to explore California. This past weekend my husband bundled me into the car, entirely too early for a race in San Juan Bautista – about two hours drive from San Francisco. I told him I wanted to discover more of this fair state I call home, and he took me at my word. I just need to clarify that this exploration should not involve a 5:00 am alarm on a Saturday morning, it never occurred to me that I had to. So I accepted my mission, with a bit of reluctance, but a good dose of java soon put me to rights, and focused on the upcoming adventure: race, breakfast, explore, and wine tasting – mostly in that order.
San Juan Bautista has historical appeal given it was one of the earliest settlements by non-Native Americans. Along with twenty-one other missions, it formed part of California’s El Camino Real “The Royal Road or King’s Highway” marking the arrival of the Spaniards, the first non-Native American’s to the land. The El Camino Real stretches from San Diego to Sonoma County, and is named in honor of the Spanish King Carlos III, who financed the expeditions to California. These missions were not selected arbitrarily – each site is about thirty miles from its neighbor; only one days ride (three days on foot), at most from the next mission. Father Lasuén developed and sold the idea to his superior back in 1798 when he successfully argued that filling in the “spaces” along El Camino Real with outposts would provide necessary rest stops, where travelers could take lodging in safety and comfort. Legend has it that the padres sprinkled mustard seeds along the trail to mark it with bright yellow flowers.
The missions represented the first major effort by Europeans to colonize the Pacific Coast region, and gave Spain a valuable toehold in the emerging frontier. They introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, and industry into California. Unfortunately, the Spanish occupation also brought serious negative consequences to the Native American populations with whom the missionaries came in contact, such as disease and limited freedom. In the end, the plan had mixed results in its objective to convert, educate, and “civilize” the indigenous population and transform the natives into model Spanish colonial citizens. Their impact is felt in the residual influence in the culture and the architecture. Results aside, these remaining physical structures are among the state’s oldest historic monuments.
The Intent of the Missions
The goal for each mission was to be turned over to secular clergy and all mission lands distributed amongst the native population within ten years of its founding – a policy developed based upon Spain’s experience with the inhabitants of Mexico, Central America, and Peru. No California missions ever attained complete self-sufficiency, and required continued financial support from Spain. One problem was that they did not consider the inhabitants as advanced as those living in their other territories, for example, the men did not consider manual labor, well – manly, and so they were taught the value of industry. In the eyes of the Spanish, this was not advanced thinking.
In addition to the presidio (royal fort) and pueblo (town), the misión was one of the three major agencies employed by the Spanish sovereign to extend its borders and consolidate its territories. Asistencias (“sub” missions, sometimes called “contributing chapels”) were small-scale missions that conducted Mass but lacked a resident priest. As with the missions, these settlements were typically established in areas with high concentrations of potential native converts. As indicated by the graphic, the Spanish Californians never strayed far from the coast when establishing their settlements. One reason for this practice is that heavy supplies were shipped by water so they could not venture too far. Each frontier station was mandated to be self-supporting. To sustain a mission, the padres required the help of colonists or converted Native Americans, called “neophytes“, to cultivate crops and tend livestock.
The first priority when starting a settlement was the construction of the church (iglesia). Most of the mission sanctuaries were oriented on a roughly east-west axis to take the best advantage of the sun’s position for interior illumination; the exact alignment depended on the geographic features of the particular site. Once the church’s location was selected, its position would be marked and the remainder of the mission complex would be laid out. The workshops, kitchens, living quarters, storerooms, and other ancillary chambers were commonly grouped in the form of a quadrangle, inside which religious celebrations and other festive events often took place.
Life at the Mission
The California missions were known as reduccíones (reductions) or congregacíones (congregations), an idea fostered in the late 16th century and employed wherever the indigenous populations were not already concentrated in native pueblos; Indians were congregated around the mission proper, whereupon they were “reduced” from their “free, undisciplined” state and converted into civilized members of colonial society. Once a “gentile” was baptized, he or she became a neophyte, which took place after a brief period during which the initiates were instructed in the most basic aspects of the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, while many natives were lured to join the missions out of curiosity and a desire to participate and engage in trade, many found themselves trapped upon being baptized. A baptized Indian could no longer free to move about the country, but must labor and worship at the mission under the strict observance of the padres, who herded them between daily masses and labors. If a neophyte failed to report for their duties, and if it was discovered that they left without permission, they were considered runaways.
Young native women were required to reside in the monjerío (or “nunnery”) under the supervision of a trusted Indian matron who was responsible for their welfare. Women only left the convent after they had been “won” by an Indian suitor and were deemed ready for marriage. After the wedding, the woman moved out of the mission compound and into one of the family huts. These “nunneries” were considered a necessity by the priests, who felt the women needed to be protected from the men. The cramped and unsanitary conditions the girls lived in contributed to the spread of disease and population decline. So many died that the Indian residents of the missions urged the padres to raid new villages to supply them with more women.
The goal of the missions was to become self-sufficient in relatively quickly. Farming, therefore, was the most important industry of any mission. Barley, corn, and wheat were the most common crops grown. Grains were dried and ground by stone into flour. Spanish missionaries brought fruit seeds over from Europe; orange, grape, apple, peach, pear, and fig seeds were among the most prolific of the imports. Grapes were also grown and fermented into wine for sacramental use and again, for trading. The specific variety, called the Criolla or “Mission grape,” was first planted at Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1779, and in 1783, the first wine produced in California emerged from the mission’s winery.
Prior to the establishment of the missions, the native peoples knew only how to use bone, seashells, stone, and wood for building, tool making, weapons, and so forth. The missionaries discovered that the Indians, who regarded labor as degrading to the masculine sex, had to be taught industry to become self sufficient. The result was the establishment of a great manual training school that comprised agriculture, the mechanical arts, and the raising and care of livestock. Everything consumed and used by the natives was produced at the missions under the supervision of the padres; thus, the neophytes not only supported themselves, but after 1811 sustained the entire military and civil government of California – no small feat. The foundry at Mission San Juan Capistrano brought the Native Americans to the Iron Age. The blacksmith used the mission’s furnaces (California’s first) to smelt and fashion iron into basic tools and hardware (such as nails). Iron was one commodity that the mission relied solely on trade to acquire, as the missionaries had neither the know-how nor the technology to mine and process metal ores.
Stone zanjas (aqueducts) brought fresh water from a nearby water source to the mission. Baked clay pipes, joined by lime mortar or bitumen, deposited the water into large cisterns and gravity-fed fountains, and emptied into waterways which were used to turn grinding wheels and other simple machinery, or dispensed for use in cleaning. Portable water was secured by allowing it to filter through alternate layers of sand and charcoal to remove the impurities.
No group of structures in the United States elicits the intense interest inspired by the Missions of California (California is home to the most well-preserved missions found in any state).
- All of the missions are owned by the Catholic Church, save for Mission La Purísima Concepción and Mission San Francisco Solano, which are operated as State Historic Parks
- Seven mission sites are designated National Historic Landmarks, fourteen are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and all are designated as California Historical Landmarks for their historic, architectural, and archaeological significance
- Four of the missions are under the auspices of the Franciscan Order (San Antonio de Padua, Santa Barbara, San Miguel Arcángel, and San Luis Rey de Francia)
- Four of the missions (San Diego de Alcalá, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, San Francisco de Asís, and San Juan Capistrano) are designated minor basilicas by the Holy See due to their cultural, historic, architectural, and religious importance. [source: wikipedia]
Today, the missions exist in varying degrees of architectural integrity and structural soundness. The most common features of the mission grounds include the church and an ancillary convento (convent) wing. In some cases (in San Rafael, Santa Cruz, and Soledad, for example), the current buildings are replicas constructed on or near the original site. Other mission compounds remain relatively intact and true to their original construction (Mission San Miguel Arcángel): its chapel retains the original interior murals created by Salinan Indians.
From south to north from San Diego to Sonoma the missions are:
San Diego de Alcala, 1st mission
Here, the mission trail began in July 1769, when Fathers Serra, Palou and Parron dug a hole into the beachhead near the mouth of the San Diego River and planted a large cross. A bell was suspended from the limb of a nearby tree and the site was dedicated to St. Didacus.
San Luis Rey de Francia, 18th mission
Known as the King of the Missions, San Luis Rey de Francia lies in a valley east of Oceanside. The cross-shaped church was named for Louis IX, the crusading King of France. Architecturally the most graceful of California’s missions. Today the mission gardens include a fruit orchard where California’s first pepper tree still grows.
San Juan Capistrano, 7th mission
Named for Crusader Saint John of Capistrano and shaped like a cross, the great stone church once held seven domes and a bell tower so tall it could be seen from ten miles away. A gilded altarpiece illuminates the Serra Chapel of 1777, the oldest building still in use in California and the only surviving church where Father Serra said mass. Each year on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, the mission celebrates the return of the cliff swallows from Argentina with a traditional Mexican fiesta.
San Gabriel Arcangel, 4th mission
Founded in 1771 by Junipero Serra, this fortress-like design with five” thick walls and narrow windows is unique to this mission. Located just east of downtown Los Angeles, at one time it covered several hundred thousand acres; one fourth of the wealth of California missions in stock and grain was credited to San Gabriel. The original vaulted roof was of a Moorish design patterned after the cathedral at Cordova, Spain, with slender capped buttresses and a six-belled campanario. One bell, which weighs a ton, can be heard eight miles away. The hammered copper baptismal font was a gift of King Carlos III of Spain and the six priceless altar statues were brought around the Horn from Spain in 1791.
San Buenaventura, 9th mission
The ninth mission in the chain was founded on Easter Sunday in 1782 by Father Serra and dedicated to St. Bonaventure. It was the last mission the humble priest would christen. Restored in 1957, the facade exhibits an unusual triangular design which opens into the gardens. A museum exhibits artifacts that include two old wooden bells, the only ones of their type known in California.
San Fernando Rey de Espana, 17th mission
Father Lasuen named this mission in honor of King Ferdinand III of Spain in 1797. Located 25 miles north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, the convento is the largest freestanding adobe in California, and was originally used as a hospice for travelers. Above the church alter is a statue of Saint Ferdinand brought from Spain 300 years ago. In the old mission plaza sits the original flower-shaped fountain.
Santa Barbara, 10th mission
Founded in 1786, the “Queen of the Missions” has served as a parish church for the local population since its founding. The church was destroyed in 1925 by earthquake; however, restorations have returned it to its original grandeur of wrought iron, terra cotta and carved wood. Patterned after an ancient Latin chapel in pre-Christian Rome, its twin bell towers and Doric facade present an imposing impression of strength. Overlooking the city, the mission provides a spectacular view of the ocean.
Santa Ines, 19th mission
Named for a 13 year-old Roman martyr, St. Agnes, who refused to sacrafice to the pagan gods in 304 AD, Santa Ines was dedicated in 1804. Amazingly, it survived the numerous earthquakes. The museum contains a notable collection of vestments, church records and missals, and the church displays some of the original decorations on a wall behind the alter.
La Purisima Conception, 11th mission
Founded in 1787 the mission is located 50 miles west of Santa Barbara. Considered to be the best example of mission architecture, it has 37 rooms that were completely restored and furnished. Volunteers perform living history demonstrations of mission life such as candle making and weaving. In the garden area, water flows through a series of pools and a fountain before passing through the lavandareas where the mission women washed clothes.
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 5th mission
The humble chapel built of logs was dedicated to St. Louis, Bishop of Tolosa in 1772, and was the first mission to use tiles extensively on the roof due to repeated attacks by Indians who used flaming arrows to ignite the original thatched roof. Situated in the fertile, well-watered Valley of the Bears, the mission produced an abundance of crops, and two water-powered grist mills processed foods normally ground by hand.
San Miguel Arcangel, 16th mission
Founded in 1797 to complete the mission chain from San Luis Obispo to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, San Miguel was located in the Salinas Valley midway between the San Luis Obispo and San Antonio Missions. San Miguel had no bell tower, its 2,000 lb. bell rang out from a wooden platform in front of the mission and now sits in its own campanario behind the church. The mission’s patron is Saint Michael, chief of the Archangels and Prince of the Heavenly Armies.
San Antonia de Padua, 3rd mission
Located 40 miles north of Paso Robles this mission is nestled in the San Antonio Valley. Named for a saint known as the ‘miracle worker’. The church is known for its campanario and archway bells.
Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, 13th mission
The padres named this mission for Our Lady of Solitude in 1791, which fits its isolated setting. Situated next to the Salinas River in the pastures and rolling hills south of Monterrey, this lonely outpost was cold, damp and frequently whipped by winds.
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, 2nd mission
Set against the sea and mountains, this beautiful mission presents the complete quadrangle courtyard typical of mission architecture. The architecture is Moorish in design and the facade holds a star-shaped window directly above the main entrance.
San Juan Bautista, 15th mission
Founded in 1797 this mission was unwittingly located directly above the San Andreas fault. Much of the original structure remains and has been restored to once again be the largest California mission church and the only one with three aisles. It was named for John the Baptist. Barracks for the soldiers, a nunnery, the Jose Castro House, and other buildings were constructed around a large grassy plaza in front of the church and can be seen today in their original form. The Ohlone, the original residents of the valley, were brought to live at the Mission and baptized.
Following its creation, San Juan’s population grew quickly. By 1803, there were over 1,000 Indians living at the mission. Father Pedro Estévan Tápis (a talented musican) joined the Mission San Juan Bautista in 1815 to teach singing to the Indians. He created a system using colors for different types of music notes which made it easier for the novices to follow. His choir of Native American boys performed for many visitors, earning the San Juan Bautista Mission the nickname “the Mission of Music.” The town of San Juan Bautista, which grew up around the Mission, expanded rapidly during the California Gold Rush and remains a thriving community. The structures suffered extensive damage in the earthquakes of 1800 and 1906; the Mission was restored initially 1884, and then again in 1949, and continues to serve as a parish of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey.
The Mission and its grounds were featured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo. Hitchcock added a “bell tower” using scale models, matte paintings, and trick photography at the Paramount Pictures studio in Los Angeles. The Mission was built on the San Andreas Fault and has suffered damage from numerous earthquakes over the years, but it has never been demolished.
Santa Cruz, 12th mission
The dedication of Mission la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz at a site that was unfortunately located next to Branciforte pueblo, a community of ex-convicts and thieves. Shaken by earthquakes and frustrated by the influence and behavior of the colonists, the padres abandoned the mission. The chapel was eventually rebuilt to service the town that had grown up around the mission plaza.
Santa Clara de Asis, 8th mission
Located on the Guadeloupe River, the log chapel was founded in 1777 by Father Serra in honor of St. Clare only three months before his death. Located about 40 miles south of San Francisco, the main garden is devoted to tree roses, a mission tradition, and the string of willows planted between the mission and the pueblo of San Jose is today a well-traveled San Jose street known as “The Alameda”. Some initial mission walls exist and the bell tower holds the original bells sent from Spain.
San Jose, 14th mission
Founded in 1797 by Father Lasuen, the fertile site was chosen because of its view of Mission Dolores and Yerba Buena Island. At one time the mission lands reached north almost to Oakland and east to include the Sacramento Delta. The mission was named after Joseph, spouse of Mary. A parish church stands on the site with relics including a hammered baptismal font, altar bells and vestments
San Francisco de Asis, Mission Dolores, 6th mission
On a site selected by Juan Bautista de Anza, the first mission church was a 50″ long log and mud structure that was eventually moved to higher ground. Dedicated to Saint Francis, the mission sits in the heart of San Francisco and is the oldest building in the city. Much of the original church interior is intact and the guilded reredos and colorful wall paintings are good examples of early California art. This mission gave “The Mission” of San Francisco its name.
San Rafael Arcangel, 20th mission
This mission is located north of San Francisco at the foot of Mount Tamalpais. It was established as a sanitarium and hospital for San Francisco neophytes suffering from depression and disease. The one padre in California who had medical training, Luis Gil y Taboado was so successful that other missions soon began sending their sick Indians. Within five years it was raised to full mission status and dedicated to the patron of health in 1817.
San Francisco Solano, 21st mission
Founded in 1823, this historic mission is the site of the Bear Flag Revolt and the effort to establish the Republic of California in 1846. The church seen today is a parish church built in 1840; the original was mostly washed away by a tremendous thunderstorm. A small portion of the original quadrangle exists, and the world-famous Sebastiani Vineyards include much of the original mission vineyard. The annual Vintage Festival is the oldest in the state, and each year the blessing of the grapes is performed by a Franciscan priest in front of the mission.
The Town of San Juan Bautista
San Juan Bautista is definitely worth a day trip if you are in its proximity, if only for the drive alone which is a beautiful meander through the San Juan Valley of California’s Central Coast. Surrounding it is ample evidence of the locals ties to the land – we saw roadside stands for citrus, cherries, and garlic, and that was just for starters. A short ride away, near Hollister is a section of road that boasts its own mini wine region with some of the oldest vineyards in the state.
The town of San Juan Bautista has a population of less than 2,000, but a surprisingly diverse and robust downtown, I’m not sure many towns that size would support a Basque and German restaurant in addition to the numerous Mexican and American home cooking restaurants that lined the main street. Other stores include many art galleries, antiques and mineral stores. Directly across from the Mission is a state park that preserves much of what was once the “town square” of the largest town in central California. Clearly evident in the architecture are the influences of the Spanish, Mexican and Native Americans.
Aqua de Jamaica
This refreshing drink has a beautiful bold red color and a tangy refreshing taste that can be as sweet or tart as the drinker desires. This drink is common in Mexico, and I can easily see it making the journey north with the good padres.
1 c dried hibiscus flowers
8 c water
Combine the flowers and water over high heat. Bring to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Pour into a glass pitcher and allow to cool to room temperature, and then refridgerate for several hours or overnight. The color of this drink is so brilliant red, that I suggest a clear glass container to appreciate its beauty.
Some recipes call for the addition of sugar (½ c) in the case of this recipe. I prefer to sweeten my drink when I am ready to consume it, so I can adjust for my tastes. Consequently I often serve this drink accompanied by a simple syrup (a bit easier to incorporate than sugar) or even maple syrup. The only limit is your imagination.