California Missions

Mission San Luis Rey

Back in the 90’s, my wife and I made it our mission to visit missions. We set a goal to see all of the old Spanish missions in California. There are 21 in total, and so far we’ve managed to tour 16. We planned to visit four more in 2020, but then Covid hit and the missions were closed to tourists.

California is reluctantly returning to normal, and our coronaphobia has been slowly ebbing. All of the missions are once again open to the public, so next week we’re heading off to visit a trio of them. We hope to get there before the omicron variant sets off a new wave of paranoia.

Meanwhile, the very first mission we saw together, about 25 years ago, was Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, located in Oceanside, California. A few weeks ago we traveled to Oceanside and paid that mission a repeat visit.

Mission San Luis Rey. That’s my wife in the purple muumuu, trying to get away from me and my pesky camera. The sky was unbelievably clear and blue that morning, but by mid-afternoon a heavy fog rolled in from the Pacific. Which is typical weather for Oceanside.

Mission San Luis Rey was founded in 1798. Its location near the San Luis Rey River was meant to bridge the gap between Mission San Diego de Alcala and Mission San Juan Capistrano. The idea of the old Spanish planners was to space the missions out so that they were all within a day’s walk from each other. Thus, if you were to travel by foot from the furthest south mission in San Diego, to the furthest north mission in Sonoma, you’d always have a safe shelter to lay your head at night.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was named after King Louis IX of France, who reigned from 1226 to 1270, and who was the only French king to be canonized as a saint. Why saints were shot out of a cannon, I’ll never figure out. Must have been one of those weird medieval practices.

King Louis IX, brandishing an ancient sex toy. No wonder he was canonized.

The first head of Mission San Luis Rey was Father Antonio Peyri, and he knew what the hell he was doing. This man of the cloth missed his calling. He should have been a businessman. Under Peyri’s leadership, San Luis Rey became the largest, most prosperous, and most populated of all the California missions.

It arrogated a million acres of surrounding land, it enslaved 2,700 Luiseno Indians, and it developed gigantic herds of livestock, including 50,000 cattle and sheep, 1,300 goats, 300 pigs, and 2,000 horses. At its peak in 1831, it produced 395,000 bushels of grain, and drowned California in 2,500 barrels of wine.

Inside the mission church, where mass is still held on a regular basis.

Father Peyri also planted the very first pepper tree in California. The seed for this tree was brought from Peru as a gift, by a sailor. This tree grew high, wide, and strong, and propagated. It’s the ancestor of all the California pepper trees found throughout the state. And this original tree, planted by Father Peyri, is still living, providing a broad swath of shade on the mission grounds, even today.

Father Peyri’s Pepper Tree.

In the 1830s, the new country of Mexico decided to secularize the Spanish missions. Father Peyri despaired over this and returned to Spain, where he died a few years later. Under secularization, mission lands were supposed to be distributed to the Indians, but that didn’t last long. And at Mission San Luis Rey, as well as the other missions, the Indians were soon run off, with their lands taken over by powerful Mexican politicians and ranchers.

In 1846, the Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, and his brother Andres Pico, took over most of the vast acreage surrounding the mission. But shortly after that, California was conquered by the United States during the Mexican-American War, and the mission was abandoned, neglected, and fell into ruins.

The mission cemetery. Many of the graves date back to the 1800s.

In fact, this was happening to all the missions, and it seemed they would crumble into the pages of history, and only be remembered in whimsical paragraphs penned by nostalgic historians. But then, on March 18, 1865, exactly four weeks before he died, President Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order that returned the California missions to the Catholic Church.

The original executive order, signed by Lincoln, is on display at Mission San Luis Rey.

This order was mainly for the buildings. Most of the land that surrounded the missions was never returned. Still, it was a necessary step toward preserving these ancient, historic structures.

It took awhile, but in 1892 a group of Franciscan friars arrived from Mexico and began restoring the ruins of Mission San Luis Rey. And today most of the mission has been refurbished to its original grandeur, although there are a few restoration projects still in the works.

The Franciscan Order does not have monks. Rather, they are called “friars.” This is a group of friars exiting the mission about a hundred years ago, probably after cooking a hearty chicken lunch. The camera I had back then could only take black-and-white photos, so please pardon the lack of color.

You can attend mass at Mission San Luis Rey, as it is a working parish of the Catholic Church. We enjoyed our time there, and the peaceful, numinous atmosphere that we encountered as we strolled the grounds. It’s a beautiful place to visit.

Carriage Arch. This is one of the last remnants of the mission’s original quadrangle. Father Peyri’s pepper tree is at the middle-right, in the Retreat Gardens.

57 replies »

  1. Nice that you guys will be able to complete your mission next week. So now what will be next on your list of places to see?

    So Lincoln’s order almost didn’t get signed!

    I like the looks of the pepper tree. I can see how it would be peaceful to walk around the gardens and in the missions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We drove down to the Santa Barbara mission a few years back, while staying in San Luis Obispo. My husband wanted to see it. I remember reading about the Lincoln thing while we were there. I think there must have been some kind of attempt at reconciling with the old Spanish community concurrent to that of the post Civil War South.

    I used to periodically stay in Sonoma, try to time it with the Farmers’ Market (community public drinking party) in the old town square. The mission’s soldiers’ barracks are along the north side of the square, My impression was that the missions were largely funded by the Spanish in exchange for providing food, supplies, and shelter to Spanish soldiers… hence the day’s walk.

    So what percentage of the missions still actually exist?

    Liked by 2 people

    • We were at the Santa Barbara mission a few years ago. I think SB is a beautiful town.

      Reconciling with the Spanish community might explain Lincoln’s motives. I’m glad he signed that order.

      I was at the mission in Sonoma in 2019. That’s the only mission that was built after Mexico won its independence, and the purpose of it was to keep the Russians at Fort Ross from expanding southward. Here’s a link to a post I wrote about it:

      The Mission to End All Missions

      All the original missions in California still exist, although most of them have been heavily restored.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As long as there are no further lockdowns, it looks like this will be Mission Possible. That pepper tree looks quite impressive.

    This sounds like a nice bucket list to have; my wife and I have talked about trying to visit all the Presidential libraries…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I changed grade levels quite a few times in my elementary career, but 4th grade was all about California history. I used to have my students build a mission out of the materials of their choice. They were to try and replicate one of the specific missions and make an oral presentation. Things got so crowded during that time as I utilized every inch of space available to display them all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another stop to add when I visit Oceanside. I’d forgotten or maybe never knew some of the Missions history you’ve summarized here. Took my kids, or at least one of them (it was so long ago now I’ve forgotten) to SJC for her 4th grade project.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s one of the nicer missions to visit. Very peaceful there. My wife and I really like visiting the old Spanish missions, and we were at SJC about three or four years ago.


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