Category: California Missions

History of the California Missions.

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.

The governor hated communists, or whatever they were at the time, 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.

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