parachuting. The 62 panel History of the United States of America earned a written A+ from a noted Historian.  All are completed except the grand 416 panel History of Humanity on eight monuments laid out like a compass rose. Now 31% engraved, completion is scheduled for 2019.  The Wall For The Ages is open to anyone who wants to have engraved on it his or her name, or anyone else’s, for $300, partly tax-deductible. “The ultimate Who’s Who,” Jacques-Andre calls it.

101_0227Other landmarks in Felicity reflect the eclectic tastes of the Istels.  A sculpture of God’s 101_0247arm from Michelangelo’s Dawn of Creation painting in the Sistine Chapel, acts as a sundial and points to the highest spot on the property, the church on the hill.  The sundial is precisely accurate and is set once a year  at noon on Christmas Day.  The arm points to the Church on the Hill at Felicity.  The church will remain the highest point in the town of Felicity now and in the future.  The 25 ft  high section number 12 of the original stairway of the Eiffel Tower  is the entrance sculpture at Felicity.  In 1983, the government of France  removed approximately 500 ft of the original stairway.  Built with the technology of the 1860s, the weight of approximately 54,000 lb   was causing sway at the top of the then 94-year-old tower.  Twenty sections were sold at auction on the tower on 1 December 1983.  Most are in museums and a few in private hands.  Section 12 was bought at auction in June 1989 by Jacques-Andre.   The installation of the 6,600 lb  section required engineering and a building permit.  It serves no practical purpose, but is part of the spirit of Felicity
There are no billboards for the Center of the World, the restaurant here is only open four hours a day.  Jacques-Andre says that people sometimes see the Church from the interstate, pull off at the brown “Felicity: Center of the World Plaza” sign, and mistakenly think that they’ve arrived at some kind of cult.  It does appear as such as the guides and employees are a bit strange.  Having to be escorted into the pyramid, you wonder if the doors are going to be slammed shut behind you.  All in all it’s a great stop.  For $3.00 admission or $5.00 if you want to enter the pyramid, if you are a history buff this is the place for you.  Our first idea was to see the church, then when I read about it, I wanted to see that medallion…today I got to see both.   What a fun day.

Yuma Territorial Prison, Yuma, AZ

Louise Speaks:  Like I mentioned just a short distance from the bridge and the Quartermaster Depot is the Yuma Territorial Prison State Park.  The Yuma Territorial Prison is a former prison located in Yuma Arizona.  Authorized in 1875 with a construction budget of $25,000, the prison opened in July of 1876 when the first seven prisoners were locked into cells they’d hacked out of the granite of Prison Hill with their own hands.  The prison ,  is one of the Yuma Crossing Sites and is part of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.  Opened while Arizona was still a US territory,  the prison accepted its first inmate on July 1, 1876.  For the next 33 years 3,069 prisoners, including 20 women, served sentences there for crimes ranging from murder to polygamy.  The prison was under continuous construction with labor provided by the prisoners.   Despite its reputation, the prison was a model institution for its time — and because it boasted electricity, running water and flush toilets, some Yumans even called it “the Country Club on the Colorado.”  By 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded, and there was no room for expansion on Prison Hill.  The last prisoner left Yuma September 15, 1909 and was transferred to the newly constructed Arizona State Prison Complex  located in Florence, Arizona.   It was also the 3rd historic park in Arizona.

Yuma Union High School occupied the buildings from 1910 to 1914.  When the school’s football team played against Phoenix and unexpectedly won, the Phoenix team called the Yuma team “criminals”.   Yuma High adopted the nickname with pride, sometimes shortened to the “Crims”. The school’s symbol is the face of a hardened criminal, and the student merchandise shop is called the Cell Block. From 1914 to 1925 the prison was used as the County Hospital in the Superintendents house.  In 1932 the prison was used for housing during the depression.  From 1941 to through 1960 the city operated the prison as a museum.  In 1961 the Yuma Territorial State Historic Park opened to the public.  In 2010 budget cuts threaten closure of the park and Yuma’s community “Chain Gangs” raised funds to save the park.

 The Yuma Territorial Prison only operated for 33 years – but that was long enough to etch a fearsome reputation into the history of the Old West, a legacy that lives on in movies like “3:10 to Yuma.”  Some say the prison is haunted.  Perhaps it is, however no executions took place at the prison, but 111 persons died while serving time, and are buried on the grounds.  Not that we are in the habit of visiting prisons, but this was no comparison to Alcatraz.  This prison is isolated, in the desert and I’m sure is miserable in the summer, where Alcatraz had amazing views, cool ocean breezes and seemed very pleasant in comparison.

This was a fun stop and I’m glad we made it.  We can now cross it off our list of both sites to see and and two Arizona State Parks.  If you are in Yuma, there really is not much to see, so stopping here is probably something to do and very affordable at just $6.00, $5.00 if you go to the Quartermaster Depot first and bring their brochure.  Now onto the next attraction.