Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara was established in 1777, and was the first mission christened after a woman. It changed sites five times, until settling permanently on this site, near San Jose, in 1822. This chapel is not the original, but rather a replica that was built in 1929. However the large wooden cross in front is original, dating all the way back to 1777.


Imagine you’ve traveled for many months to reach California, in search for gold. But after all that travel, and all that grueling hard work in the gold fields, prospecting, staking claims, and panning, the magical yellow stuff eluded you.

That happened to thousands of California immigrants during the gold rush. In fact, the vast majority of 49ers came up empty-handed. Only a few struck it rich and threw their can of beans out the window.

The rest had to eat their beans and find an alternative way to make a living. And some were weary of grunt work. They wanted a better education, so they could make some big bucks, while sitting on their big asses. But California was a brand new state, and thus far had no higher institutions of learning.

Reverend Joseph Alemany was the Catholic bishop of California, and oversaw all the missions still under control of the Catholic church. He also belonged to the Franciscan Order. He recognized California’s dire need for schools, and in 1851 said to hell with his fellow Franciscans, and turned Mission Santa Clara over to the more scholarly Jesuit Order.

Within months, the smartass Jesuits converted the mission into California’s first college. At first there was a shortage of teachers and money, and the college had a tough time obtaining a state charter. But fortunes eventually turned around, and today Santa Clara University is still operating. In fact it was named as the top-ranked regional university in the western United States in the 2019 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings.

And Mission Santa Clara has the unique distinction of being the only mission to have become part of a university.

Inside Mission Santa Clara’s chapel. This is where students go to pray for good grades.

In fact if you want to visit the mission, you must drive onto the university’s campus. Then you must inform the guard at the gate that you are a tourist, and not a student. He will look deep into your eyes and determine if you really are a tourist, and not a terrorist.

You are then given a visitor’s pass, which you must display on your windshield. Then you park in their massive, multi-story, concrete parking garage, and walk about a quarter mile to the mission. You’ll find it if you read and follow the signs. It’s surrounded by a warren of the university’s halls of education.

Most churches have organs. But the rebellious students at Mission Santa Clara have opted for a grand piano.

This is the only mission my wife and I have visited that has not charged an admission fee. That’s generous of them, but I wonder if they have to jack up the tuition to pay for freeloaders like us.

The altar. Those students who fail exams are executed, and their heads are put on display at the altar, as a warning to others.

The chapel is actually a replica of a replacement. The original mission church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1818. Its replacement was completed in 1828. This replacement was then destroyed by a fire in 1926, and was replaced by the current replica in 1929. Good thing they had Allstate.

An adobe wall. This wall, plus an adobe lodge that currently houses school faculty, are all that remains of the mission structure built in 1828.

However, it still sports its original bells, which were imported from Spain several hundred years ago. It’s claimed that these bells have rang each evening at 8:30 pm, for more than 225 years. But how would you ring the bells after the supporting structure beneath has crumbled to the ground from an earthquake or conflagration? Surely there must have been a few episodes when the bells were silent.

This sprawling wisteria covers an extensive arbor, in the garden beside the mission.

If you want to hear the bells, good luck. The mission is open seven days a week, from 7:00 am to sundown. And the sun usually goes down before 8:30.

But there’s one sure way to hear the ding-a-ling after dusk. Just be like one of those early 49ers. Sign up as a student and matriculate into Santa Clara University’s education program.

A bench beneath a magnolia tree offers a place for reverie, for those consumed by the numinous atmosphere of this old mission.

See ya in study hall!

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