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 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 still shown.

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. Founded 1769.
Founded 1769.

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 for service.

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 there.

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 be.

  MISSION DOLORES. Established 1776.
Established 1776.

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.

Founded 1786.

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 1820.

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 lands.

  MISSION SAN LUIS REY. Founded 1798.
Founded 1798.

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 baptized.

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.