I first visited Mission Santa Clara de Asis many years ago, on the kind of beautiful, sunny day that is typical for late spring in California.

It was a school field trip, and I was in the eighth grade, the daughter of devout and devoted Protestant parents. They had given me a deep, abiding faith in a loving God and the saving grace of Christ. But, with that first visit to Mission Santa Clara, I was introduced to the stunning, humbling, heart- and soul-filling beauty that is the true Catholic faith.

Born and raised in California, I had learned in school about the Franciscan missions, the famous El Camino Real that linked them into a chain of Catholic gems up and down the length of most of California. I had learned about Junipero Serra (1713-1784). But the visit to the mission brought it all to life and, although I didn't fully understand it then, set me on the road to conversion.

Our tour was conducted by a young Jesuit priest wearing a cassock. I didn't know he was a Jesuit; I had never heard of the Jesuits. He was, in fact, the first Roman Catholic priest I had ever met. Cassocks? Bing Crosby and Ward Bond wore them in the movies. But as I listened to him tell us about the mission and its history, I had no doubt that this kind, soft-spoken, thoughtful priest was someone special. As he guided us around the gardens and through the church, I was in complete awe of what I was seeing and hearing.

Situated in the midst of the bustling and very busy Santa Clara Valley, the mission today continues to be an exquisite and inspiring place of peace. These days, my home is in Maine. But when I return to California to visit family, my place of pilgrimage is always the mission, for Mass and for simple, meditative visits of individual retreat.

Adobe for the Admiring

Founded in 1777, Mission Santa Clara, the first mission to honor a woman, Clare of Assisi, was moved several times after the first attempted missions in the area were ruined by floods and earthquakes. It has experienced, and triumphed over, disaster.

A tall, simple, wooden cross, first erected in 1777, and lovingly moved to each new site, stands in front of the church. It is an inspiring testament to the enduring faith of those early Franciscan friars.

At last, construction of a permanent, adobe mission complex began at the present site in 1822. Of that group of buildings, only two adobe sections remain. Carefully preserved, they are an integral part of the mission's beautiful gardens, and set the Mission grounds off from the larger campus grounds of the University of Santa Clara, the Jesuit university which surrounds it. The university, founded in 1851, is California's oldest institution of higher learning.

Originally blessed by Franciscan Father Serra himself, the mission has been under the care of the Jesuits since the 1860s. The present church has undergone many changes, including embellishments to the façade and, following a devastating fire in 1926, a complete rebuilding and restoration. The results are beautiful and faith-inspiring.

On the day I arrived, camera in hand, it was mid-week. As I quietly entered the church, a solitary man was reverently performing the Stations of the Cross. Camera flashes and the sound of winding film would have been intrusive and irreverent. I put my camera away and went about my own devotions, thankfully absorbing once again the holiness of the place.

The interior of the church is expansive, and is decorated in the joyous, exuberant flourishes of Spanish Colonial Baroque, all done in pale, creamy yellows, rich pinks and light blues. Clerestory windows let in soft, diffused light. During Mass, the imposing, elaborate altar glows with candlelight and brilliant chandeliers highlight the ceiling, which is painted in an intricate, grand-scale pattern of criss-crossing diagonals. Side aisles, set off by arches, feature large oil paintings of the saints and traditional, curtained confessionals.

The beauty of the interior invites visitor and worshiper alike to pause and consider the devotion that has created this church.

At last I took my leave and walked out into the gardens. They are an essential element of any pilgrimage to the mission. Surrounded by such peace and quiet, one hears nothing of the rush of traffic just beyond the university's perimeter. The gardens are an oasis of faith in a thirsting, secular world. They refresh the soul.

Gardens of Godly Delight

I have visited the mission in spring, as well as early and late summer, and the gardens are always beautiful and immaculately kept. There are hundreds of rose bushes, many in a courtyard of their own. Standard (tree) roses line the walkways, under-planted with a riot of brightly colored annuals.

Mid-June is an especially lovely time to visit, because then the majestic jacaranda trees are in bloom and, as they shed their blossoms, the pilgrim finds that, here and there, the path is transformed into a lavender carpet.

At a conjunction of two walkways stands a bronze statue of Blessed Junipero, his walking staff in hand. He seems to survey with pleasure the church and gardens, the old adobe structures and the university beyond. The mission he planted has borne generous fruit.

This humble friar, originally from the Mediterranean island of Majorca, played such an important role in the establishment of California's missions and in its history that he is called the founder of California. A freeway that stretches from Santa Clara to San Francisco, and which is designated a scenic route, bears his name. Near the city of San Bruno, an enormous statue of him stands beside the road, pointing the traveler on his way. I suspect Father Serra would prefer the smaller, more modest statue at the mission, or none at all.

There is yet another feature of the mission that deserves mention. It is one I find quite moving, and singularly appropriate. Tucked into a cool, sheltered niche in the outer wall of the church is a memorial tribute, a statue of St. Augustine, whose life and writings still remind us that we should seek always the eternal City of God, not the transitory, material city of man.

It is a fitting reminder to those who would abandon the true name of that once idyllic California valley in favor of a name which reflects only man's commerce and pride: Silicon.

There is nothing artificial about Mission Santa Clara, a place that inspires the same authentic faith that built it. May it ever be so.

Anne Carrington McHugh writes from Fort Fairfield, Maine.