The Missions and Father Serra by Ella M. Sexton
The old Missions of California are landmarks that remind us of Father
Serra and his band of faithful workers. There were twenty-one of their
beautiful churches, and though some are ruined and neglected, others
like the Mission Dolores of San Francisco and the Santa Barbara and
Monterey buildings are still in excellent condition. From San Diego to
San Francisco these Missions were located, about thirty miles apart,
and so well were the sites chosen that the finest cities of the state
have grown round the old churches.
FATHER JUNIPERO SERRA
Father Junipero Serra was the president and leader of the Franciscan
missionaries and the founder of the Missions. He had been brought up
in Spain, and had dreamed from his boyhood of going to the New
World, as the Spanish called America, to tell the savages how to be
Christians. He began his work as a missionary in Mexico and there
labored faithfully among the Indians for nearly twenty years. But as
his greatest wish was to preach to those in unknown places he was glad
to be chosen to explore Alta or Upper California.
Marching by land from Loreto, a Mission of Lower California, Father
Serra, with Governor Portola and his soldiers, reached San Diego in
1769. Here he planted the first Mission on California ground. The
church was a rude arbor of boughs, and the bells were hung in an oak
tree. Father Serra rang the bells himself, and called loudly to the
wondering Indians to come to the Holy Church and hear about Christ.
But the natives were suspicious and not ready to listen to the good
man's teachings, and several times they attacked the newcomers.
Finally, after six years, they burnt the church and killed one of the
missionaries. But later on there was peace, and the priests, or Padres
as they were called, taught the Indians to raise corn and wheat, and
to plant olive orchards and fig trees, and grapes for wine. They built
a new church and round it the huts, or cabins, of the Indians, the
storehouses, and the Padre's dwelling. In the early morning the bells
called every member of the Mission family to a church service. After a
breakfast of corn and beans they spent the morning in outdoor work or
in building. At noon either mutton or beef was served with corn and
beans, and at two o'clock work began again, to last till evening
service. A supper of corn-meal mush was the Indians' favorite
meal. They had many holidays, when their amusements were dancing,
bull-fighting, or cock-fighting.
San Diego, called the Mother Mission, because it is the oldest church,
is now also most in ruins. But its friends hope to put new foundations
under the old walls, and to recap firm ones with cement, and preserve
this monument of early California history.
After Father Serra had started the San Diego settlement he set sail
for Monterey. Landing at Monterey Bay, he built an altar under a large
oak tree, hung the Mission bells upon the boughs, and held the usual
services. The Spanish soldiers fired off their guns in honor of the
day and put up a great cross. The Indians had never heard the sound of
guns and were so frightened that they ran away to the mountains. The
second Mission was built on the Carmel River, a little distance from
the site of the first altar. This was called San Carlos of Monterey,
and the settlement was the capital of Alta California for many years.
It was also the Mission that Father Serra loved the best, and after
every trip to other and newer settlements he returned to San Carlos as
his home. This Monterey Mission is well preserved, and books, carved
church furniture, and embroidered robes used in the old services are
At both San Diego and Monterey a presidio, or fort, was built for the
soldiers. These forts had one or two cannon brought from Spain, and
had around them high walls, or stockades, to protect, if it should be
necessary, the Mission people from the Indians. The cannon were fired
on holidays, or to frighten troublesome Indians.
All the Mission buildings were of brown clay made into large bricks
about a foot and a half long and broad, and three or four inches
thick. These bricks, dried in the sun, were called adobes, and were
plastered together and made smooth by a mortar of the same clay.
Then the walls were coated outside and inside with a lime stucco and
whitewashed. The roof timbers were covered with hollow red tiles, each
like the half of a sewer pipe, and these were laid to overlap each
other so that they kept the rain out. The floors were of earth beaten
hard, and the windows had bars or latticework, but no glass. The large
church was snowy white within and without and had pictures brought
from Spain and much carved furniture, such as chairs, benches, and
the pulpit made by the Indians. One or two round-topped towers and
five or six belfries, each holding a large bell, were on the church roof,
and a great iron cross at the very top.
OLD SAN DIEGO MISSION.
Night and morning the Mission bells rang to call the Indians to mass
or service, and chimes or tunes were rung on holidays or for weddings.
These Mission bells were brought from Spain, and it was thought a
blessing rested on the ship which carried them, and that shipwreck
could not come to such a vessel. We read of one captain joyfully
receiving the Mission bells to take to San Diego. When nearing the
coast his vessel struck a rock, yet passed on in safety because, as
he said, no harm could happen with the bells on board. On his journeys
every missionary carried a bell with him for the new church he was to
build. Father Serra's first act on reaching a stopping-place was to
hang the bell in a tree and ring it to gather the Indians and people
San Antonio, a very successful Mission, was the third one established,
and it was in a beautiful little valley of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Every kind of fruit grew in its orchards, and the Indians there were
very happy and contented, and in large workshops made cloth, saddles,
and other things. San Gabriel, not far from Los Angeles and sometimes
called the finest church of all, was the next to be built. This was
the richest of the Missions and had great stores of wool, wheat, and
fruit, which the hard-working Indians earned and gave to the church.
The Indians, indeed, were almost slaves, and worked all their
lives for the Padres without rest or pay. At San Gabriel the first
California flour-mill worked by a stream of water turning the wheel,
was put up. Some of the old palms and olive trees are still growing
San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776, was one of the best-known
Missions, for it had a seaport of its own at San Juan. Vessels came to
its port for the hides and tallow of thousands of cattle herded round
the Mission. The first fine church of this Mission was destroyed by
an earthquake, and many people were killed by its falling roof. It was
rebuilt, however, and still shows its fine front, and long corridors
or porches round a hollow square where a garden and fountain used to
Old records tell us that Father Serra felt that there should be a
church named in honor of Francis, who was the founder and patron saint
of the Franciscan brotherhood of monks to which these missionaries
belonged. When Father Serra spoke of this to Galvez, that priest
replied, "If our good Saint Francis wants a Mission, let him show us
that fine harbor up above Monterey and we will build him one there."
Several explorers had failed to find this port about which Indians had
spoken to the Spanish. At last Ortega discovered it, and Father Palou,
in 1776, consecrated the Mission of San Francisco. Near the spot was
a small lake called the "Laguna de los Dolores," and from this the
church was at last known as the Mission Dolores. But the great city
bears the Spanish name of Saint Francis, or San Francisco. A fort
was erected where the present Presidio stands, and later a battery
of cannon was placed at Black Point. It is told that the Indians were
very quarrelsome here and fought so among themselves that the Padres
could get no church built for a year. In that part of San Francisco
called the Mission, the old building with its odd roof and three of
the ancient bells is a very interesting place to visit. There are
pictures, and other relics of the past to see, and in the graveyard
many of San Francisco's early settlers were buried. This was the sixth
Mission of Alta California.
SANTA BARBARA MISSION.
The Santa Barbara Mission, where Franciscan fathers still live, has
a fine church with double towers and a long row of two-story adobe
buildings enclosing a hollow square where a beautiful garden is kept.
One of the brotherhood, wearing a long brown robe just as Father Serra
did, takes visitors into the church, and also shows them the garden
and a large carved stone fountain. This church is built of sandstone
with two large towers and a chime of six bells, and was finished in
The Santa Ynez Mission was much damaged by the heavy earthquake that
in 1812 ruined other Missions. Here the Indians raised large crops
of wheat and herded many cattle. Over a thousand Indians, it is said,
attacked this church in 1822, but the priest in charge frightened them
away by firing guns. This warlike conduct so displeased the Padres,
who wished the natives ruled by kindness, that the poor priest was
sent away from the Mission.
One of the early Missions was San Luis Obispo, where services are
still held. It was specially noted for a fine blue cloth woven by
the Indians from the wool of the Mission flocks of sheep. The Indians
there also wove blankets, and cloth from cotton raised upon their own
MISSION SAN LUIS REY.
San Juan Bautista, or St. John the Baptist, north of Monterey, had a
splendid chime of nine bells said to have been brought from Peru and
to have very rich, mellow tones. San Miguel had a bell hung up on a
platform in front of the church, and now at Santa Ysabel, sixty miles
from San Diego, where the Mission itself is only a heap of adobe
ruins, two bells hang on a rude framework of logs. The Indian
bell-ringer rings them by a rope fastened to each clapper. The bells
were cast in Spain and much silver jewellery and household plate were
melted with the bell-metal. Near them the Diegueño Indians worship in
a rude arbor of green boughs with their priest, Father Antonio, who
has worked for thirty years among the tribe. They live on a rancheria
near by and are making adobe bricks, hoping soon to build a church
like the old Mission long since crumbled away.
The last of the Missions was built in 1823 at Sonoma, and proved very
active in church work, some fifteen hundred Indians having been there
Father Junipero Serra died at more than seventy years of age, at San
Carlos. During all his life in America he endured great hardships
and suffering to bring the gospel to the heathen as he had dreamed of
doing in his boyish days. A monument to his memory has been erected
at Monterey by Mrs. Stanford, but the Missions he founded are his best
and most lasting remembrances.