Unlike the East Coast, where Christianity was introduced in a haphazard multi-denominational fashion which followed the Colonial settlements, Christianity was established on the West Coast in a highly organized pattern under the auspices of the Spanish Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. This was specifically true in California, where twenty one Catholic churches were systematically established along the coast by Franciscan missionaries. These missions, which form a trail running from San Diego to just north of San Francisco, provided a formidable theological base for the Franciscans as well as political and military bases for the Spanish. Most of these missions went on to become the core of California’s largest cities and are among the state’s most treasured historic sites.
Mission San Diego de Alcala
San Diego, California (founded 1769)
The Mission San Diego de Alcala was the first Spanish mission established in the California territory. It was founded in 1769 by the Franciscans under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra. The early years of San Diego de Alcala were turbulent, with residents suffering from poor supplies, disease and bad relations with the neighboring tribes. The mission was ransacked on at least one occasion, and was the site of what may have been the first public executions in what would become the state of California.
After the Mexican War of Independence, the mission was seized and ownership of the land made private. It was restored to the Roman Catholic Church in 1862 by the presidential decree of Abraham Lincoln. It is now a parish church of the Diocese of San Diego, and was designated as a minor basilica in 1976. Because it was first to be built and because of its location in the city of San Diego, the Mission San Diego de Alcala is one of the most famous and visited in the state. Among its treasures is the gravesite of Father Luis Jayme, California’s first Christian martyr, buried beneath the church.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Carmel by the Sea, California (founded 1770)
The Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, more commonly known as the Mission Carmel, was arguably the most important of all of the missions. Founded in 1770 by Father Junipero Serra, it was the second to be established. It is known to have been Serra’s favorite, and though he founded a number of other missions, was his de-facto headquarters. Moreover, since it was the closest mission to the Spanish colonial capital at Monterey, it Mission Carmel was for several decades the effective headquarters of the Catholic Church in California.
Like most of California’s mission, Carmel underwent a long period of neglect, but was fully restored in the early 20th century; first for use by the Franciscans, and later as a parish church. Mission Carmel enjoys several historic distinctions: it is one of only a handful of churches in California which has been designated as a minor basilica; and is the only one of the original missions to have been visited by a sitting Pope, John Paul II in 1987. Carmel is one of the best preserved and most beautiful of the missions, with what is probably the best museum. In addition, the relic of Father Junipero Serra is buried on the site.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
San Luis Obispo, California (founded 1772)
The Mission San Luis Obispo was the fifth to be founded, and is located roughly at the midpoint of California’s mission trail. One of the earliest mission sites to be scouted, the area was noted for its abundance of game and other natural resources, as well as for the relative friendliness of the local native tribes. San Luis Obispo became an important source of food for the other settlements, especially Carmel. A full-fledged mission was set up in 1772.
San Luis Obispo had a colorful history during the various Spanish and Mexican wars. It was used as a military base for the Californians against Mexico in 1846, and later served as a courthouse and jail. Although the Franciscans are long gone, the mission is still in active use as a parish church. Although located the farthest from California’s major population centers, the mission is still an incredibly popular stopping point for travelers along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Mission Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California (founded 1786)
The Mission Santa Barbara was the tenth of California’s missions to be established. It was founded in 1786 by Father Fermin Lasuen, the successor of Father Junipero Serra. In addition to the political trials and tribulations suffered by all of California’s missions in the 19th century, Santa Barbara also suffered through numerous earthquakes, and was rebuilt on numerous occasions. The Mission Santa Barbara enjoys the distinction of being the only one of the original missions to still be under the jurisdiction of the Franciscans.
Santa Barbara was California’s first institution of higher education. It also enjoys a reputation for one of the oldest musical traditions on the West Coast, with choirs that have been active throughout the mission’s history. Mission Santa Barbara is arguably the most beautiful of all of the original California churches, perhaps in part because it was largely rebuilt in the 20th century, and is famous for its botanical garden. Still under Franciscan jurisdiction, the mission is still inhabited by members of the order, who maintain it as a local parish church.
Mission San Juan Bautista
San Juan Bautista, California (founded 1797)
The Mission San Juan Bautista was the fifteenth of the California missions, and sixth to be founded by Father Fermin Lasuen. From the start it was one of the most successful missions, both from an economic and missionary standpoint. In less the decade, it was one of the largest missions and settlements in California, producing significant food and supporting a military barracks as well as a convent. San Juan Bautista became regionally famous for its Native American choir who performed for visitors.
Despite suffering numerous earthquakes and the general ravages of time Mission San Juan Bautista enjoys several original elements which are still present, including a stretch of California’s original royal road, or Camino Real. The mission was used as a filming location for the 1958 movie Vertigo. It remains an active parish church of the Diocese of Monterey.