Travel – California Missions (Part Four)

In Part Four of the four part series on the California Missions I will discuss five of the twenty-one missions: Santa Clara de Asis, San Jose, San Francisco de Asis, San Rafael Arcangel and San Francisco de Solano that are all located in Northern California.  But, first a brief history of the California Missions …

In the 17th century Spain sent the Portola expedition led by the Governor of Baja California, a group of military soldiers and several Franciscan Friars.  The expedition would establish permanent settlements in Alta California, defended by the soldiers and Father Junipero Serra was put in charge of the padres that would convert the Native American population to Christianity.

Then, in 1833, the Act for the Secularization of the California Missions followed by the Decree of Confiscation in 1834 removed the administration of the Missions from the Catholic Franciscan Padres and given to the Mexican government.  Eventually the vast properties of the Missions were divided and land grants were given to prominent Mexicans.

In 1848, after the Mexican-American War and California became the 31st State in 1850, the United States Army occupied many of the Missions.  Some of the Missions were used as garrisons and the soldiers lived in converted barracks.  Ultimately, on March 18, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln decreed that the California Missions should be returned to the Catholic Church.  Throughout the following years many of the Missions were abandoned or neglected and fell into disrepair while others became local parishes of the Catholic Church that are still in use today.

Now, the five missions of the Northern California …

Mission Santa Clara de Asis

Mission Santa Clara de Asis was founded on January 12, 1777 by Father Junipero Serra and it is named for Saint Clare of Assisi, it is the eight California Mission.  Located 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, the original site chosen was new the Guadalupe River and within the year a small wooden church was built.  As with most of the Missions in Alta California, the weather and other natural occurrences affected the buildings causing damage and sometimes total destruction.  In regards to the Mission Santa Clara flood, fire and earthquakes created the need to rebuilt or relocate the Mission five times until the current church was constructed in 1825.

During those early years of the Mission Santa Clara, there was often tension between the Franciscan padres at the Mission and the people of the nearby San Jose pueblo, frequently arguments arose over cattle encroaching on the Mission herd and disputes over water rights.  To create a sense of peace within the two separate communities, an order was given to build a long alameda (the Spanish word meaning a long public walkway) connecting the Mission and the pueblo located four miles away.  With the guidance of the Spanish soldiers and two hundred Native Americans the road was soon completed and it was beautifully lined on either side with black willow trees.  It was noted that on Sundays, the people of the pueblo would walk or travel by horse or carriage to attend Mass at the Mission.

Mission Santa Clara De Asis- old 2

As secularization of the California Missions began in the 1830s, the Missions were either sold or given away as land grants.  When the Missions were returned to the Catholic Church by the American government, it was decided that Mission Santa Clara would be transferred from the Franciscan Order to the Jesuit Order in1851.  By 1855, the Jesuits established a college at the site (it was one of California’s first colleges) which eventually became the Santa Clara University.

Mission Santa Clara De Asis - fire

Alterations to the Mission Church took place over the years and the interior of the Mission church was widened to increase the size and to accommodate more seating in 1885.  Then, in 1925 the building was destroyed by a fire and was later rebuilt and restored, it is currently being used as a local parish of the Diocese of San Jose and is located on the campus of Santa Clara University.

Mission Santa Clara De Asis - exterior  Mission Santa Clara De Asis - interior

Mission San Jose

Mission San Jose was founded on June 11, 1797 by Father Lasuen and is named for St. Joseph; it is the ninth California Mission.  Prior to the establishment of Mission San Jose, in August 1796 it was determined that for the safety of travelers along the El Camino Real that additional Missions were required to fill in the gaps between the long stretches of road that were left opened to attacks by the Native Americans.  Thus, Viceroy Branciforte agreed and each of the individual Missions along the route could be reach easily within a day just in case of any conflicts or problems.  Mission San Jose was one of those additional Missions and it would fill the gap between the Mission Dolores and Mission Santa Clara.

Mission San Jose was located on the east side of the San Francisco Bay in an area known as the Fremont plain and populated by the Ohlone Native Americans.  The site that was chosen had an abundant source of water and fertile soil and the Mission would grow wheat, grapes, olives and figs.   But the Mission San Jose was very slow in developing since most of the Ohlone had already been previously baptized at Mission Clara which was located just 13 miles away and there was only a small amount that came to live there.  As a result the padres had very limited help in building the small wooden church so it not was completed until September 1797 and later a larger adobe church was built.

Mission San Jose - old 1

Unfortunately, there were numerous other problems that plagued the Mission San Jose and stifled its growth as a successful Mission.  One of those factors was the Mission’s location which was built near a natural break in the mountains that gave hostile Native Americans from the nearby San Joaquin Valley access to the area and they frequently attack the Mission.  The Native Americans that lived at the Mission were also susceptible to European diseases brought by the new settlers to Alta California and in 1806 a serious measles epidemic drastically reduced the Native American population at the Mission.

After the secularization of the California Mission, the property surrounding Mission San Jose was either sold or given away as land grants.  The Mission buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair.  In 1848, during the Period known as the Gold Rush, H.C. Smith converted the Mission into a hotel, saloon and general store to service the people on the way to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Then, in 1868 a large earthquake along the Hayward fault destroyed the Mission church and the other buildings.  The site was cleared and a Gothic-style wooden church was built over the original church’s foundation, eventually the wooden church was moved to a new location in San Mateo.

In 1973, a major restoration project was started with an extensive archaeological excavation.  Then, in 1982 construction began to build an exact replica of the original 1908 adobe church but with a steel frame as required by the California earthquake building code.  Two of the original statues of Mission San Jose were found and returned and place in the two side altars, the first was a statue of Christ wearing a crown of thorns and the second was the wooden statue of Saint Bonaventure.  The original copper baptismal font was also found.  During the previous excavation process, the marble grave marker of Robert Livermore, a prominent landowner in the area, was uncovered, repaired and replaced in the newly reconstructed church.  The original three Mission Bells were also returned to the reconstructed bell tower.  Today, the Mission San Jose is located in the present day city of Fremont and is used as a local parish for the Diocese of Oakland.

Mission San Jose - exterior  Mission San Jose - interior

Mission San Francisco de Asis

Mission San Francisco de Asis (often referred to as Mission Dolores) was founded on June 29, 1776 by Father Francisco Palou during the de Anza Expedition, it is named for Saint Francis of Assisi who was the founder of the Franciscan Order, it is the sixth California Mission.  Several years earlier, the expedition had inadvertently come across the narrow entrance to San Francisco Bay and the Viceroy determined that the location would be suitable for another a mission and a presidio and he ordered that they be built.  Later, de Anza led a group of almost 250 settlers from the Mission San Diego north along the El Camino Real that linked the Missions of Alta California.  The majority of the settlers stayed in Monterey at the Mission Carmel but a few ventured further north to the San Francisco area.  A site for the Mission was found along the Arroyo de los Dolores (“Our Lady of Sorrow” creek) and a wooden church with a thatch roof was soon built.

Mission San Francisco de Asis - old

Later, in 1782 a large adobe church was built with additional buildings, such as a monastery for the padres, housing for the residence, agricultural and manufacturing areas, which were surrounding with a quadrangle.  During those early years of Mission Dolores, the property extended south to San Mateo and east to Alameda with over 125 miles of grazing land for 11,000 heads of cattle, 11,000 sheep and thousands of horses, goats and pigs.  Unfortunately the weather conditions, with almost constant morning fog and limited sunshine, was not conducive for growing crops and other locations further north were considered for additional Missions.

Then, in 1834, the Mexican government secularized the California Missions and the property surrounding Mission Dolores was sold or given as land grants. During the time of the California Gold Rush, the Mission church was covered with wooden siding for a more modern appearance and converted into a hotel and saloon which became known as the Mansion House.  Adjacent to the Mission a large Gothic style brick church was built which appeared to be out of place since the area surrounding the Mission now included additional saloons and gambling establishments which were built, including an arena that held bull and bear fights for entertainment!

Mission San Francisco de Asis - old 1

When the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit the region, the wooden siding that enclosed former adobe church of Mission Dolores was saved from being seriously damaged but the brick church nearby completely collapsed.  Later, the fire that would ultimately destroyed many of the buildings in San Francisco came within yards of the old Mission church but it was saved from any serious damage.  After the earth quake and subsequent fire, the area surrounding the Mission was cleared and a new large stone church was built by the architect Willis Polk to replace the old brick church.  Special care was taken not to damage the old Mission Dolores church adjacent to the new building; it underwent a partial restoration with the wooden siding being removed to expose the original adobe walls.  In the early 1900s, the estate of E.W. Scrips commissioned several sculptures to depict the history of California and a large six foot tall sculpture of Father Junipero Serra by Arthur Putnam was placed in the Mission cemetery in 1918.  It is one of only a few sculpture of Father Serra and depicts him standing wearing the robe of the Franciscan Order which is customarily belted at the waist by a knotted rope, his head is bowed and his eyes are look down.  In 1993, the statue was examined by the Smithsonian institution and found to be in excellent condition despite the many years that it has been exposed to the outdoor elements.

In 1952, Pope Pius XII declared the Mission Dolores the status of a Minor Basilica which was only the fifth basilica to be named in the United States and the only one in the western portion of the country.  Today, the adjacent stone church is known as the Mission Dolores Basilica and the original adobe Mission church is simply known as Mission Dolores.  Today, Mission Dolores is an active parish of the San Francisco Diocese and portions of the old cemetery to the south of the original Mission is now covered by the playground of the Mission Dolores School.

Mission San Francisco de Asis - cemeteryMission San Francisco de Asis - interior  Mission San Francisco de Asis - exterior

Mission Trivia: The Mission Dolores was featured in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock psychological thriller “Vertigo”, which is based on the 1954 novel “D’entre les morts” (Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac.  The classic plot of suspense, deceit, mistaken identity and death centers on Scottie Ferguson (played by Jimmy Stewart) who is a former police detective that is forced into early retirement because of a traumatic incident which caused him to develop acrophobia (an extreme fear of heights) and vertigo (a sensation of false movement).  Scottie, who is now retired and working as a private investigator, is hired by Gavin Elster to follow his wife Madeline (played Kim Novak), who is behaving very strangely.  In one of the most pivotal scenes in the movie, Scottie follows Madeline to the Mission Dolores.  As she enters the Mission cemetery, she stops at the grave of Carlotta Valdes to leave a bouquet of flowers.  The grave headstone was specifically made as a movie prop and was placed in the cemetery for filming; afterwards it was left there for many years until it was finally removed.

Mission San Francisco de Asis - Vertigo movie 1

Mission San Francisco de Asis - Vertigo movie 3  Mission San Francisco de Asis - Vertigo movie 2

Mission San Francisco de Asis - Vertigo movie 4

Mission San Rafael Arcangel

Mission San Rafael Arcangel was founded on December 14, 1817 by Father Vicente de Sarria to become an extension of Mission Dolores and used as a hospital for the Native Americans; it was fittingly named after Saint Raphael the patron saint of good health.  The site was selected because the weather north of San Francisco was mild and sunny; Mt. Tamalpais provided a barrier from the cold and constant fog from the bay.  Eventually, more patients from the other Missions in the area were sent there to recuperate.  In 1819, a small church was built on the site and the site grew into a relativelt large community.  On October 19, 1822 the Mission was declared independent from Mission Dolores and it was granted full mission stature, it would become the 20th California Mission.

Mission San Rafael Arcangel -old 1

With the Secularization Act of 1833, the Mission San Rafael was confiscated by the Mexican government and the buildings were abandoned and sold or given away as a land grant.  During the time known as the Bear Flag Revolt (June to July 1846) a small group of American settlers in California rebelled against the Mexican government and proclaimed California an independent republic, John Fremont used the Mission as his headquarters.  (Historical Note: The republic was short-lived because the U.S. military began occupying California and it would eventually join the United States as a State in 1850. The Bear Flag became the official state flag in 1911)

In 1861, after the Mission was returned to the Catholic Church, a new parish church was built near the old Mission ruins and all the dilapidated buildings were cleared to make way for the city of Ran Rafael.  Several years later, in 1949, a replica of the Mission church was built near the site of the original hospital and adjacent to the new parish church.           

Mission San Rafael Arcangel - exterior 2  Mission San Rafael Arcangel - interior

Mission San Francisco de Solano

Mission San Francisco Solano was founded on July 4, 1823 by Jose Altimira and it is named for St. Francis Solano who was a missionary to the Peruvian Indians.  The Mission is the 21st and the last of the California Missions to be established and has the distinction of being the only Mission built after Mexico gained independence from Spain.  North of San Francisco the Russians built Fort Ross and the governor wanted to keep them from encroaching further into Alta California so building a mission in this northern region would help to solve the problem.

Mission San Francisco de Solano -old

In 1824, a wooden church was built and was later replaced with a larger church in 1827.  The Mission remained under the administration of the Franciscan padres until 1833 when it was given over to the Zacatecan Order.  Then, in 1834, the present day city of Sonoma was founded and the old Mission church became the local parish church and it was used until 1880.  Most of the property had been sold and in 1910 the site became a California Landmark.  Today, the Mission San Francisco de Solano is part of the Sonoma State Historic Park.            

Mission San Francisco de Solano - exterior  Mission San Francisco de Solano -interior

Mission San Francisco de Solano -end of mission trail

This concludes Part Four of the four part series on the California Missions.  In the series, l discuss all of 21 Missions moving from southern to northern California and starting with the first Mission located in San Diego to the San Buenaventura Mission in Part One, then from the Santa Barbara Mission to the San Miguel Arcangel in Part Two and from San Antonio de Padua to the Santa Cruz in Part Three and then from the Santa Clara de Asis Mission to the most northern Mission San Francisco de Solano in Part Four.