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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.