Conversions Continue at California Missions

or many, Southern California — the showbiz capital of the world and the promised land for those seeking fame and fortune — represents ground zero for the popular culture. It's easy to overlook the fact that, a couple of short centuries ago, the area was untamed mission territory for the Church. Indeed, it was Catholic priests who led the settlement of what became the Golden State. Many of the missions they built still stand, and a good number have been magnificently restored. They're striking reminders of just how far Southern California has come from its humble beginnings, and worthwhile stops for the Catholic traveler.

Led by an indomitable Franciscan priest, a band of 119 sick and ragged men arrived in what was to become San Diego on July 1, 1769. Father Junipero Serra stood just 5 feet 2 inches tall and suffered from a painful leg malady, but he and his men founded the first mission in California, San Diego de Alcala. Over time, Father Serra came to be known as the “apostle of California.” Before long, 21 missions stretched like a necklace along the El Camino Real, a dirt road in the 1700s. The road eventually became a stagecoach route and today roughly parallels U.S. Highway 101.

The missions remain vital today. Eighteen of the 21 are functioning parish church facilities. While many can make for excellent pilgrimage destinations, my favorites are the ones at San Diego, San Luis Rey de Francia (in Oceanside), San Juan Capistrano, Dolores (in San Francisco) and San Juan Bautista.

The Unsettled West

The white, Spanish-style church of the San Diego mission, completed in 1813 and reconstructed in 1941, is redolent with age, but it provides a good look at the primitive conditions missionaries embraced. A restored bedroom contains a bed whose mattress is a loose web of leather strips. The Father Luis Jayme Museum on the grounds includes a collection of Indian arts, mission documents, relics and Church art.

The mission is in central San Diego. The original church was a simple thatched-roof hut on Presidio Hill. At the hill, the Junipero Serra Museum, a stately mission-style building, displays belongings of the Indians, Spaniards and Mexicans who formed the diverse community. Included is one of the first paintings brought to California; it was damaged in an Indian attack but was salvaged.

Presidio Park also features an unusual cross made from ruins of the floor tiles. The distant past is evoked by statues of Father Serra and an Indian. Atop a hill, Inspiration Point is a popular site for weddings. It's also an apt point to reflect and pray.

Things weren't always so serene. The Indians resisted evangelization and, in 1774, they attacked the mission. The church was burned and Father Luis Jayme was killed, making him California's first martyr. Yet Father Serra, the portrait of the gentle Franciscan, was able to broker a peace. Before long the mission began to flourish. Evangelization took root, and Mission San Diego became a thriving center of activity.

At its height in the first two decades of the 19th century, the mission was grazing 20,000 sheep and 10,000 head of cattle. Its wines were famous, and its olive trees were to form the mother orchard for the state's olive industry.

The missionary hustle and bustle came to a halt in the 1830s, when the Mexican government secularized the missions and their lands were absorbed into private ranches. (The United States did not take possession of California until 1848.) Mission buildings fell into disrepair. They became taverns, stables and hog barns.

Visiting the missions, one can recall the glory of the missionaries' preaching of the Gospel and converting untold numbers of souls. The light of Christ was brought to California. Yet the missions also provide the means for somber reflection. Living conditions for Native Americans often were harsh. European diseases like measles, the flu and syphilis ravaged their tribes. In 1805, for instance, an epidemic at Mission San Francisco killed every child under the age of 5.

The most successful mission was Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, near San Diego. The “King of the Missions” counted 3,000 converts. By 1831, the mission boasted a harvest of 2,500 barrels of wine and 395,000 bushels of grain, as well as 12,150 horses, 26,000 cattle and 25,500 sheep. Much of its success was due to Father Antonio Peyri, loved by the Indians. For 23 years he ran the mission with firm mildness.

The elaborate church, featuring a dramatic bell tower, was called a “palace” by some visitors. The interior is a happy arrangement of arches and huge pilasters painted to resemble black marble. To the right of the sanctuary is a famous Mortuary Chapel, an architectural delight. In the courtyard is the first pepper tree planted in the West. The historical collection here includes vestments, chalices, furnishings and books used by the Franciscans. Also in the museum is a facsimile of the deed signed by President Lincoln restoring the mission property to the Church, following the secularization era.

Follow the Swallows

Founded in 1776 as the seventh mission, Mission San Juan Capistrano is the most popular of all the missions. Located halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, San Juan Capistrano accounts for more than one-fourth of the 2 million people who visit the missions each year. The magnificent church, featuring an arched roof of seven domes, was the most ambitious architectural achievement of the missionaries. The gilded cock atop the soaring sandstone tower could be seen nine miles away in the then aptly named City of the Angels. The church stood just six years when a great earthquake leveled it in on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1812. Forty Indians at Mass perished amid the tumbling stones.

A replica church has been built not far from the ruins. Also here is the unpretentious Serra Chapel, built in 1778, the oldest church in California. It is the only church still in existence where Father Serra is known to have said Mass. Worth seeing, too, are period rooms and exhibits.

The mission is also famous for the celebrated swallows that congregate in its ruins. The gentle birds are as identifiable with Capistrano as cats are with the Colosseum in Rome. Each year, late in the fall, the swallows take wing into the blue sky and each spring, on or near St. Joseph's Day, they return, building their nests in the peaceful eaves of the mission.

As predictable as the arrival of the swallows is the flocking of tourists to Mission San Juan Capistrano to see them. But don't let the crowds keep you away, or you'll miss out on part of the magic of the mission. The swallows seem to suggest the tireless missionary spirit that enjoys eternal renewal — and, of course, they put one in mind of St. Francis himself, said to be as loved by animals as he was by people. Here, as at all the missions, the Poverello's gentle spirit seems to urge prayer and reflection amid the worldly hubbub of contemporary California.

Jay Copp is based in Chicago.