Category: California Missions

History of the California Missions.

Mission of Music

My wife and I had accomplished our mission to see all 21 of California’s old Spanish Missions, and now it was time to go home, never to see another Mission again. I set my GPS, assuming it would take us due south along Highway 101. But to my surprise, it guided us north a few miles, then pointed us west along Highway 156, for a connection to Interstate 5. I hate it when my GPS is smarter than me.

We were surprised again when we suddenly encountered a sign indicating another Mission up ahead. This was Mission San Juan Bautista. In the old days, this was the Mission enroute between Mission Carmel and Mission Santa Cruz, along the El Camnino Real (The King’s Highway).

We’d already visited this Mission in 2003, but I didn’t have a camera back then, so I didn’t have any photos of it. Also, we had lots of time on our hands, so on a whim we decided to pay a return visit and take some snapshots.

Entrance to the Mission. The “No Dogs Allowed” sign reminded me of a certain Twilight Zone episode. I had trepidations, but I entered anyway.

We were also motivated by nostalgia. We had fond memories of our 2003 visit. It had been a good day. We were in high spirits. And the other-worldly quality of the Mission gardens and chapel left us ensorcelled. It was then that we’d made our vow to visit all 21 Missions. We’d already visited two others in the past, so we figured that with only 18 more to go, it should be a piece of cake. Little did we know those 18 Missions would require 19 more years.

Mission San Juan Bautista was founded by Father Fermin de Lasuén on June 24, 1797. June 24th is the feast day for Saint John the Baptist (who ate nothing but locusts and wild honey). Hence the name given to the Mission. But I wouldn’t want to eat there. And isn’t it interesting that even the Catholics have a Baptist church? I tried studying the Baptist religion once, but soon found myself in over my head.

Mission San Juan Bautista, with statue of Saint John the Baptist. The three bell campanario (bell wall) was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. But it was fully restored in 2009.

The Indians in the area, along with some soldiers from a nearby presidio, were kind enough to pitch in and build an adobe church, a granary, barracks, and other structures. In fact, the builders were very ambitious, and managed to construct the widest church of all the Missions. It has three aisles, and can accommodate 1,000 worshipers.

The floor tile of the church is original, and the Mission has the only original Spanish Plaza remaining in California. This Mission was built next to the San Andreas fault, but amazingly it still stands today, and much of it is as authentic as it appeared more than 200 years ago.

Inside the church. The floor tile is over 200 years old, yet remains in great condition. Good thing they didn’t opt for cheap vinyl.

It’s been buffeted and damaged by many shakers, including the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, but it’s been repaired and restored after every bruising its taken. In fact, this resilient Mission has held a daily mass since 1797. Although for many years, masses were held in living quarters and storage rooms, while the church was undergoing repair.

The church altar. The structure behind the altar, displaying statues of saints, is called a reredos. The altar and reredos were constructed by Thomas Doak, who was a sailor who jumped ship in Monterey. He also painted the altar, in exchange for room and board. I wonder how much hardtack the friars cooked for him?

Also, the Mission has had an unbroken succession of pastors since its foundation. One of the most beloved friars to reside here was Father Pedro Tápis. He had a talent for music, and employed a system of writing music that used colors for different notes. He used this system to train the Native American boys to sing. This boy choir performed often for visitors, earning the Mission the nickname, “the Mission of Music.”

These vestments are from China, Russia, and Venice, and were used at the Mission as recently as the 1930s.

But now let’s cue some sinister organ music. Because there’s a scary side to Mission San Juan Bautista. For it was here that Judy Barton embraced Detective Scottie Ferguson in the bell tower, after confessing her part in a murder plot, then plunged to her death after being startled by a nun.

Judy was played by Kim Novak and Scottie was portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. The movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a masterpiece that has been dubbed the greatest film of all time by the British Film Institute. Yep, it’s even greater than Citizen Kane, according to them.

This memorabilia from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is on display in the Mission museum.

The Mission and its grounds were featured prominently in Hitchcock’s 1958 flick. However, the bell tower was a fabrication, filmed at the Paramount Studio in Hollywood. Hitchcock remembered a bell tower from a visit to this Mission in his younger years, but much to his disappointment it had been demolished in 1949, due to dry rot and termites.

A photo of the Mission taken sometime between 1880 and 1897, with the original bell tower. The wooden conical spire of this tower was torn off in 1897, in a heavy wind storm. In 1915 the top of the bell tower was remodeled, and the remodel was the structure Hitchcock remembered seeing years before he started filming.

But he wasn’t deterred. He had a replica of the tower constructed in Paramount’s Hollywood studio, consisting of scale models and painted glass, which leaned on a little help from trick photography. For the interior drama, a 70-foot tower was constructed in the studio, that included the staircase. It was here that the intense scene was shot, of Scottie trying to ascend the steps while forcing Judy along, extracting a confession, and all the while suffering from the terrifying effects of acrophobia.

Spoiler Alert! This is the final scene from the movie.

Judy Barton’s visit did not end well. But our visit to Mission San Juan Bautista was about as enchanting the second time as it was the first. The gardens were just as numinous, and the massive chapel just as inspiring as we remembered from 2003. We left this Mission of Music with harmony in our hearts, smiles on our faces, and a wish that one day we might return again.

This stone trough lying in the Mission plaza is probably several hundred years old.

Mission Accomplished

Mission Carmel.

Our visit to Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo, better known as Mission Carmel, accomplished our goal to visit all 21 old Spanish Missions of California. And it was a fitting place to end our pilgrimage, because this mission served as the headquarters to all the California missions.

The mission was founded near the Carmel River, from which it is named. The Carmel River received its name in 1602 from the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, whose voyage was accompanied by three Carmelite friars.

Saint Charles Borroméo supervised the Order of Carmelites in the 1500s. He was also the cardinal of Milan, Italy, from 1564 to 1584. And he was the nephew of Pope Pius IV, who had appointed him as cardinal. So you might say he was the patron saint of nepotism.

But what Saint Charles is most known and admired for is his uncompromising crusade against the Protestant Reformation. Under his leadership, he was responsible for the arrests of many Swiss Protestants, for heresy. He also had suspected witches and sorcerers burned at the stake. And in this way, the merciful, loving words of the Lord Jesus Christ were protected from being corrupted and perverted by all those evil Protestants.

You’ll find beautiful fountains and gardens at Mission Carmel. This is the largest fountain, bubbling up water from the middle of the mission quadrangle. The chapel is in the background of this photo.

Mission Carmel was established by Father Junípero Serra on June 2, 1770, in the present-day city of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a beautiful little settlement situated next to a large body of water.

This city is loaded with citizens who are loaded with money. They live in multimillion dollar homes, most of which look no fancier than my own humble abode. But as they say, location, location, location. Clint Eastwood served as mayor of this white-shoe town, from 1986 to 1988.

Mission Carmel has the only mission chapel with an arched ceiling. The walls taper inward, forming a catenary arch, rather than having the usual flat or peaked ceiling found at other missions. The people at the front of the church are practicing a wedding rehearsal, while trying to ignore the tourists behind them, snapping photos.

Mission Carmel was California’s second mission, after Mission San Diego. The first mission had been established less than a year earlier near San Diego Bay, 375 miles to the southeast of Mission Carmel’s location near Monterey Bay.

Father Serra had a tough job keeping Carmel going during its early years, because there were no millionaires hanging around yet, to sponge off of. He depended upon supplies from ships out of Mexico, but often the ships didn’t arrive. However, the nearby Indians were willing to help out, so he sponged off them for awhile. But over time the mission was able to grow its own food, and became self-reliant.

Father Serra made this mission his headquarters, and used it for overseeing the construction of seven other missions. He died here, on August 28, 1784, at age 70. He’s buried under the altar of the mission church, where visitors can pay homage to his gravesite.

The room where Father Serra died. His bed was made of rough hewn timbers. The custom of the day was to cushion beds with sheepskin, but Father Serra eschewed this practice, preferring the asceticism of sleeping over a hard surface.

The original mission was built of adobe, but after Father Serra’s death, his successor, Father Lasuén, rebuilt it from stone extracted from the nearby Santa Lucia mountains. The only other California missions built of stone are Missions Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano. Father Lasuén died at this mission, in 1803. I’ll bet it was from too much heavy lifting of rocks. He lies buried beneath the church altar, right next to Father Serra.

The altar of the mission church. In the bottom-left corner is a photograph of Father Serra, taken by an oil-painting camera. Below the photo are rectangles that designate where Father Serra and Father Lasuén are buried.

After Mexican secularization of the California missions, Mission Carmel was abandoned and fell to ruin. Seems nobody wants to work at a mission if they’re not compelled. But restoration began in 1884. And today, it has been restored so extensively and so beautifully that it’s widely regarded as an outstanding historical landmark. Thanks, all you millionaire donors!

Mission Carmel’s beauty makes it a very popular mission. When my wife and I arrived, we were lucky to be early enough to find a parking spot. Having a “Handicapped” placard also helped. We limped after we got out of our car.

The only other mission that seemed this popular was Mission San Juan Capistrano, where we had to beat back crowds with bullwhips, and throw rocks at school children, who were on their annoying little field trips. But such are the extreme measures one must take in order to visit these ancient houses of worship, and draw closer to God.

On December 17, 1602, Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno and his crew became the first Europeans to set foot in California. There, on the shores of Monterey Bay, they held a mass beneath a live oak tree. This tree branch comes from that live oak, which is now a dead oak. It is considered to be California’s “Plymouth Rock,” and you can find it in the mission museum. Although I must warn, you’ll be just as unimpressed as if you visited the real Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.

In 1961, Mission Carmel was designated a Minor Basilica. This officially made it a part of the “Pope’s Church.” And in fact, Pope John Paul visited this mission in 1987. But why wouldn’t he? After all, it was his church. Four other missions are also Minor Basilicas. These are: Mission San Diego, Mission Dolores (in San Francisco), Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Buenaventura (in Ventura).

Minor Basilicas are tasked with celebrating the feasts of the liturgical year. This must keep the mission very busy, given all the holidays that Catholics celebrate. But perhaps the most important reason for a Catholic to visit a Minor Basilica, is that if they visit with devotion, and participate in any sacred rite, or at least recite the Lord’s Prayer and the profession of faith, they may obtain a plenary indulgence.

A plenary indulgence frees penitents from having to experience the consequences of their sins, on Earth as well as in Purgatory. You see, it’s not enough just to confess your sins and be forgiven. That will free you from Hell, but it won’t free you from other consequences, both worldly and purgative. Karma doesn’t work that way. In order to fool karma, you must obtain a plenary indulgence.

The cemetery beside the mission chapel commemorates the hundreds of Indians who died while serving at the mission. The gravesites are symbolic, as nobody is sure where each individual body is located. The abalone shells that outline each gravesite are in honor of the Indians, because the natives regarded abalone as sacred.

Unfortunately, we did not learn of this opportunity for a plenary indulgence, while visiting Mission Carmel or those other missions. So we did not recite the Lord’s Prayer, and thus are doomed to endure all that karma is gonna dish out to us. Goddamnit, anyway! We’re such idiots.

But there’s one thing our visit did free us from. It freed us from having to visit anymore California missions. Many years ago we made it our vow to visit all 21 of the missions. Finally, with our payment of the $10 per person entrance fee, we were able to enter Mission Carmel, our 21st mission. And upon our exit, I was able to pat my wife on the back and proudly proclaim: Mission accomplished!

Inside Mission Carmel’s front gate is this statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, coddling Christ after His mission was accomplished. The Franciscan Order established the old Spanish missions found in California, and many of the missions continue to be run by friars of this Order.

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.
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