California Missions

The Miserable Mission

Probably the most miserable of all of California’s 21 Spanish missions is Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. That’s Spanish for “Mission of Our Lady of Solitude.” Or something like that. Most folks just call it Mission Soledad, or Soledad Mission.

Mission Soledad is located in the eponymous town of Soledad. Soledad itself is a miserable, stinky agricultural town, that also hosts the Soledad Correctional Training Facility. Which is also a miserable place to live. Some folks just call this wretched prison, “Soledad,” as in “Yup, I did time in Soledad.”

In fact, quite a few les misérables have done time in Soledad, such as Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, serial killer Juan Corona, Symbionese Liberation Army leader Donald DeFreeze (who escaped the facility in 1973), the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, and another assassin, Dan White, who murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

And I’ll bet many of the prisoners in Soledad have spent some time in solitary. Which leaves me wondering if doing time in prison doesn’t get any more miserably lonely than having to do solitary in Soledad.

The humble chapel of Mission Soledad.

Less than 5 miles to the southeast of this prison, along a dirty farm road, with minimal signage or other advertising to distinguish it from some old, abandoned farmhouse, lie the ruins of Mission Soledad. This mission sits on a dry, windy plain, surrounded by various agricultural crops, near the banks of the Salinas River. This plain is very hot in the summer, and freezing cold after the sun sets in the winter.

Back in the Spanish days, the uncomfortable climate resulted in few visitors. Hell, even Indians tried to avoid this place. Thus the name, “Solitude,” was very appropriate. It’s a lonely looking site even today, so 200 years ago it must have been far more haunting in its isolation.

Inside the chapel. This is a very small, sparsely decorated chapel, compared with most missions.

The padres who had the misfortune of being assigned to this mission often complained about the climate. But they stuck it out and managed to make the mission prosper. They eventually converted over 2,000 Indians, harvested bountiful crops, and increased their herds of livestock to include 1,150 cattle, 5,000 sheep, 30 pigs, 670 horses, and 40 mules.

But the mission’s success was not without setbacks. Its close proximity to the Salinas River left it vulnerable to flooding. The church was destroyed three times, in 1824, 1828, and 1832, by overbanking waters. After the third flood, the mission went into decline. Then it was secularized by the Mexican government, and auctioned off for $800.

The Virgin Mary, dressed in black, heads the chapel’s altar. “Our Lady of Solitude” refers to a form of Marian devotion that commemorates the solitude of Mary on Holy Saturday, while Jesus lay in his tomb. According to Catholics, Jesus descended into Hell on Holy Saturday, where he proclaimed good tidings to the dead and liberated the righteous who had been captivated there during Old Testament times, such as Adam and Eve and other Old Testament characters.

After this, the mission buildings were scavenged for construction materials, and fell into ruin. What was left of it was returned to the Catholic Church in 1859, but church leaders must have thrown up their hands in exasperation. They left it abandoned and in solitude for nearly 100 years.

But in 1954, members of the Native Daughters of the Golden West got ambitious. They decided to restore what was left of the mission. This was a daunting task, because first they had to find what was left. The church had been washed away in a flood, but they finally managed to locate it, buried under layers of silt.

Then archaeologists took up the cause, and managed to find remnants of walls that had been part of the original quadrangle of buildings. A shelter was eventually built to protect these walls from the elements, and that’s how they currently remain, in unrestored condition. But from these diggings, restoration experts have been able to figure out how the original mission probably looked.

The rediscovered walls of the old mission, protected from the elements by a special shelter.

A replica of the original church and some of the rooms has been constructed, and the mission has plans to eventually restore the entire complex so that it resembles the original quadrangle.

What struck me most about this mission was the informal, happy hospitality of the docent. I don’t remember her name, but she had a good sense of humor and was very approachable and engaging when discussing the history and other aspects of the mission. Seems like solitude agrees with her, and lifts her spirit.

Jose Joaquin de Arrillaga was a Spanish governor of the Californias from 1792 to 1794, and again from 1800 to 1804. He was very popular, and was known affectionately as “Papa” by his soldiers, companions, and friends. In 1804, California divided into Alta California and Baja California, and Papá became the first governor of Alta California. In 1814, while the governor was visiting Mission Soledad, he fell ill and died. He’s buried at the mission, in this gravesite.

Solitude is my forté also, as I am a hermit at heart. I prefer miserable locations, because other people avoid them. So I think I would have loved being a padre, here.

And to my delight, there weren’t very many visitors at this mission while my wife and I were touring the facilities. That’s probably another reason why I enjoyed this old mission so much. It seems even today, Mission Soledad continues to live up to its name. Which makes it an inspiring place to visit, for hermits like me. You may love it too, but just don’t go there while I’m visiting.

This rose garden greets visitors at the entrance to Mission Soledad.

Categories: California Missions

27 replies »

  1. Perhaps some Zen influence here. And the heat, cold, blowing dust and stench of fertilizer eliminates any need for a sadistic nun with a stick.

    Another mission that dodged a box of sugar cubes. Would have been a good one, too. I could have just thrown them in a pile with some glue.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s austere enough to be Zen. And the harsh climate and shit smells could hit you about as hard as a kyosaku stick.

      Looks like you missed an opportunity in school to volunteer to build this sugar mission.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad the docent was so hospitable, and pleasant with a sense of humor. If you are going to be dealing with the public thats how you should be. I been with some tour guides who obviously loved their job and dealing with people and then there were those who didn’t.
    Does sound like an inviting place to visit. I can see why to you it wouldn’t be a miserable place. Though you wouldn’t like the freezing temps. That may make you miserable.

    I want palm trees in my yard. Have always liked them, but …. …I just need to find some fake ones. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

Go ahead, blurt it out:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.