Things You Never Knew About the California Missions
Facts about six missions along the California coast: Santa Inés, San Rafael Arcángel, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano and San Juan Bautista.
As summer begins and pandemic travel restrictions loosen up, consider a visit to one or more of California’s 21 Franciscan missions.
They were founded 1769-1823, with St. Junípero Serra founding the first nine. Their purpose was to teach the California Indians the Catholic faith, improve the living conditions of the Indians and make citizens for New Spain. While the missions have many common characteristics, each is also unique. The following are some unique facts about six of the missions.
Three Danish immigrants opted to begin building their Danish Village of Solvang alongside Mission Santa Inés, founded by Franciscan Father Estévan Tapís in 1804 to bring the Chumash Indians of the region into the Catholic faith. Located 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, Solvang is a prominent tourist site featuring Danish architecture, foods, entertainment and tourist items. The mission predates the village by more than a century; its church is one of the state’s oldest structures, having been built in 1817. It was served by the Franciscan Fathers through 1924, and today is a parish of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
In 1846, army officer John Fremont and his guide Kit Carson Mission San Rafael Arcángel as a headquarters during the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Located 18 miles north of San Francisco, the mission was founded in 1817 to serve the Coast Miwok Indians. None of its original buildings survive; the current church is a replica built in 1949. The mission was also the site of an Indian attack. In 1829, renegade Indian converts Chief Marin and Quintin left the mission and returned to attack it, but Indian neophytes protected Spanish padre Juan Amoros and brought him to safety.
Mission San Miguel in central California was the site of the most appalling mass murders ever committed on the grounds of a California mission. In 1848, during a period of mission “secularization,” or ownership of the missions by private parties, Mission San Miguel was the residence of William Reed and his family. It was the start of the Gold Rush, and Reed bragged he had struck it rich. Six men came to the mission to steal his gold. An orgy of killing began when one of the killers struck Reed from behind with an ax (you can still see the fireplace in front of which he was murdered). They went on to kill the rest of Reed’s family and his servants, including an Indian boy who begged for his life. A total of 11 died. No gold was discovered. A posse caught up with five of the killers, two were killed in a shootout and three captured and later executed. The sixth was never found.
The cemetery at Mission Santa Barbara is the burial site of the famous Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, an Indian woman who lived alone on an island off California’s coast for nearly 20 years. Her story was popularized in the children’s novel The Island of the Blue Dolphins. The mission was founded in 1786 by Father Fermín Lasuén, a protégé of St. Junípero Serra, to serve the local Chumash Indians. Between 1786 and 1846, 4,715 Chumash were received into the Catholic faith. The mission is also unique in that it is home to 23 Franciscan friars and the order’s Franciscan novitiate program, the state’s first Catholic cathedral, and the former residence of and current burial site of the state’s first bishop, Bishop García Diego.
In 1818, Mission San Juan Capistrano was captured by pirate Hippolyte Bouchard. Flying under the Argentinian flag, Bouchard attacked a variety of settlements up and down the coast, including San Juan Capistrano on Dec. 16. The pirates came in search of ammunition and supplies, but found little of use in Capistrano. (The story was they raided the mission’s wine supplies.) They burned the town, but fortunately for posterity, spared the mission.) The mission was founded in 1776 to serve the Juaneño Indians, and is today among the best preserved of the missions. The Capistrano mission was also the site of one of the greatest tragedies among the missions. On Dec. 8, 1812, morning Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was beginning in the mission’s Great Stone Church. A massive earthquake struck and the building collapsed, killing more than 40 inside.
Mission San Juan Bautista received international notoriety in 1958, when it was prominently featured in the Alfred Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart movie Vertigo. Stewart drives his love interest Kim Novak to the mission and they carry on a conversation in front of a carriage and mannequin horse you can still see today; the mission bell tower that is a key part of the plot, however, is a Hollywood creation. Mission San Juan Bautista was founded by Franciscan Father Fermín de Lasuén in 1797; construction on its historic church began in 1803. The cemetery at Mission Dolores in San Francisco is also a backdrop for Vertigo.
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