"There is a history and personality peculiar to each mission, a charm not yet lost in its own day, and strangely stirring to life again along the Camino Real."
--Cardinal Timothy Manning
It was in Baja, in 1768, that Father Junipero Serra, a 5-foot-2 Franciscan padre known as "the little giant," and Gen. Joseph de Galvez, a high-ranking representative of the Spanish Crown, made plans for a chain of missions to stretch along the California coastland, from San Diego to San Francisco.
Father Serra, whose motto was "always go forward and never look back," personally supervised the establishment of nine of the planned missions before his death in 1784. His perseverance in the face of difficult and primitive conditions set the example for the Franciscans who created the remaining mission chain.
Your mission: To travel along historic El Camino Real, the King's Highway, and give your family or friends a day trip to remember at one or more of the 10 missions (out of 21) that cluster closest to Los Angeles.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, 10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego, (619) 283-7319. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Cost: Adults $1, seniors and children 50 cents. Mission Basilica San Diego was the first mission in the chain, founded by Father Serra in 1769. Recognized by its impressive bell tower surmounted by a cross, this "Mother Mission" stands above the highway on a pepper-tree shaded hill. Highlights: 1) The mission grounds have been designated a "professional historic site" because of the archeological dig along the monastery and workshop foundations. A collection of artifacts recovered by University of San Diego students is displayed in the mission museum. 2) Stand at the top of the mission's wide brick stairway, and six miles across Mission Valley you can see the white tower of the Junipero Serra Museum. 3) The first irrigation system to be built in the West is in Mission Gorge to the northeast of the mission.
San Luis Rey de Francia, 4050 Mission Ave., San Luis Rey, (619) 757-3651. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily and 12:15-4 p.m. Sunday. Cost: Adults $1 and children 50 cents. Named a National Landmark in 1970, Mission San Luis Rey was the most extensive of the Spanish missions in the New World. Its buildings covered nearly six acres and were arranged around a patio 500 feet square. The elaborate sunken garden and lavanderia (laundry area) in front of the mission are now being restored. The "King of the Missions" was founded in 1798 and is 18th in the chain. Highlights: 1) The kitchen contains pots, pans, stoneware, utensils and glassware typical of the mission period. The rack hanging from the ceiling was used to protect food from rodents. 2) Be sure to see the oldest pepper tree in California, brought by a sailor from Peru and planted by Father Antonio Peyri in 1831. The venerable tree is in the Friary Garden. 3) The Robe Room here has the largest collection of old Spanish vestments anywhere in the United States, although only part of the collection is displayed at any one time.
San Juan Capistrano, 31882 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (714) 493-1424. Open 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except Good Friday, noon-3 p.m. Cost: Adults $2 and children 50 cents. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Capistrano is its birds, the tame white pigeons that eat from a visitor's hand, and the famous swallows, which make a 6,000-mile migratory journey from Argentina each year to nest at the mission. The "Jewel of the Missions" was founded in 1776, seventh in the chain. Visitors can stroll through 10 acres of grounds, observing the life style of the friars, Indians and soldiers who once lived here. Highlights: 1) The Great Stone Church. When intact it had seven domes rising from an arched roof, and a bell tower was visible for miles around. 2) Serra Chapel, the oldest building still in use in California, contains antiques (including the 300-year-old gilded altar from Barcelona) saved from the earliest days of the mission. 3) The work shops, including the vats where tallow was made, and the old olive and grain crusher where the olive oil was manufactured for kitchen use, sanctuary lamps and for trade.
San Gabriel Archangel, 537 W. Mission Drive, San Gabriel, (818) 282-5191. Open 9:30 a.m.-4:15 p.m. daily. Cost: Adults $1 and children 50 cents. It was from San Gabriel Mission, 4th in the chain and founded in 1771, that 11 families set out to establish the Pueblo of Los Angeles nine miles away. Highlights: 1) The mission's long picturesque side wall, which is really the facade, is modeled after the Cathedral of Cordova in Spain. 2) The church here is the original, and it has been restored with a colorful interior done in red, gold and green. Note the original altar and pulpit and the hand-carved statues from Mexico. 3) The most unusual sacred paintings done by California Indians are here, these depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross.
San Fernando Rey de Espana, 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills, (818) 361-0186. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sundays. Cost: Adults 75 cents and children 25 cents. This 17th Franciscan mission was founded in 1797. It was hit hard in the 1971 earthquake, but has been repaired and is in excellent condition. Highlights: 1) Fourth Mission Church is an exact replica of an earlier one, with walls seven feet thick at the base tapering to five feet at the top. The interior furnishings are original antiques. 2) The Convento is the only original building at San Fernando and was completed in 1822. Note the corridor with 21 Roman arches and the iron grilles. 3) West Garden features rare trees, wine vats and a sculpture of Fray de Lasuen, and East Garden has a flower-shaped fountain copied from an original in Cordova.
San Buenaventura, 211 E. Main St., Ventura, (805) 643-4318. Gift shop and mission museum open 10 a.m-5 p.m. daily and Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., with church open dawn to dusk. Cost: Adults 50 cents and children 25 cents. This "Mission by the Sea" is the ninth and last to be founded by Father Serra and the only one founded during a Holy Week. Highlights: 1) The statue of Saint Bonaventure, patron of the mission, can be seen in the church's central niche. 2) Parts of the only two mission bells constructed of wood in existence today are in the mission museum. Mission museum also displays Chumash baskets and early furnishings of the church and priests' vestments. 3) The Albinger Archaeological Museum, 113 E. Main St., (805-648-5823), next door to the church, has evidence of human habitation spanning 3,500 years. Chumash, Spanish, Mexican, American and Chinese artifacts are on display at the site's museum. The museum offers a free 12-minute slide show about the city and the mission.
Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna St., Santa Barbara, (805) 682-4151. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. There is a $1 donation. This mission is the only one continuously in the hands of the Franciscans since its founding in 1786 as 10th in the chain, and it is the only mission with an altar flame that has been burning without interruption for more than a century and a half. Called the "Queen of the Missions," it was visited by Queen Elizabeth of England in 1984. Highlights: 1) There are six massive bells in the towers here, some made in Lima, Peru, and others in Mexico, and each ancient bell is dedicated to a saint. 2) The statues back of the altar were fashioned in Spain and Mexico, and are carved wood, coated with gesso and polychromed. The statue in the center of the panel is of Saint Barbar, patroness of the mission. 3) On display in the museum is the famous Misa Cataluna written by Padre Duran on the spare pages of an old book of maps. This music is still sung in Santa Barbara on occasion.
Santa Ines, 1780 Mission Drive, Solvang, (805) 688-4815. Open daily 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in winter and to 5 p.m. in summer and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Free. Approaching this mission along its peaceful tree-lined driveway, it is hard to believe that only 100 yards away is the bustling
town of Solvang. Known as the "Hidden Gem of the Missions," Santa Ines is 19th in the chain and was founded in 1804. Highlights: 1) The buildings, church, arches and rooms here are originals, not reconstructions, and date from 1804 to 1812, although the second floor of the Convento was reconstructed in 1949. Look for the 19th arch at the south end of the former mission quadrangle and the old adobe bricks in front of it. 2) Two old confessionals, which were crafted by Indian neophytes with carved designs considered to be among the finest of their type, are now housed in the Model Room in the museum. 3) The Padre's Garden, formed in the shape of a Celtic cross, is serenely beautiful, with a fountain at the center and pebbled walks along the grounds.
La Purisima Conception, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, La Purisima Road, Lompoc, (805) 733-3713. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Cost: Adults 50 cents and children 25 cents. The padres called this location "La Canada de los Berros," the canyon of the watercress, and it was for the valley's reliable water supply that the site was chosen. Operated now by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, La Purisima is the most extensively restored of all the missions, with 10 of its original buildings refurbished in authentic style. It is 11th in the chain, founded in 1787. Highlights: 1) A special delight for children is a trip to visit the animals in the old pens along the trail. These include burros, horses, longhorn cattle, sheep and goats. 2) The five-acre mission garden contains pomegranates, figs, pears, pepper trees, grape vines, samples of the Rose of Castile taken from original cuttings and the California wild rose, and hollyhocks, which were a favorite of the Franciscans. 3) The church altar, made to replicate the one made by Indians, has intricately inlaid abalone shell along the backboard. Part of the walls in the altar area, the pulpit and the uprights on the altar rail are painted to simulate the green marble of the priests' native Spain.
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Monterey and Chorro streets, San Luis Obispo, (805) 543-6850. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily in winter, until 5 p.m. in summer, closed Easter, Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving. Free. Called the "Prince of the Missions," San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded in 1772, fifth along El Camino Real. It was named for Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse. Highlights: 1) The museum contains a collection of early photos, religious articles, Indian and early settlers' artifacts. 2) Many statues and paintings in the church are very old. Look for the two Peruvian bells that were cast during Mexico's war of independence with Spain. 3) Note the L-shape of the church. The side wing was added to accommodate the growing population.