California’s Contribution to American Catholic History

A Visit to Carmel Mission for July 4th — and Blessed Serra’s Birthday and Feast Day

Carmel, about two hours south of San Francisco, is one of the most beautiful places on the Pacific Coast.

People go there for the beautiful surf, the great aquarium and a glimpse at the town where Clint Eastwood once served as mayor.

But no visitor to Carmel should miss the city’s premier site: San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission (Carmel Mission).

In his Catholics in Colonial America, the country’s leading Church historian, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, reminds us that the Anglocentric focus of standard American history obscures the Catholic role in much of what became the United States.

America was shaped by three forces, two of which were Catholic: England, France and Spain. Jesuit Fathers Jacques Marquette and Eusebio Kino are as much a part of America as were the Calverts and the Carrolls.

In 2013, we celebrate yet another hero of America’s Catholic founding: the tercentenary of the birth of Junípero Serra, founder of the California missions (his feast day is July 1).

Blessed Serra died and is buried at the Carmel Mission. During his visit 25 years ago to the mission, on Sept. 17, 1987, Blessed John Paul II paid tribute to Serra and the role of the California missions in American Catholic history.

Serra was born on the Spanish island of Mallorca on Nov. 24, 1713. A scholar of theology and philosophy, he joined the Franciscans and went to Mexico, where he was assigned to the California missions.

At the time, the future U.S. state of California was called "Alta California" (Upper California), distinguishing it from Baja (Lower) California, both of which were part of Mexico.

Setting out on foot for what is today San Diego, Serra eventually helped found eight of the 21 missions, reaching as far as the San Francisco region in northern California. The mission at Carmel was headquarters of this evangelical operation.

Serra became president of the California missions in 1767 and arrived in Monterey in 1770. In the course of the first 66 years of the Monterey mission, 4,000 Indians were baptized. Serra died there on Aug. 28, 1784. Blessed John Paul II beatified him in 1988.

Proof that Serra was as important civilly as spiritually is the fact that he is one of only four priests in the Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill. The other three are Father Marquette, Father Kino and St. Damien de Veuster of Molokai.

The Carmel Mission church saw both good days and bad.

After flourishing for its first six decades, it fell into decline and disrepair. Demographics were changing: The Indian population was replaced by Spanish settlers. In 1836, the Mexican government closed the mission.

As a result of the Mexican-American War, California later became part of the United States.

In the late 1800s, a spiritual renaissance for the Carmel Mission began, and, in the 1930s, interest in restoring it as a historical landmark followed.

Harry Downie would spend decades focused on the loving restoration of the historic church, which Blessed John XXIII designated as a minor basilica in 1961.

The stone church that you visit today was built after Father Serra’s death. Constructed in Spanish colonial style, Father Serra’s tomb lies at the right of the main altar. Remnants of his original wooden coffin are preserved in a reliquary to the altar’s left: Serra’s remains had been exhumed for positive identification and then reburied. The spot where Blessed John Paul prayed in the church is also marked.

Visitors to the mission complex can stroll through the museum, which exhibits a broad collection of artifacts detailing the history of the mission from its origins until today. It also contains Father Serra’s restored cell as well as the friars’ living room, kitchen and library. Those rooms show just how humbly these first missionaries lived in order to evangelize the native people of California, as well as the gift of literacy that they brought with them. Father Serra’s personal Bible as well as the first altar set of the mission — used by the blessed — are there.

Passing through the museum complex, take note of the impressive Serra cenotaph in the Mora Gallery, with its altar and gilded cross with figures of Sts. Francis, Anthony of Padua and Charles Borromeo (namesake of the mission).

The mission grounds also present a tranquil area to pray, walk and think. Blessed Serra’s mission cross stands there. In the summertime, beautiful flowers frame the courtyard. Near the church is the mission cemetery, with many old American Indian graves bearing witness to the missionaries’ labors to bring the faith to the New World.

In this tercentennial of Blessed Serra’s birth, it’s worth making a trip down the scenic California coast to pray at the tomb — and see the achievements — of the founder of California’s Catholic missions.

John M. Grondelski writes from Taipei, Taiwan.


For More Information


Planning Your Visit

Events and Masses for Blessed Serra’s feast day will be June 30 and July 6. Other events commemorating the 300th anniversary of his birth continue through November.

A historical site, yes — but the Carmel Mission is also an active parish. There are morning, afternoon and evening weekday Masses (a morning Mass on Saturday as well as an anticipated Sunday Mass on Saturday evening) and at least four Sunday Masses. Almost all Masses are celebrated in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel on the mission grounds.

There is a bookstore/religious goods/museum store on the premises, too. Admission is charged ($6.50/adults; $4/seniors; $2/children age 7 and up; free for children under 6). Visiting times are 9:30am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays and 10:30am-5pm on Sundays. Note: Mass times may impact where you can visit. Also, be advised, based on my personal experience, that the San Francisco Bay area can be cool, even at the height of summer — so pack a sweater.


How to Get There

U.S. Route 101 and California Highway 1 are the main north-south arteries that pass by Carmel, Calif.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy