My wife and I have visited 16 of the historic California missions, in our quest to tour all 21. And so far we both agree that the most beautiful mission is Mission Dolores.
Its official name is Mission San Francisco de Asis, and it was established in 1776 in what is now downtown San Francisco. But it was established near a creek named Arroyo de los Dolores, and early-on was nicknamed after the creek.
This resulted in some confusion, trying to find it with my GPS. Apparently, GPS prefers the nickname.
Death has often been the price for beautiful things, and San Francisco is one of those alluring traps of beauty that has led to the demise of many. The geography is hilly, and the climate is cool and wet, year round. The steep hills made it difficult for the missionaries to plant and grow crops. That led to starvation and malnutrition. And when they got sick, the cool, wet climate set into their lungs and bones, and dragged them into an early grave.
The Native Americans were attracted to the curiosities and allures imported by the Spanish. But they were vulnerable to European diseases, for which they had no natural immunity. And when they got sick, the climate prevented recovery, allowing Death to swoop down and snatch them.
Measles proved to be the most potent of the diseases, for the natives in San Francisco.
It’s estimated that 5,000 natives who died from measles and other diseases, are buried on the mission grounds in unmarked graves.
By 1817 so many natives were dying, that the missionaries built a hospital in nearby San Rafael. It was more inland, and offered a warmer and drier climate, improving chances for recovery. This hospital later became Mission San Rafael Arcangel.
The natives, for all their poor health, managed to build a large, beautiful church in 1791. They constructed very thick adobe walls over a foundation of rock four feet below the surface. The roof timbers were, and still are, lashed together with rawhide.
The old adobe was so strongly constructed that it has survived numerous earthquakes, twelve of which were at least 6.0 in magnitude, and three of which were at least 7.0 in magnitude. This includes the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 (7.8), and the Loma Prieta Quake of 1989 (7.1). Today, it is the oldest intact building in San Francisco.
A brick church was built next to it in 1876, but it was shaken down by the 1906 quake. In 1913, the Mission Dolores Basilica was built in its place.
My wife and I compared the two structures. In our view, the old adobe church stands out for its simple beauty, while the basilica stands out for its elaborate elegance. These two churches, built side-by-side, complement each other with their contrasting designs of old versus new, primitive versus profound, and humble versus lofty.
It occurs to me that the human spirit possesses similar contrasting beauty. We are all old spirits. Yet we can live in the moment as if we are new. We are born with primitive desires and instincts. Yet we can educate ourselves into the profound and sophisticated. And we wage a constant war within, between humility and the pride of our accomplishments.
We left the mission with a sense of awe for its magnificence, and sadness for the deaths of all those natives. It seems nothing beautiful is acquired without some amount of suffering. And perhaps no other mission in California exemplifies this principle more, than Mission Dolores, in San Francisco.