Category Archives: History: California Missions

Saint Barbara

My first sort-of girlfriend was named Barbara. She and I were in the third-grade, and she also lived just down the street from me. We laughed and played together, and had plenty of fun, until the day I called her a whore. I didn’t know what that word meant, but I thought it was funny because I’d heard other people laughing when they said that word.

Barbara didn’t think it was funny.

It would have been better had I called her a saint. Just like Mission Santa Barbara, which my wife and I visited a few weeks ago. By the way, I’ve never called my wife a whore, and we’ve had a long, happy marriage.

Mission Santa Barbara is unique in a number of distinct ways. For instance, it was the first of the old California missions to be founded by Father Fermin Lasuen, who was the successor to Father Junipero Serra.

It’s located in Santa Barbara, California, which is arguably the most beautiful coastal town in the entire Golden State.

It’s the only mission with two bell towers. Smart. It’s always wise to have a backup. Legend has it that Saint Barbara was locked up in a tower by her pagan-worshiping father, from which she miraculously escaped. So perhaps this is why two bell towers were built at this particular mission.

The twin bell towers of Mission Santa Barbara. Seems the Catholics invented the world’s first stereo.

It’s been destroyed or severely damaged by earthquakes, twice, in 1812 and 1925.

The mission architecture is beautiful, but no place to stand near during an earthquake.

The Mexican government secularized the California missions in 1834, threatening the total loss of the mission system. But Father Presidente Narciso Duran came to the rescue. He transferred his headquarters to Mission Santa Barbara, and brought with him over 3,000 original documents that pertained to all the missions. This is the oldest archive in California, and remains a priceless treasure for historic research. And these documents have been used for the accurate restoration of the other missions, after they fell into ruins.

An old, out-of-use gateway to the Mission cemetery.

Mission Santa Barbara is the only one of the 21 California missions to remain under perpetual control of the Franciscan Order, from its founding in 1786, to the present day. The rest were sold off by the Mexican government after 1834, to Californios.

This side entrance, from the cemetery to the church, was reserved for pirates only.

Californios were the original Mexican landowners in California. They were unfortunate in several ways. First, their land was coveted by white settlers after the United States stole California from Mexico, during the Mexican War. The treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo guaranteed they could keep their land. However, the Californios violated this treaty when they sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

A basin of holy water at the main entrance to the church. Or maybe it’s God’s eyeball. I’m not sure.

Therefore, on March 18, 1865, Abraham Lincoln decided to grant a petition by a Catholic bishop, to return all the California missions back to the Catholic Church. The Californios lost out, but historical preservationists won a big victory.

Jesus asking a woman at Jacob’s Well for a drink of water. She was a Samaritan, considered one of the lesser races of people. And she’d had five husbands already, and was shacking up with her sixth lover. I mean, for Christ’s sake, what the hell was he talking to a woman like that for?

I can’t speak for my first girlfriend, because I lost track of her after grade school. So I don’t know what line of work she eventually pursued. But history speaks favorably to Barbara, the mission. It has always been run by a religious order. And it has been very instrumental in the restoration of all the other California missions.

This little niche is so colorful and inviting, I hardly feel sorry for the “poor” box.

Mission Santa Barbara has lived up to its first name. It truly is a Saint.

The church altar, in all its refulgent splendor.

Swallowing Capistrano

Votive offerings before the goddess Mary, at Serra’s Chapel, Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? President Ulysses S. Grant, of course. Where is Mission San Juan Capistrano located? Why, in San Juan Capistrano, California, of course.

Which is where my wife and I headed a few months ago, on our mission to visit all of California’s historic Catholic missions. This was our eighth, of 21 missions visited. We began this quest back in the 1990’s, so please be patient with our progress.

The gilded altar of Serra’s Chapel.

Mission San Juan Capistrano was established in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra. That year he built Serra’s Chapel, a small church that is still in use today, and is the oldest church in California.

Ahem, let me correct that factoid. Father Serra did not build the chapel. The Native Americans he enslaved did the actual labor. He just supervised and made sure they did a good job, while edifying themselves with good old fashioned godly hard work.

Serra’s Chapel is very long and narrow. That’s my wife standing near the back. Ain’t she purty?

And they did do a good job. So good that this autochthonous tribe was conscripted into the construction of a far larger, Great Stone Church. Their backbreaking, salvation-earning moil and toil began in 1797. Nine long years of sweat, struggle, and hernias later, the magnificent cathedral was completed.

A wall of the Great Stone Church.

Finally the exhausted slaves christians could rest. No more hoicking heavy stones. No more long, agonizing hours beneath the burning sun. And no more beatings and whippings for the slow slackers.

This mighty monument to the mercy of the Lord stood 180 feet long and 40 feet wide, and came equipped with a 120 foot bell tower that could be seen for many miles. It was something to be proud of for the Spanish, and even for the natives who built it.

Worship within the walls of this wonder began in 1806. But just six years later, on December 8th, 1812, the San Andreas fault erupted with 7.2 magnitudes of jolting, destructive power. The cathedral’s stone arch roof had been constructed poorly and could not withstand the shaking of a major earthquake. This grand structure that took nine hard years to build, was wiped out in a matter of seconds.

Ruins of the Great Stone Church. The altar seems to have been the only safe spot during the shaking.

If the purpose of this cathedral was to bring Native Americans close to God, it succeeded wildly. When the earth began to move, Mass was being held. Forty native worshipers perished beneath the falling stones of the collapsing roof. And two boys in the toppled bell tower were also killed. I suppose they got as close to God as anyone can possibly get.

Ancient mission bells, with ruins of the Great Stone Church in the background.

The Great Stone Church was never rebuilt, but worship continued in Serra’s Chapel, eventually converting more than 4,000 native souls to christianity.

A campanario (bell wall) was built a year after the 1812 earthquake, that connected the ruins of the Great Stone Church to Serra’s Chapel.

After Mexico’s independence, and the United States’ thievery of California from Mexico, Mission San Juan Capistrano fell into labefaction. Then, in 1910, Father John O’Sullivan took over the mission and began its restoration.

These brick ovens were employed for feeding the multitude of christian slaves immured at the mission.

Father O’Sullivan is credited (or rather, he credits himself) for a singular miracle that has made this site world famous. He claims to have brought the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano.

During his tutelage of this mission, people began to notice that thousands of swallows were building their nests on the mission walls. Every Spring, these birds would migrate 6,000 miles, from Goya, Argentina, just to make the mission their home.

And then in 1940, the Ink Spots put San Juan Capistrano on the map with their hit recording of the song, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.

Why did the swallows start coming to Mission San Juan Capistrano? According to Father O’Sullivan, it all began one day when he was walking about the town outside the mission.

He noticed a shopkeeper flailing about with a broomstick, knocking down mud nests from under the eaves of his shop, while panicked birds zoomed all around him, shrieking madly.

“What in the hell is going on?!” shouted Father O’Sullivan. Well maybe he didn’t quite use those particular words. Here’s the actual dialogue, according to the good Father, from his book Capistrano Nights:

“What in the world are you doing?” O’Sullivan asked.

“Why, these dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!” the shopkeeper responded.

“But where can they go?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he replied, slashing away with his pole. “But they’ve no business here, destroying my property.”

O’Sullivan then said, “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”

The very next morning, Father O’Sullivan discovered the swallows busy building their nests outside Father Junipero Serra’s Church.

In the early 1920s Father O’Sullivan began a tradition of celebrating the return of the swallows to the mission every March 19th (Saint Joseph’s Day). This tradition now draws thousands of tourists every year to join the celebration.

However in the 1990s the mission underwent remodeling. The nests of these dirty birds got in the way and were a nuisance. So the construction workers knocked them down. And after that the swallows stopped returning to Capistrano.

Many attempts have been made to lure the swallows back, but to little avail.

It seems that even for birds, hypocrisy is a hard thing to swallow.

These artificial nests were placed in this archway to entice the swallows to return. They’ve only been modestly effective. Very few birds have swallowed the bait.

Mission San Diego de Alcalâ

Founded in 1769, Mission San Diego de Alcalâ was the first of the 21 missions the Spanish would eventually build. Er, I mean the Indians they enslaved would eventually build. But after 5 years they had to move a few miles, so they could be closer to a water supply, and to more Indians. Then, just one year after the first church was built, a band of angry natives burned the whole damned place down, and killed the priest. Father Serra had to return and rebuild the mission. This time he had it constructed like a fort, in quadrangular shape, with a courtyard in the middle. This proved very effective against uprisings, and became a blueprint for future missions.


My wife and I love the old Catholic missions of California, and have made it our goal to visit all 21 of them. So far we’ve managed to see eight.

Mission San Diego de Alcalâ was the first of the missions, founded in 1769 by Father Junipero Serra.

I am an atheist, so what is it about these religious grounds that I find so attractive? Within the ambiance of these missions I find myself whelmed in a sense of numinous peace that leaves my soul feeling settled and whole. Why?

Here, Native Americans were enslaved and forced to toil away, feeding and supporting the Spanish military. They couldn’t have enjoyed these missions as much as me. Or could they? Perhaps to understand this, I must rely upon my own personal interpretation of the Gospel.

The posh living quarters of the priest. Equipped with a bed, small desk, and four walls, this was better than any Ramada Inn. That’s because it also came equipped with a small Indian slave, trained and ready to do all the priest’s bidding.

Back in the day, the Roman military occupied Israel. The Jews hated them. Then along came this dude named Jesus, who promised everyone freedom from the Romans. He performed all kinds of supernatural miracles, which attracted a lot of attention and got him way more followers than I’ve ever been able to achieve on WordPress.

Many believed he was the promised Messiah, and that he would use his miraculous powers to send the Romans packing back to Italy.

But instead he let them all down. It was all a bait-and-switch technique. The oldest scam in the book. Christ was a con artist. Instead of conquering the Romans, he taught that true freedom comes from observing the Golden Rule, and relying upon the mercy of God.

Mission San Diego de Alcalâ was designated a minor basilica in 1976, by Pope Paul VI. As you can see, the church is very large, and can seat hundreds and hundreds of slaves.

There is no better way to develop empathy other than to try to figure out how to do unto others what you would have them do unto you. And reliance upon the mercy of God is nothing more than trusting to your luck, and to the long run good fortune that eventually results from the development of empathy.

Supernatural miracles, such as walking upon water, cannot help anybody learn these lessons of empathy and faith. We must learn these lessons on our own. So no matter how powerful Jesus happened to be, he knew he could not transplant the skills of the Golden Rule, or empathy, into his followers. He knew they had to rely upon the ordinary miracle of life itself, by living it and learning it on their own.

The church altar is clinquant beautiful, as have been the altars of all the missions we have thus far visited. I understand that the material used to construct all this beauty is an element called “indulgences”. Indulgences provide worshipers with a convenient method to buy their way into heaven by being generous with their donations.

So one day he decided to stop performing his magic show for his followers. That really did it. They turned on him more viciously than the followers of Kathy Griffin and her severed head of Donald Trump.

The Pharisees seized the opportunity, arrested Jesus, and presented him to the Romans for punishment. Maybe they hoped Jesus would use his supernatural powers to defend himself, sparking an escalating war with the Romans that would result in a Roman defeat.

This sparrow enjoys its own altar within the Mission grounds, perched upon a giant white bird-of-paradise flower.

But Jesus held his fire. And his refusal to defend himself resulted in his execution. This was his sacrifice. This was his way of showing his followers that they could not rely upon external forces to save them. They must instead save themselves by following the Golden Rule, developing empathy, and relying upon the mercy of God. Only then could they know the true way to personal salvation. Only then could they discover how to find true peace and happiness within their own souls.

Yep, this’ll show ‘em.

His final miracle was his resurrection. But he had to do that to get his stupid followers to believe in him and his message again. Just like Kathy Griffin being resurrected at Carnegie Hall. Now we get it, Kathy. Now we understand.

But none of the teachings of Christ are true. They are merely words, and words cannot save anyone. We must instead use the teachings as a guide. When we follow the Golden Rule, and sincerely try to understand it, we develop empathy. When we develop empathy, we develop peace. And when we develop peace we begin to feel ourselves slipping into a wordless grasping of the true essence of life. And then nothing anybody has ever taught, whether they be Christ, Buddha, or Kathy Griffin, means anything.

I believe it is this wordless sense of life’s true essence that we catch a glimpse of, whenever we visit places like this. This is what we find so attractive here. And who knows, perhaps, hopefully, some of the Indian slaves also caught a sense of it here.

Here amongst the bird-of-paradise.

Here within the serene, numinous atmosphere of the adobe walls of an old Catholic mission.

Bird-of-paradise grow abundantly at this mission. We’ve always been impressed with the lush flora cultivated at each mission. I believe the Catholics grow some of the finest flower gardens we’ve ever experienced.

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