Author Archives: Tippy Gnu

Conquering California, Part 1 of 17: Introduction

INTRODUCTION

“When America sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing guns. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some of them, I assume, are good people.” ~ Mexican El Presidente Don Juan Trompeta, 1845.

Okay, maybe there really wasn’t a Don Juan Trompeta. But if there had been, I’m sure he would have said something like that, about Mexico’s illegal immigrant problem.

It happened during the first half of the 19th century. Illegal immigrants from America were pouring into Mexico.

At first Mexico welcomed us with open arms. They made it easy for us to become Mexican citizens. And they allowed us to work, and buy land, and participate in the growing economy.

How did we thank this country? In Texas we banded together and rebelled. And in 1836, we took Texas away from Mexico and made it an independent republic.

Mexico sensed that California was next, and began clamping down on illegal immigration. This is a story about how that worked out for Mexico. It’s a tale about how a ragtag band of illegal immigrants from the United States took up arms against their host.

Today, America goes to great lengths to keep Mexicans out. But at one time, it was the other way around. (This photo depicts the beach at the U.S.-Mexico border, from the side of Tijuana, Mexico. Photo from Wikipedia, created by James Reyes on 10/22/06.)

It won’t be a pretty story. Because what you read here won’t bear much resemblance to what you may have read in public school history books, that tend to glorify our country and gloss over our atrocities and bumbling.

But it’s a true tale, as best as I could glean from multiple sources on the internet. And also from what I can remember from a California History course I completed many years ago, in college.

I found a lot of information, and couldn’t resist writing a 10,000 word post. But no one wants to read a 10,000 word post. Not even me. So I’ve decided to break this down into a 17-part series of posts, to serve more easily digestible portions. Chasing Unicorns will be stringing out this series over the summer.

Yep, I’ve done written a mini-book. But I’ve tried to make it an interesting and fun read. And coherent. One thing I’ve noticed about this subject is that there is little coherence. Not even in Wikipedia. Instead, there’s a lot of conflicting information and confusing segues that leave you with more questions than answers.

You can’t get a clear picture of how California became a state unless you take snippets of information from multiple sources, look for a pattern, and then arrange them the way you’d put a jigsaw puzzle together.

But I warn you, this jigsaw puzzle may leave you wincing at times. I love my country. And what I love most about my country is that I can shine an honest light on it without fear of going to jail. So I will present to you the raw, unvarnished truth. All the ugliness and glory combined. The true tale you never read in public school.

This is how the West was really won. This is the true story about illegal immigrants from America, and the conquering of California.

Come on back tomorrow, for Part 2: Alta California.

 

Piano Dad

He was given no choice. My grandparents forced him to take piano lessons. And my dad hated it.

But then something clicked. His spirit and soul connected with the spirit and soul of that giant stringed instrument. His fingers figured out how to tickle the ivories, and his ears learned how steal any tune he heard, and send it through his heart and onto the keyboard. And he went from piano pouter to piano child prodigy.

My dad had a happy-go-lucky, jocular personality. And he could charm anyone. His motto all his life was, “Make someone smile at least once a day.”

And he could do that with a piano. Whenever he would spot a lonely old upright or grand, sitting dusty and forgotten in some corner, whether it be in a bar, a restaurant, or somebody’s home, he’d meander over inconspicuously, casually wipe the dust off with his hands, then sit down and start tapping out a slow, hesitant tune.

And then gradually, as his fingers found their rhythm, and as his soul resonated with the great musical beast before him, that tune would build. Before long he’d be in full form, pounding out old standbys, with improvised riffs and harmonies lifting the atmosphere.

A crowd would draw near, and he’d take requests. If he couldn’t remember the tune, he’d ask the requester to hum or sing a few lines. Then his ear would catch it and transform it to the ivories, and you’d swear he’d been playing that song all his life.

A few years before I was born, he was laid off from his job as a machinist. He had kids to clothe, mouths to feed, and bills to pay. So he walked into a bar in Los Angeles and asked what they’d pay him to play their piano.

They allowed him to play for tips.

Night after night the tip jar overflowed, as large crowds were drawn to the bar. He became so popular, it seemed perhaps my dad had discovered a new profession.

But one wassailing evening, after he’d finished burning up the keys, a couple of goons paid him a visit. They asked to see his union card. But he didn’t belong to the local musician’s union. So they gave him the unmistakable message that if he did not join quickly, his fingers would be fixed so that he’d never play a piano again.

Dad said, “to hell with it.” Aerojet was hiring machinists, and they wanted him. He refused to join that damned musician’s union. Instead his fingers returned to metal, and let the ivories be.

My mom and dad divorced when I was two. So when I grew up, he was that charming, funny guy who showed up once-in-awhile and took me to fun places like Disneyland. I loved him, and always felt glad to see him come, and sad to see him go.

When I was eleven years old I attended Cottonwood Elementary school. It was way out in the sticks, and was the last one-room school in Riverside County, California. This old schoolhouse, built in 1897, had a lonely, dusty old piano languishing in the corner. Our schoolteacher didn’t know how to play it, so our music lessons consisted of singing songs A Cappella.

Cottonwood Elementary, where I attended Sixth Grade.

Every morning our 27 little lungs, from first to sixth grade, belted out tunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, such as The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, and Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.

One day I stepped inside the schoolhouse while on recess, and there was my dad, paying me a surprise visit. And with him were my brother and sisters, whom he’d pulled out of classes at their high school. He had to do this on the sly, as a surprise visit, because he was behind in child support. My mother had no idea he was in town.

After a few minutes of hugs and jokes, Dad spotted the piano. And true to form, he quietly gravitated toward it, casually wiped the dust with his hands, and started to play, sitting all alone at the keyboard. And his smile quota for the whole year must have been satisfied in that moment, with the beaming look that appeared on my schoolteacher’s face.

Before long my entire class, and my brother and sisters, were all singing songs from Oklahoma!, as Dad hammered out the tunes on the keyboard. He didn’t know all the songs, but we’d just start singing and he’d catch on quick. His fingers danced. The harmonies were lively and full. And our glee at finally being able to sing with that old piano, gave our faces ear-to-ear smiles.

The walls of that old schoolhouse were in danger of being shaken down, with the music we made that day, and I had never felt more proud of my dad than at that moment.

When Dad got into his late sixties, he realized that arthritis was robbing him of his ability to play. And he knew how much his kids loved to hear his music.

So he paid a professional studio to record him, playing his favorite tunes on their grand piano. He was only allowed one long take, from first tune to last. If his arthritic fingers caused him to screw up, too bad. He had to improvise a riff to cover for the error, and move on.

Fortunately, he could still force his stiff old digits to manipulate the keyboard for the duration. And soon, each of us kids got a CD of 30 piano tunes, courtesy of our maestro father.

My dad has been gone for seven years now. But sometimes when I miss him I play that CD. Thanks Dad, for such a wonderful gift.

And now I have a gift for him, on this Father’s Day. I want to help him fill his daily quota of making at least one person smile.

So for your listening pleasure (on the chance that you may like it), here is my dad’s rendition of Home on the Range:

The Mission to End All Missions

Mission San Francisco Solano (aka Mission Sonoma, aka Mission Solano)

Mission San Francisco Solano has one damned confusing name. Don’t confuse it with Mission San Francisco de Asis. The latter is in the city of San Francisco, and is more commonly known as Mission Dolores. But you know that, because I posted about it a few weeks ago. Remember? Probably not. I hardly remember, myself.

The former is in Sonoma, California. So you can also call it Mission Sonoma. And many call it Mission Solano. Are you getting as mixed up as me?

It seems the Catholics were good at building missions, but confusing as hell at naming them.

Solano is the Spanish word for Sonoma. And Sonoma is a Native American Miwok word that means, “Valley of the Moon”. Miwok legend has it that the moon rose from Sonoma valley. But I suspect those Miwoks just sampled a little too much Pinot Noir one evening.

Sonoma, California is a quiet, wine country town, with a current population of about 11,000 winos. Well it’s quiet now, but at one time it was the place to go if you were looking for trouble. That’s because it was once the site of Catholic in-fighting. And the Mexicans and Russians rattled their sabres here. And not to be left out, the Native Americans got in on the action, and raised some holy hell in these parts. And most famously, this is the site of the Bear Flag Revolt.

This prickly pear cactus outside the mission might symbolize the prickly situations often encountered during the early days of Sonoma. Or perhaps it symbolizes the prick who founded the mission.

Finally the citizens had enough of all the tumult going on in their town. They turned their troubled waters into wine, and mellowed out. Hic. The world-renowned California wine industry was born in Sonoma in 1857, with the establishment of the state’s first commercial winery. Hic. And California has continued to grow mellower and mellower ever since. Hic.

But that’s boring. Let’s go back to this town’s exciting and controversial beginning.

Mission Sonoma was the mission to end all missions. It was the last to be established, of California’s 21 centers for brainwashing Native Americans. And it’s the only mission to be established under Mexican rule. It came to be on July 4th, 1823, our Independence Day holiday, and nearly two years after Mexico achieved its own independence from Spain.

This bell in front of the mission is rang annoyingly and incessantly during the Christmas season, by someone from the Salvation Army.

It was kind of a red-headed stepchild. The Catholic Church didn’t want this mission. But Father Jose Altamira did. The rule was that if you wanted to establish a new mission, you must ask permission from the Padre-Presidente. At the time, this was Father Sarria, the founder of nearby Mission San Rafael Arcangel (which I posted about, a week ago).

But Father Altamira must have guessed that Father Sarria would say no. So he said to hell with him, broke this rule, and instead asked permission from Luis Antonio Arguello. Who? Why, he was California’s first governor, under Mexican rule.

And the governor liked the idea. He wanted to close Mission San Francisco de Asis and Mission San Rafael Arcangel, and have a new mission further north for countering the Russians at Fort Ross.

Yep, the Russians.

Fort Ross had been established by the Ruskies in 1812, on Bodega Bay, just 50 miles north of San Francisco Bay. Those greedy bastards were trying to take over California. Yes, even before Donald Trump, those dirty commies were meddling with us.

The governor hated communists, and so gave his permission. And soon construction began.

But when Father Sarria found out about this, his face turned florid, his eyes bulged out, and he nearly leapt out of his frock. He ordered an immediate halt to the construction. A big argument broke out. And it was a tough argument to win for the enraged Father, because he was going up against the governor himself. But it wasn’t easy for the governor either, as he was going up against a highly respected leader of the Catholic Church.

Finally a compromise was reached. The new mission would go forward, which pleased the governor. And all other missions would remain open, including the missions in San Francisco and San Rafael. And that pleased Father Sarria.

But the Catholic establishment never got over it. They were still fuckin’ pissed. Bad feelings lingered, and the other missions did not give this new mission much support.

The interior of the mission church is the most simple and basic we’ve seen. By the way, the children at the front of the church are not missionary Indians. They were on a field trip from a nearby school. Poor kids. Imagine the disappointment of getting out of school, only to have to go to church.

Mission Sonoma was established about 46 miles southeast from Fort Ross. And it was effective for the governor’s purpose, because after all, Californians these days do not speak Russian. On the other hand, we have been accused of being communists, so I’m really not sure if the governor succeeded.

It was far enough from San Francisco Bay that the climate was warm and sunny. And it was quickly discovered that vineyards did well at this mission. And Father Altimira had no problem attracting Native Americans to help out. Like typical Californians, they knew how to appreciate a mild climate.

But what they didn’t appreciate was Father Altimira himself, who was not so mild. He exacted cruel punishments, and treated the natives harshly. He was a real prick. Conditions got so bad that in 1826, the natives grew restless and revolted. They looted and burned the buildings and supplies, and sent Father Altimira running for his life.

Now this outcast needed a new place to work. But he’d already burned all his bridges with the church, so none of the other missions would take him in. And so the cruel son-of-a-bitch had to return to Spain, never to bother Native Americans, or his fellow missionaries, again.

Father Buenaventura Fortuni, from Mission San Jose, took over the helm. He was a kind and loving man, and was able to regain the confidence of the natives. They soon rebuilt the mission and made it a prosperous success. At its peak, it encompassed 10,000 acres of vineyards, other crops, sheep, and cattle.

The altar at the front of the church contains a pornographic image of a partially disrobed man. I wonder if he’s a priest?

In 1834, all of the California missions were secularized. The stated goal of secularization was to distribute the mission lands to the Native Americans who had worked so hard to make them successful. Yeah, right. That goal was good for PR, but in practice most of the missions were confiscated by rich and powerful Mexicans, and the natives were left to fend for themselves.

Some of that happened at Mission Sonoma. In 1834, General Mariano Vallejo took the lands of this mission for himself, and made them part of his huge rancho. It was a raunchy thing to do, but at least he promised the natives protection, provided room and board, and put them to work on his raunchy rancho.

The general built an imposing home very close to the mission church, and named it La Casa Grande. And he was blessed by the Lord’s bounty, as he scavenged the roof tiles from the church, to use for his home.

Without a roof, the adobe chapel quickly deteriorated, then collapsed from neglect. But Vallejo wasn’t the only vulturine builder. Other settlers descended upon the site, and scavenged supplies from the remaining buildings. Thus, by the 1880s, the entire mission had been picked apart, and had fallen into ruins.

An outdoor pastry shop. Here, early missionaries baked holy foods, such as communion crackers and donuts.

In 1903, the California Landmarks League purchased the ruins of the original adobe mission. They used state funds to restore the chapel, and in 1926 they sold it to William Randolph Hearst. He then generously deeded it over to the state. Sounds sort of like a tax write-off scheme, to me.

Now it’s known as the Sonoma Mission State Historic Park, and is one of three missions that are part of California’s state park system.

Today you can visit the restored mission. And you can visit the restored presidio that housed soldiers, across the street from the mission. You know, those guys who kept the red tide of Russians away. A museum displays artifacts from the early mission, soldiering, and ranching days.

The museum is the long building to the right, which adjoins the mission at the far end. It costs three bucks per adult, to get in and gawk at all the goods. It’s two bucks per child, aged 6-17. And it’s free for those wee little ones who don’t give a damn.

At this museum you can also learn about the Bear Flag Revolt. It happened here in 1846, and led to California’s independence from Mexico. Which is another reason why Mission Sonoma was the mission to end all missions. It was here that Spanish and Mexican expansion came to an end, in North America, and they had to pack up and move south.

I’ll be boring you with some posts about the Bear Flag Revolt, soon.

Monument to the Bear Flag Revolt, that launched California’s independence movement from Mexico. Stay tuned for a series of posts, where I will tear down this overglorified monument, and give this revolt a reality check.

The Obliterated Mission

This restoration of the original Mission San Rafael Arcangel church was constructed in 1949.

The most obliterated of all California’s historic missions is Mission San Rafael Arcangel. It was established in 1817 as a medical asistencia, or sub-mission, of Mission Dolores in San Francisco. It achieved full mission status in 1822. And it’s located across the Golden Gate, about 15 miles north of Mission Dolores, in a sunnier, drier, and healthier climate.

It’s named after the archangel Saint Raphael, who is venerated by Roman Catholics as an angel responsible for miraculous healing.

Saint Raphael, the Archangel. Often associated with the unnamed angel in the Gospel of John 5:4, who stirs the water at the healing pool of Bethesda. Raphael is also mentioned in the Book of Tobit, from the Catholic scriptures. And besides the Catholic religion, Raphael is venerated by the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran faiths.

Mission San Rafael Arcangel was California’s first sanitarium. The warmer climate at this mission helped the Native Americans at Mission Dolores recover from European diseases, such as measles. As word spread of its success, other missions also began sending their sick to this sanitarium.

Father Vicente Francisco de Sarria established the mission. He was very dedicated and benevolent toward the welfare of the natives, especially their physical health. And he knew his stuff when it came to medicine. He’s credited with the first original contribution by a resident of California in the field of medicine, for an 1830 paper on the use of the caesarian section as a method of childbirth.

But Father Sarria was fighting an uphill battle. The new Mexican government was determined to secularize all the California missions. And in 1833, Mission San Rafael became one of the first missions to fall into secular hands.

Mission San Rafael keeps odd hours, and was closed when my wife and I arrived. We were unable to enter the large, restored church and take photos, so I did what any non-God-fearing atheist would do, and ripped this photo off from Wikipedia.

By 1844, the mission was completely abandoned, and in 1846 the empty buildings were sold for $8,000.

It briefly came back to life in June, 1846, when Captain John C. Fremont occupied the mission during California’s Bear Flag Revolt.

On June 28, 1846, an event began here that would affect the course of American history. Fremont ordered his scout, Kit Carson, and two others, to kill three prominent Californios who were passing through San Rafael.

This triple-murder was used against Fremont when he ran as the Republican party’s first nominee for president, in 1856. It helped turned public sentiment against him, and he lost the election to James Buchanan.

In 1861, the old mission church was razed, and a new church was built beside the ruins of the old church. Unfortunately, no one had ever sketched or painted the old church, so to this day nobody knows how it looked. All that was left of the original mission was one lone pear tree. For this reason, San Rafael is considered the most obliterated of all the California missions.

The building to the right is the parish church that was built in 1861, beside the demolished ruins of the original church.

Nonetheless, in 1949, the old church was rebuilt. It was restored on the site of the original hospital, by Monsignor Thomas Kennedy. Kennedy had to rely mainly upon his imagination for the design, because of course, he had never seen the original.

These three ding-a-lings hang out in front of the parish church that was built in 1861.

The parish church built in 1861 remains beside the 1949 restoration.

Mission San Rafael Arcangel keeps unpredictable hours. If you want to visit, take my advise and call ahead to see if it will be open. We didn’t do that, and found ourselves locked out of the restored old mission church. However, the church that was built in 1861 was open, and we were able to enter and snap a few photos.

Interior of the parish church, built in 1861.

We also got some great photos of the exterior of the restored church. We loved the architecture and pink color, and enjoyed admiring this restoration from the imaginative mind of Monsignor Kennedy.

We felt impressed with the beauty and architectural design of the restored church, even if it might not resemble the original.

Mission Dolores

This sight has been seen for over 228 years. It’s the front of the original adobe church completed at Mission Dolores, in 1791.

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.

Inside the adobe church at Mission Dolores, looking toward the altar.

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.

The ceiling of the adobe church was painted by Native Americans, using their own traditional colors and patterns. Many tribes were found at this mission, including the Costanoan, Ohlone, Miwok, and Patwin people.

This resulted in some confusion, trying to find it with my GPS. Apparently, GPS prefers the nickname.

The altar of the adobe church.

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.

Looking toward the rear of the adobe church, you’ll find a spiral staircase leading to a loft with an organ. I wonder, how in the heck did they get that organ up there?

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.

A Gothic Revival brick church was built beside the original adobe church, in 1876. It was destroyed by the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. This structure, called the Mission Dolores Basilica, replaced it in 1913.

It’s estimated that 5,000 natives who died from measles and other diseases, are buried on the mission grounds in unmarked graves.

The basilica is massive, compared with the adobe church. But I guess you need massive in order to conduct masses.

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 opulent altar at Mission Dolores Basilica. San Francisco is a wealthy town, and the indulgences of thousands of rich, purgatory-fearing parishioners paid for the splendor of this church.

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.

This oculus in the basilica reminds parishioners of Who’s keeping an eye on them.

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.

The ceiling of the basilica is bathed in orange ambiance from stained glass windows.

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.

At the rear of the basilica is an impressive stained glass window portraying St. Francis of Assisi.

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.

These twin bell towers from the basilica dominate above the roofline of the old adobe church, as seen from the cemetery.

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.

The cemetery at Mission Dolores. That’s a statue of Saint Francis on the right.

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.

This memorial in the cemetery commemorates the 5,000 Native Americans who gave their lives for this mission, and who are buried on the mission grounds.

Mission San Jose

The church at Mission San Jose was reconstructed in the 1980s to look identical to the church built in 1809.


Mission San Jose was established in 1797. It was named after Saint Joe, the alleged stepfather of Jesus Christ, and not that other Saint Joe, who wants to free us from the evil grip of Donald Trump.

It’s the only mission east of San Francisco Bay. And in spite of its name, it’s actually located in Fremont, California, 20 miles north of the city of San Jose.

There are three rules for establishing a successful mission: Location, location, location. The water at this location was good, the ground fertile, and the soil produced excellent adobe bricks. And this combination of local resources made for a thriving, prosperous mission.

The church is long enough to allow one to run a vigorous 50-yard dash, straight for the exits. Such as when the collection plates appear.

Over the first 35 years of operation, this mission expanded its territory as far north as present-day Oakland, and as far south as present-day San Jose. And the padres turned the Native American Ohlone tribe from hunter-gatherers to highly successful farmers and ranchers, with bumper crops of wheat, grapes, and olives, and large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep.

Then it all came crashing down. The Mexican government secularized the mission and sold it off to business interests. The natives were forced to leave and go back to their former way of life. But by this time they’d gotten rusty at hunting and gathering, and many died of starvation and disease.

The altar is impressive enough to make any atheist reconsider their beliefs.

During the gold rush, the mission was converted to a place of lodging, and a commercial general store.

And then in 1868, it all came crashing down again. Because it was leveled by an earthquake.

The year after the quake, a gothic-style wooden structure was built over the old foundation, and served as a Catholic parish church for the next 96 years, until 1965. That’s when the Catholics sold the building to the Episcopalians. These good and righteous Episcopalians carted it off 40 miles away, to San Mateo, while observing all traffic laws, including signaling while turning.

In 1982, a great restoration project began, aimed at reconstructing a likeness to the original adobe church. And those involved in the reconstruction were purists. They used old timbers, and employed rawhide thongs to bind the timbers together, rather than nails, just the way the original church was built by the native Ohlone tribe.

No, this is not a spittoon. It’s an old-time water filter used by the early missionaries. The cistern is filled with water, which slowly seeps through its pervious stone and drips into collection urns placed below.

They also used handmade adobe bricks, and constructed the walls four to five feet thick, as in the original. However, they deviated from the original design in one important way. They made sure to incorporate an internal steel frame, to protect it from anymore earthquakes.

Today, Mission San Jose’s church looks much the way it appeared 200 years ago. Except that there is also a modern elementary school on the grounds. The mission remains an active Catholic parish, and those schoolkids wear uniforms and probably live in fear of a bunch of grumpy nuns.

Entryway from the cemetery to the church.

For an adult admission fee of $5.00, you can visit the mission any day, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and take a self-guided tour. Parking spots on the street can be scarce, but you’re allowed to use the school’s parking lot. From there it’s a walk of about a hundred yards to the mission entrance.

The old cemetery is between the church and the school, and contains bodies that have been dead for a very long time. Some well over a hundred years. It’s kind of creepy, and I’ll bet it inspires the schoolkids to invent ghost stories.

Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara was established in 1777, and was the first mission christened after a woman. It changed sites five times, until settling permanently on this site, near San Jose, in 1822. This chapel is not the original, but rather a replica that was built in 1929. However the large wooden cross in front is original, dating all the way back to 1777.


Imagine you’ve traveled for many months to reach California, in search for gold. But after all that travel, and all that grueling hard work in the gold fields, prospecting, staking claims, and panning, the magical yellow stuff eluded you.

That happened to thousands of California immigrants during the gold rush. In fact, the vast majority of 49ers came up empty-handed. Only a few struck it rich and threw their can of beans out the window.

The rest had to eat their beans and find an alternative way to make a living. And some were weary of grunt work. They wanted a better education, so they could make some big bucks, while sitting on their big asses. But California was a brand new state, and thus far had no higher institutions of learning.

Reverend Joseph Alemany was the Catholic bishop of California, and oversaw all the missions still under control of the Catholic church. He also belonged to the Franciscan Order. He recognized California’s dire need for schools, and in 1851 said to hell with his fellow Franciscans, and turned Mission Santa Clara over to the more scholarly Jesuit Order.

Within months, the smartass Jesuits converted the mission into California’s first college. At first there was a shortage of teachers and money, and the college had a tough time obtaining a state charter. But fortunes eventually turned around, and today Santa Clara University is still operating. In fact it was named as the top-ranked regional university in the western United States in the 2019 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings.

And Mission Santa Clara has the unique distinction of being the only mission to have become part of a university.

Inside Mission Santa Clara’s chapel. This is where students go to pray for good grades.

In fact if you want to visit the mission, you must drive onto the university’s campus. Then you must inform the guard at the gate that you are a tourist, and not a student. He will look deep into your eyes and determine if you really are a tourist, and not a terrorist.

You are then given a visitor’s pass, which you must display on your windshield. Then you park in their massive, multi-story, concrete parking garage, and walk about a quarter mile to the mission. You’ll find it if you read and follow the signs. It’s surrounded by a warren of the university’s halls of education.

Most churches have organs. But the rebellious students at Mission Santa Clara have opted for a grand piano.

This is the only mission my wife and I have visited that has not charged an admission fee. That’s generous of them, but I wonder if they have to jack up the tuition to pay for freeloaders like us.

The altar. Those students who fail exams are executed, and their heads are put on display at the altar, as a warning to others.

The chapel is actually a replica of a replacement. The original mission church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1818. Its replacement was completed in 1828. This replacement was then destroyed by a fire in 1926, and was replaced by the current replica in 1929. Good thing they had Allstate.

An adobe wall. This wall, plus an adobe lodge that currently houses school faculty, are all that remains of the mission structure built in 1828.

However, it still sports its original bells, which were imported from Spain several hundred years ago. It’s claimed that these bells have rang each evening at 8:30 pm, for more than 225 years. But how would you ring the bells after the supporting structure beneath has crumbled to the ground from an earthquake or conflagration? Surely there must have been a few episodes when the bells were silent.

This sprawling wisteria covers an extensive arbor, in the garden beside the mission.

If you want to hear the bells, good luck. The mission is open seven days a week, from 7:00 am to sundown. And the sun usually goes down before 8:30.

But there’s one sure way to hear the ding-a-ling after dusk. Just be like one of those early 49ers. Sign up as a student and matriculate into Santa Clara University’s education program.

A bench beneath a magnolia tree offers a place for reverie, for those consumed by the numinous atmosphere of this old mission.

See ya in study hall!

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