California Missions

Mission Santa Cruz

I first thought Mission Santa Cruz commemorated the patron saint of lowriders, who once cruised the boulevards of downtown America on Saturday nights. But no, the official name, translated from Spanish, is the Mission of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It was founded near the banks of the San Lorenzo River, in 1791. This is in the present-day city of Santa Cruz, which is located at the northernmost reach of Monterey Bay, about 60 miles south of San Francisco.

The mission quickly prospered at its location along the San Lorenzo River. But six years after its founding, the pueblo of Branciforte (future Santa Cruz) was established on the other side of the river. This was a wicked town, straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah. The padres at the mission often chafed about its close proximity to their holy site of forced Catholic conversion, and they accused the inhabitants of various vices, such as gambling, drinking, and smuggling.

This was no idle accusation, because the settlers of this pueblo truly were evil. In fact they were so evil, they went to the length of bribing the mission Indians, with actual money, to come work for them. The Indians were offered pay to build various structures and to grow crops. And some of the Indians took these bribes, abandoning the virtues of slavery and crossing the river for the vice of a monetary salary.

The original mission church was badly damaged by a great earthquake, in 1857. It was replaced by the Catholics with this Gothic-style place of worship, which they call Holy Cross Church.

Sometimes they’d be captured by the padres, hauled back to the mission, and mercifully beaten with a metal-tipped whip. This taught them the Christian virtue of submission to authorities, who knew what was best for them. And in such manner, they were kindly looked after by their Christian overseers, who possessed warm, caring hearts, while warming their backs with the lash of education.

But some were slow learners, and engaged in the peculiar practice of sneaking off in the middle of the night to engage in their old religious rituals. They would present offerings to their gods, bedaub their bodies with paint, and dance until daybreak. But when they were caught in the act by the padres, they were forced to endure endless hours of preaching, punctuated with sharp blows from the metal-tipped whip. Or learning device, if you will.

This long dormitory, that housed Indian families, is the only remaining structure from the original mission.

And in this manner they came to appreciate the love, mercy, and redemption offered by Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior. But on October 12, 1812, these ungrateful Indians had quite enough of their severe, but well-intentioned beatings. They captured Father Andrés Quintana and strangled him to death.

Perhaps this stopped the beatings, but it didn’t stop the diseases. Many Indians at this mission perished from European-introduced viruses such as measles and scarlet fever. The natives often ran away, escaping both the severe, educational punishments, as well as the diseases. As a result, the mission fell into decline. Then it was completely abandoned after it was secularized by the Mexican government, in 1834.

Most of the rooms of the Indian dormitory have been restored to appear as they may have looked 200 years ago. It seems to have been a simple life back then, with entire families living in a single room.

In 1857, the 7.9 magnitude, Fort Tejon earthquake wreaked havoc upon Santa Cruz. The mission church was heavily damaged, and replaced in 1889 with the Gothic-style, revivalist, Holy Cross Church. This church still stands today. But all of the original buildings of the mission have been lost to earthquakes, depredation, and Mother Nature, except one long, multiroom dormitory. This building once housed Yokut and Ohlone tribal members, when they lived at the mission.

The Indian dormitory is now a part of the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park. In fact, Mission Santa Cruz is one of the only three California missions that belong to the State of California, rather than the Catholic Church (the other two being Mission Sonoma and Mission Concepción). However, the Holy Cross Church at Santa Cruz does belong to the Catholics, and stands where the original mission church once stood.

The Armas parlor. Around 1850, Felipe Armas, who became rich working as a cowboy for King Kamehameha in Hawaii, purchased the western half of the Indian dormitory from his father-in-law, Roman Rodriguez, who lived in the eastern half. He remodeled it to reflect his prosperous tastes, and started a family with his new wife. In 1865, the dormitory was sold to Irish immigrants, who turned around and sold it to the Neary family. The Nearys valued the history of the building, and played an important role in preserving it for posterity.

Some of the original adobe foundations of the mission have been discovered, but they are on private property and are not open to tourists. The Indian dormitory is also called the Neary-Rodriguez Adobe, after several families who lived in it during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and who kept it preserved. My wife and I toured this Adobe last month, on our quest to visit all 21 missions. We found it interesting, although there wasn’t a whole lot to see. But at least the admission was free.

This was our 20th mission to visit. We only had one remaining, which required a 47-mile drive south, to the southernmost reach of Monterey Bay. There, in the picturesque town of Carmel-by-the-Sea lies Mission Carmel, which I will triumphantly feature in a future post.

This mirrored candle sconce possesses a unique beauty. It hangs on the wall of the Armas parlor.

Categories: California Missions

49 replies »

  1. I attended the wedding of a high school friend who was married in the church. I recall it having a beautiful interior. But I must have slept through 4th-grade social studies; I thought a building across the street was the site of the old mission. Nowadays, the Indians wouldn’t even need to cross the river to have a good time. The neighborhood to the north has been corrupted by partying students getting edumacated at UC Santa Cruz.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a beautiful church from the outside, though we never checked out the interior.

      I guess debauchery has won in Santa Cruz, triumphing over the severest of Catholic whippings. But you can’t stop college students from doing what they will.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like a good reason to keep the missions intact. Though I will point out that not all the missions were this brutal. Every mission had different leadership, and some of the leaders were well-liked by the natives.


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.