National Catholic Register


Historic California Mission in Danger of Collapsing


Register Correspondent

June 11-17, 2006 Issue | Posted 6/12/06 at 11:00 AM


MONTERREY, Calif. — If repairs aren’t made soon to Mission San Miguel Arcangel in Monterrey, more than 200 years of history may end up as a pile of adobe rubble.

“San Miguel is the last mission with original Indian artwork on the walls,” said John Fowler, project manager at Mission San Miguel, and it is “in dire need of repair.”

Mission San Miguel was founded in 1797 by Franciscan Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, who followed Blessed Junipero Serra in establishing the California missions. The original building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt between 1816 and 1818.

The mission had withstood the test of time until Dec. 22, 2003. That day, the 6.5 magnitude San Simeon earthquake nearly knocked it over. Though Congress approved $10 million for the California missions in 2004 — much of which would have gone to Mission San Miguel — a lawsuit prevented the money from being allocated. The mission remains closed as its staff scrambles to raise money from the public and government and convince its insurers to cover the earthquake damage.

The current reconstruction project is fairly straightforward, Fowler explained. About $15 million is needed to retrofit and rebuild the mission, which is currently being held up by temporary shoring.

The sleepy town of San Miguel boasts a population of 1,400 people, and to raise such a sum there is impossible, he said. “We need to go the larger community,” Fowler concluded.

But there have been problems. The Diocese of Monterrey and the Franciscan friars who run the mission are short of the cash needed for repairs. The insurance companies have balked at paying for the damage, citing the age of the mission, and even promised government money has dried up for now.

Money Blocked

In 2002, California voters approved Proposition 40 — which included $128 million in unallocated money for historical preservation.

Mission San Miguel applied for a grant from these funds earlier this year, but was turned down after California Attorney General Bill Lockyer issued an opinion that such funding would be unconstitutional.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency application for $7 million seems to have taken a backseat after Hurricane Katrina, Fowler said, and the 2004 Congressional approval of $10 million for the California Missions Foundation was never appropriated because a lawsuit was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The lawsuit argued that such funding violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Government funding amounts to “a church tax,” said Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.” It forces everyone to pay for the upkeep of [Catholic] Missions.”

According to Boston, his group only seeks to block funding of 19 of the 21 California missions that are controlled by the Church. Americans United has no interest in stopping funding at the other two missions, which are run as museums by the State of California.

Fowler finds such reasoning inadequate.

“We meet the requirements of [the Constitution],” he said. “Eighty percent of the Mission’s use is public.” Moreover, he said, “thousands of fourth graders have been turned away since it was closed.”

Fourth graders in California must study the missions in schools, and thousands of public school children visit a mission each year as part of educational field trips.

Knox Mellon is executive director of the California Missions Foundation, a “secular non-profit that collects money and passes it on directly to the Missions.” He said he is confident that the government will eventually write the check and that the foundation will prevail in court, but it will take time.

For now, the foundation “does as much as it can” for San Miguel, Mellon said, but without promised government funding, its impact has been limited.

“We gave $100,000 last year, and this year, we received a Save America’s Treasures grant for $300,000,” Fowler said. That money, he said, will be matched by the foundation and disbursed to San Miguel over the course of several months.

San Miguel is at the top of the foundation’s list for funding because it is in the most danger, but it is not alone among endangered missions in California, Mellon said.

Mission San Luis Obispo is also in danger of being closed if a costly seismic retrofitting project is not completed by 2008.

Mellon said that more government funding would not only help save the missions immediately, but would also help with public fund-raising since government funding requires the foundation to match those funds.

“People like it when they can double their money,” he said.

Making Progress

Despite the obstacles, Fowler remains optimistic. In addition to their $7 million FEMA application, Fowler said the group has a $15 million insurance claim and has even managed to raise $1 million locally.

Msgr. Francis Weber is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and works at San Fernando Mission in Southern California. The author of the Encyclopedia of California’s Catholic Heritage, he is one of the foremost experts on California’s Catholic history.

Weber’s prognosis for the future of San Miguel is clear: “If we [Catholics] don’t help [San Miguel], no one else will, and if the mission doesn’t get the needed money, it will fall down.”

That would be a tragedy, according to Mellon.

“These are like the pyramids,” he said. “They are California’s pyramids, and we need to save them.”

Andrew Walther is based in

New Haven, Connecticut.