Mission Trail: A journey through California’s Catholic past

My wife and I were standing in the courtyard of Mission San Juan Bautista, but my mind was on Rome. It was early March 2013. Pope Benedict XVI had just resigned, and Pope Francis had yet to be elected. For two weeks, Rome seemed to be the center of the universe. The Year of Faith was well underway, and I found myself wishing that we were in Rome observing the year with a pilgrimage to the major basilicas. Alas, time and money conspired against us, so we opted for a night in Monterey instead. On our way home, we decided to stop at the mission there.

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In front of the mission church was a sculpture of St. John the Baptist, depicted with the features of the region’s native Ohlone tribe. I snapped a picture with my phone and, as I uploaded the photo to Facebook, noticed a friend’s recent post about Mission San Antonio de Padua. It was a plea for donations to help keep the mission open. The isolated parish was down to about 35 families and received few visitors.

We had yet to visit Mission San Antonio. I didn’t even know where it was. In fact, we had only been to a handful of the missions, despite their relative proximity to our home in Fresno, Calif., (even the farthest ones certainly are closer than Rome). But I can take a hint. Before we made it back to our car, we resolved to visit them all before the Year of Faith was over. As we planned the trips, I was pleased to learn that four of the missions are home to minor basilicas.

We live within a four-hour drive of most of the missions, so we were able to visit all 21 in a series of seven trips between April and November, accomplishing our goal with a few weeks to spare. Pope Benedict held out the promise of a plenary indulgence to all who made a pilgrimage during the Year of Faith. I’m not sure we deserved it. The founding padres traveled up and down El Camino Reál mostly on foot, sleeping rough along the way. We traveled the Camino in a Subaru and stayed in some pretty nice rooms.

Colonial Times

By 1765 both the Spanish and the Catholic Church had been a presence in the New World for more than two centuries. Both were firmly established in New Spain (Mexico). Spain had made claim to Alta California as well, but had explored only a fraction of its coastline and had yet to settle the territory.

That all changed in 1765. After decades of exploration by Russian fur traders, Catherine the Great ordered that colonies be established along the Pacific coast as far south as San Francisco Bay. When word of the Russia’s plan reached Madrid, settling California became a priority.

As the desire to colonize Alta California grew, Spanish love for the Society of Jesus withered. Conflicts between the order and the Spanish government led to the expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish territories in 1767. This included a string of Jesuit-founded missions in Baja California.

It was this series of events that led to the appointment of Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest and college professor, as president of the Baja Missions. Instructed to expand northward, he went on to found nine missions in Alta California. Over the four decades following Father Serra’s death, a dozen more missions were established resulting in a chain of 21 missions spanning 650 miles, from San Diego to Sonoma.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of the missions on California’s history. They were at the center of the three-pronged Spanish approach to colonizing the region. First, presidios (military bases) were established, which provided protection to the missions that sprang up nearby. The mission padres would reach out to the local Native American population, and upon conversion and baptism, families were brought into mission life. At that point they were considered neophytes, baptized but not yet ready to function as Catholics or as citizens of the Spanish empire. A complete conversion required learning the Spanish language and a trade. They were instructed in farming and raising livestock, masonry, carpentry and a variety of trades. Once the mission infrastructure was in place, the Spanish were able to establish secular towns (pueblos). These grew into the first cities of California.

Considering its lasting influence, the mission era in California was surprisingly brief. The missions survived in their original role for only a decade or so after the chain was complete. Mexico became an independent republic just months after Mission Solano, the final and northernmost mission, was established. Ten years later, the Mexican government secularized the missions. Mexican rule over the territory was itself short-lived. California was ceded to the United States in 1848 and became a state two years later. In 1859, an act of Congress returned mission lands to the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, after more than 25 years of disuse and neglect, the missions were mostly a chain of ruins.

The Modern Missions

Today, the California missions are a collection of restorations and recreations of the original churches. Some are breathtaking restorations that capture the feel of the 18th and 19th century, a few are only pale reflections of the original churches, rendered in 20th-century construction methods and materials. They range in ambition from the modest, one-third-scale replica chapel in Santa Cruz to the sprawling 2,000-acre park and museum that is Mission La Purísima Concepción.

For pilgrims and tourists, the missions are conveniently spaced along the California coast. Since Father Serra’s goal was to have a chain of missions that were only a couple of days’ walk from each other, most are now 30 to 90 minutes apart by car. This makes it possible to visit two or three missions in a day.

Of course, it does not hurt that they are situated among some of the most beautiful vistas in California, if not in the entire United States. Since most of the missions are set in or near popular tourist destinations, a pilgrim does not need to forgo much in the way of food, drink or comfort along the way. More than half the missions are at the center of the cities that bear their names: San Francisco, San Diego, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. A few are tucked away in quiet rural settings. The aptly named Mission Soledad sits in an isolated, arid patch of land in the Salinas Valley.

Our intention was to make a meaningful Year of Faith pilgrimage. We succeeded for the most part, but staying on schedule and finding places to stay or eat often provided distractions. On a couple of occasions, schedule complications made for less-than-ideal visits. Visiting Mission Buenaventura on a Saturday afternoon in June seemed like a good idea. We had not planned on three back-to-back quinceañeras. We only had about five minutes to sneak into the chapel between services.

People I spoke to along the way often asked which was my favorite mission. I would usually reply, “This one.” In truth, I have a soft spot for a few of them.

San Juan Bautista feels like home to me. The town and mission are at the edge of the Salinas Valley (and sit directly on the San Andreas fault). The Mission itself has a beautifully tended courtyard that features an extensive collection of roses (a common feature among the missions). Adjacent to the mission is a California state park that replicates the town square as it may have looked in the early 19th century.

My favorite mission church is San Antonio de Padua. Its remote location, pristine natural surroundings and rustic brick facade make you feel as if you have traveled back in time. On the day of our visit, there were dozens of volunteers working on the restoration of a garden wall. The courtyard was filled not only with fountains and flowers but also with music and conversation. Mission San Antonio is home to a Franciscan retreat center. The group in attendance that weekend had a variety of instruments set up in a meeting room. Those who were not rehearsing were out in the courtyard visiting with tourists as they passed by. We were impressed by the strong sense of community we found in California’s most remote mission.

I also find myself encouraging people to visit Mission Santa Inés. It is nicknamed “the hidden gem” of the missions. In the heart of the Danish-themed village of Solvang, the mission is blocked from visitors’ view by the back wall of its courtyard. Beyond the village itself lies some of California’s most beautiful wine country. Santa Inés has all the elements one would expect to find in a California mission: arched adobe walkways, a tall, three-bell campanario, a beautiful chapel and splendid courtyard. But I was most impressed with a modern addition to the church, the Calvario, an outdoor Stations of the Cross. The gravel pathway of the Calvario is lined with pepper trees and follows the bluffs adjacent to the mission grounds. It is a splendid blend of natural beauty and religious imagery, an ideal feature for visitors on pilgrimage, particularly during Lent.

It is hard for me, a modern visitor, to appreciate fully what motivated the early missionaries. As someone who can practice my faith with little sacrifice and can evangelize from a laptop while wearing my pajamas if I so choose, it is humbling to reflect on the sacrifice required to build and maintain the missions.

But in reading about the lives of the neophytes, I came to realize that the relationship between local populations and the padres was complicated. Although Native Americans were not forced out of their villages, it is clear that at some missions, they were forced to remain in the settlement once the mission was established. Indeed, the first autopsy in California was performed on a padre who had been poisoned by neophytes at Mission Santa Cruz in retaliation for his cruelty.

There are also examples of cooperative relationships between local communities and the missionaries. Mission San Luis Rey was so popular with local tribes that the mission was unable to meet the demand for housing. As a result, families took turns living at the mission, alternating between mission and village life.

Today, many of the missions are home to active parishes. We were able to attend Mass at five of them. In every case, it was a pleasure to hear and receive the word of God in such beautiful, historic churches. The congregations we joined ranged from poor to affluent, from rural to urban. We felt welcomed by each one. And as we traveled to these places that were established, thrived and were abandoned in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then were restored or rebuilt in the 20th, I was reminded that they continue to serve people today. Each year, millions of visitors who would never dream of setting foot in a Catholic church tour of the California missions.

At Mission San Luis Rey, we were standing next to two women who were staring, awestruck, at the church’s interior. “Really?” we overheard one say, “This is a Catholic church? I never knew the missions were Catholic!”

“Of course,” replied the other. “You can tell by all the statues.”

Through our visits I came to realize that these places are still active parts of the church—not just former missions. They were founded to stake Christ’s claim on the New World and live on to remind us of his presence in the world today.

A gallery of photos from Mr. Whitney's pilgrimage is available here.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James Phillips
3 years 9 months ago
I had the opportunity to visit these missions a few years ago as a sort of pilgrimage as a life professed Third Order Franciscan, as well as a sort of a vacation. I too was pleasantly surprised as to the level of activity still taking place in each of these beautiful missions. By sheer accident I found myself in Temecula, CA and ran into an old childhood friend, an Episcopal priest - we had grown up in the same neighborhood in Tulsa, OK over 40 years ago. Was a wonderful experience in faith and history.
Dale Day
3 years 9 months ago
Growing up in Southern California, I gained interest in its history early and spent a lot of time learning about it at the county museum. I also rode my bicycle to Mission San Gabriel a number of times. Later, when I was in the Army, I was able to visit every one of the 21 missions and actually underwent language training at the Presidio of Monterey. Mission San Carlos has always been my favorite mission, although I also enjoyed Mission San Francisco de Asis [also known as Mission Dolores] Therefore, I thorough enjoyed this article and have bookmarked Mr Whitney's blogs as they have more extremely good pictures. However, I do have a few minor disputes with the historical facts cites in the piece but they are truly minor. The only thing I will point out is that the Spanish visitador general ordered Governor Portola and Father President Serra to extend the King's Highway from Loreto to the Bay of Monte Rey, establishing garrisons there and at the Bay of San Miguel and founding missions one day's ride apart. They could not find the Bay Of Monte Rey and continued on to the big bay they named for Saint Francis. Sadly, Father President Serra died before he could finish carrying out his assignment. [And there was no Baja California in 1769] Anyhow, I really loved the article.
John Arthur
3 years 9 months ago
Thank you for your article. My wife and I also made a pilgrimage to the 21 Alta California missions in 2013. As you mentioned, it was was indeed noteworthy to see how much the missions differed from one another, and how the effects of the scourge of secularization and the sentimentality of the Mission Revival have affected their current condition. One special treat for us was encountering, at nearly every Catholic owned mission, men and women who have embraced taking care of these lovely buildings. Their love and passion for preserving the structures was uplifting. I was particularly inspired at the sole remaining original building at Mission Santa Cruz. It is called a "convento" and it contains rooms where neophyte families would live. What struck me standing in the rooms is that the missions are a testament, of which there are too few in California, to the lives of the Native Americans who built them. Yes, the Franciscans initiated them, but there might be only one or two Padres directing a Mission at a given time. The labor was Native American. It was the faith of those Native Americans that caused them to leave their villages and it was they that built the success of the mission system. It was also a faith that, sadly, cost the lives of many of them due to the diseases the Europeans brought with them.

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