California's 21 Missions

Are Father Junipero Serra's 21 missions—from San Diego to Sonoma—worth restoring or is it time to sway adios?

Carmel mission aka San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo

Father Serra, who used Carmel as his headquarters, is buried at the altar.

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In the two and a half centuries since Father Junípero Serra raised a cross at San Diego to establish the first Spanish settlement in California, the state's 21 missions have been revered, reviled, looted, rocked by earthquakes, and rebuilt.

Begun in 1769 to convert Indians "into a society that is human, Christian, civil, and industrious," to quote one of Serra's companions, the missions—which dot the state from San Diego to Sonoma—have given their name to an international architectural style and inspired a sentimental best seller, Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel, Ramona. Generations of California schoolchildren have tramped through the frail adobe buildings, which are one of the state's most popular tourist attractions. You might assume that the missions—full of stunning murals, rare colonial art, exquisite vestments, and Native American relics—are being treasured as irreplaceable historical landmarks.

You would be wrong. Since the Mexican government dissolved the missions as conversion centers in the 1820s, only a small handful of the surviving buildings have been carefully preserved. Most are in desperate need of cash to keep original adobe bricks from melting in the rain, termites from devouring 18th-century wood statues, antique textiles from mildewing, and thieves from plucking paintings off the walls. Two of the missions have become state parks; the remainder are active Catholic parishes, their maintenance the responsibility of local communities that can't come close to meeting their extensive, expensive preservation needs.

Is help on the way? Since 1999, the California Missions Foundation has made dozens of grants for strictly nonreligious preservation projects, like cleaning old canvases and storing archival materials in acid-free boxes. And in 2004, with strong bipartisan support, Congress passed a bill—sponsored by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)—to provide $10 million in matching funds to the missions foundation. But last November, the Washington, D.C., group Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit to block the funding. "Houses of worship must be maintained by their congregations, not the federal government," said director Barry Lynn. "This is an important step in derailing the whole idea that you can fund religious buildings or programs if there is an additional secular purpose that may be served."

The ongoing legal battle pits a noble principle—separation of church and state—against the pressing needs of 21 historic buildings that are the last vestiges of the brief, strange, sometimes beautiful, often cruel intersection of Serra's strict, medieval Catholicism and Native American cultures. The Indians—among them Ohlone, Chumash, Miwok, and Salinan—did not fare well in the mission system. They perished in vast numbers from measles and other diseases introduced by the Spanish; moreover, once they embraced Christianity, they were not allowed to return to their villages and could be harshly punished if they attempted to leave the mission community. "You can sit and argue whether it's good history or bad," says Kristina Foss, the curator of Mission Santa Barbara, "but what you have a chance to see at the missions is the birth of California as a modern place."

Three missions—one in catastrophic disrepair, one that is in decent shape but could use some tender loving care, and one that has been restored and cherished—offer three snapshots of the state of our past.

MISSION SAN MIGUEL ARCANGEL

Founded in 1797 as a stepping-stone between Missions San Luis Obispo and San Antonio, Mission San Miguel Arcángel sits at the entrance to the tiny rural town of San Miguel. In 2002, Lisa Fugard, writing for The New York Times, traveled to San Miguel and rhapsodized about its extraordinary murals. Known as the Munras murals, the vibrantly colored frescoes were painted in the early 1820s by Salinan Indians under the direction of the Catalonian artist Esteban Munras. Fugard described them as a "neoclassical pastel fantasy" in which "the reredos [altar back] is decorated with candy-cane columns adorned with stripes and swirls, and panels of twining roses and the eye of God—looking a bit startled—gazing out of a puffy cloud centered in a sunburst. The carved pulpit clinging to the wall completes the theatrical atmosphere and I half expected the lights to come up and act 2 of The Magic Flute to begin."

Or, as Santa Barbara's Kristina Foss puts it more crisply: "San Miguel has absolutely the best example of early mission art. Ask anyone who works in a mission: We're all of one mind about that. And San Miguel is the only mission we're about to lose."

You'll have to trust secondhand accounts of the Munras murals, because visitors have been banned for the last two years. Behind its wooden doors, fading Christmas decorations still hang inside the shuttered mission after a 6.5-magnitude earthquake rocked the area on December 22, 2003, and violently detached the sacristy—the chamber where sacred objects are stored—from the 1818 tile-roofed adobe church. Says Foss, who sits on the board of the California Missions Foundation and recently attended an enchilada dinner fund-raiser for San Miguel: "That mission is going to fall down unless they get $20 million. Period."

You have to stuff a lot of enchiladas before you get to $20 million, and without help, San Miguel's 1,000 parishioners don't have a prayer of saving the mission. The sacristy has been crudely buttressed to prevent imminent collapse, but the five-foot-thick adobe walls are riddled with deep fissures. While the $20 million that could rescue San Miguel—$10 million from the foundation supplemented with Senator Boxer's $10 million in government matching funds—remains tied up in the courts, the pigments of the Munras murals have begun to detach from the plaster. On a weekday afternoon, a steady stream of visitors pull up to the chain-link fence that now surrounds San Miguel, hoping to get a peek inside. They leave disappointed.

Critics of federal funding suggest that admission fees foot the bill for maintenance, an option that is moot in the case of San Miguel. "We're pursuing every avenue we can for funding, but they're nearly all long-term, and San Miguel's needs are urgent," says John Fowler, who was hired shortly after the 2003 earthquake to lead fund-raising efforts. "If you can't rally community around this mission, I don't know what hope there is for the other 20."

MISSION SAN ANTONIO DE PADUA

Visitors probably won't notice Mission San Antonio de Padua's disrepair at first: The place is breathtaking. A six-mile drive through rolling hills from the tiny town of Jolon—26 miles southwest of King City—San Antonio offers a glimpse of the rugged California first encountered by the Spaniards. Surrounded by magnificent oaks, the mission sits in the middle of a vast meadow in a remote valley where cougars, wild turkeys, and rattlesnakes still thrive.

You'll be thinking about those rattlesnakes as you bushwhack through hip-high grass to read the wooden signs Franciscan priests erected in the 1950s to mark the layout of the original settlement. Spread over several acres, the signs—on the verge of becoming ruins themselves—point out the remains of various outbuildings. There's the stone threshing floor; here are the reservoir's foundations; push away mustard weed and you find what's left of brick kilns. Another sign indicates the beehive ovens used for baking bread—except there's no trace of an oven. In the last decade, the one that was still standing when Donna Curto started working at the mission has eroded and vanished. "This place is not all it could be," says Curto, who does everything from selling postcards in the gift shop to watering plants.

What exactly could San Antonio de Padua be if it had the money? Missions were originally self-sustaining religious colonies with orchards, gristmills, potteries, and cattle. All traces of outbuildings were long ago destroyed at urban missions such as San Diego and San Luis Obispo. But when you explore the grounds of San Antonio, you begin to understand the size and numerous functions of the Spanish missions.

"I'm a great believer in reconstruction," says archaeologist Bob Hoover, a professor at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo who has excavated at San Antonio every summer since 1976. "If I were to dream for the future, I'd rebuild the married Indian quarters. In 1805 there were two padres, five soldiers, and 1,300 Salinans. Most Native Americans don't think of it as their own, but this was an Indian community."

Led by exceptional priests, San Antonio was a comparatively peaceful and prosperous mission community, known for its music. Father Juan Sancho, an accomplished musician before coming to California, composed gorgeous baroque masses. Indians vied to play in his orchestra, among them José Carabajal, who, while still in his teens, crafted his own violin using simple tools and native bay laurel. The unusual and delicate violin—a European instrument interpreted by a Native American artisan—became renowned for its exquisite tone. It was handed down through the generations of Carabajal's family until a great-great-grandson donated it to the mission in 1973. Unfortun-ately, San Antonio could af-ford neither a decent alarm system nor locking cases. In 2003, a visitor slipped a substitute violin into the display and walked off with the original treasure.

MISSION SAN CARLOS BORROMEO DEL RÍO CARMELO

Pampered, pretty, and overflowing with visitors, the rose- and bougainvillea-draped mission at Carmel gets what all the missions deserve: star treatment. On a sunny winter morning, the 1770 mission bustles with tourists and schoolchildren. Docents point out the subtleties of the glorious painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe—which came over from Spain with Serra—and the star-shaped window in the mission's facade. Mourners stream into the Moorish-style church for a funeral, while archaeologist Ruben Mendoza and students from CSU-Monterey Bay shake soil through sifters. Visitors wander through the complex of museums and chapels, looking at metates (Indian grinding stones), and Serra's well-worn 1568 bible, as well as the re-creation of his stark cell, which conveys the ascetic character of the man better than any written word ever could.

Why has the Carmel mission flourished while others languish? A century ago Carmel was in far worse shape than San Miguel is today. By the 1850s, the roof beams had rotted, the tiles had fallen in, and the church was little more than a hollowed-out sandstone shell. All of its land had been sold off. As an 1861 visitor wrote: "Hundreds (literally) of squirrels scampered around their holes in the old walls; cattle had free access to all parts; and thousands of birds, apparently, lived in nooks in the old deserted walls."

The turning point for Carmel came in 1931, when the pastor of the Catholic church in Monterey hired a talented 28-year-old San Francisco cabinetmaker named Harry Downie to restore a few statues. Downie fell in love with Carmel, signed on as curator, and remained until his death 50 years later. After studying old books to get the details right, he replaced the roof and, with his own hands, carved exquisite reproductions of the original altar and reredos. He rebuilt Serra's cell and picked through piles of rubble to find lost pieces of the buildings. Horrified by the loss of mission treasures, he began haunting fairs and estate sales. And he publicized his efforts.

Downie's greatest coup: An Oakland woman contacted him after she found a filthy doll in her attic—a doll that turned out to be a 16th-century Our Lady of Bethlehem statue that had accompanied Serra to California.

"Carmel had a fantastic, focused restoration program under Harry Downie," says Kristina Foss. "He cajoled, convinced, connived, and in every way gained support for Carmel. There are things I could fault him for historically, but I can't knock the fact that the man was totally devoted to Carmel and managed to pull it together more than any other mission. It's just awesome what he did."

Mission possible
To learn how you can help, contact the California Missions Foundation at 4129 Main St., Ste. 207, Riverside, CA, 92501, (951) 369-0440, www.californiamissionsfoundation.org, or send email to info@missionsofcalifornia.org.

Photography by Larry Ulrich

This article was first published in November 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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