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.