Brief History of Carmel Mission

Published June 6, 2022


Today the Mission is blessed with a vibrant Parish community as well as many visitors from all over the world. The Mission stands at the intersection of California culture, history, and faith. 

We warmly welcome you, and we hope that you enjoy your visit with us here at the Carmel Mission Basilica, the “Father of the California Missions!”


Welcome to the Carmel Mission Basilica and the Shrine of Saint Junípero Serra, the Franciscan Missionary who founded the first nine Spanish Missions of Alta California.  

Two and a half centuries after San Junípero held Carmel’s first Mass in a humble, one room shelter, or enramada, on the north bank of the Carmel River, the Mission continues to serve as an active and vital Catholic Parish. Located in one of the most beautiful areas of the Golden State, the iconic Mission Basilica, along with the San Carlos Cathedral (situated on the Mission’s original site in Monterey), are the oldest masonry structures in California, constructed during the last decade of the eighteenth century. These historic and sacred sites have both been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are designated as National and State Historic Landmarks.


Foundation and Early Spanish Era 1770 – 1797

Fray Junípero Serra originally established Misión de San Carlos del Puerto de Monte-Rey on the south shore of Monterey Bay on June 3, 1770, as ordered by the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico).  But San Junípero immediately recognized the advantages of the Carmel River site and petitioned for the Mission’s relocation in a letter dated June 12, 1770 – less than two weeks after his arrival at Monterey aboard a packet ship, the San Antonio. San Junípero had discovered that the nearest Indian village was located five miles to the south, near the mouth of the Carmel River, and that the overland expedition under Captain Gaspar de Portolá had camped there – finding the water and pasturage to be far superior to Monterey’s.  

When the San Antonio returned the following May, it brought the Viceroy’s approval, and by early August San Junípero was busy at work at the new site, creating what would become known as Misión de San Carlos de Borroméo del Rio Carmelo. From the agua dulce (sweet) river and ground water of the Rio Carmelo and the fertile lands surrounding the new site would arise orchards of apple, pear, olive and quince trees; agricultural fields producing thousands of bushels of wheat, barley and other produce; and lush pasturage for horses, cattle, sheep and goats. By the time of the dedication of the magnificent stone church in 1797, the Mission would have long enjoyed agricultural self-sufficiency and would boast of 1400 head of cattle, 1700 sheep, 850 horses, 100 goats, and 35 pigs to provide for the 830 Christian Indians living at the Mission and their relatives in the neighboring Rumsen and Esselen villages. 

San Junípero would not live to see the construction of the future Basilica. In 1784, after 15 years of missionary work in Alta California, the future Saint died and was interred near the altar in his new adobe Church.  San Junípero was a pioneer on a remote frontier. Between 1771 and 1778, he supervised the construction of four churches on the Carmel River site, each expanding to meet the needs of a growing Christian Indian population. They were crude, frontier frame structures, with walls of wooden poles lashed together and slathered with mud, and then covered with “flat earthen roofs.” 

In 1783 Serra was able to report progress in the use of adobe construction for Mission buildings, including the Mission’s fifth church, a large adobe building with a thatched roof. Serra’s Viaticum, or last Eucharist, portrayed in a famous painting by Mariano Guerrero, was celebrated in this church on August 27, 1784. Another painting by Gaspard de Vancy, a French artist on the 1786 de la Perouse expedition, showed the exterior of the building. De Vancy’s painting has been lost, but fortunately there are multiple copies of the painting executed in ink by the artists of the 1792 Spanish Malaspina expedition.  

The adobe building portrayed by de Vancy was Junípero Serra’s last church as Father President of the Alta California Missions, but it was the first Mission headquarters for his successor, Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén. In de Vancy’s painting, Lasuén stands in the doorway of the adobe church, waiting to welcome the officers of the French expedition. Six years later, Father Lasuén guided the tremendous efforts of the Carmel Mission Native American Peoples and stone masons Manuel Esteban Ruiz and Santiago Ruiz in building the iconic stone Church in which our faith community continues to worship today.  

In September of 1797, three decades after Junipero Serra’s arrival in New California, the permanent stone church at the Carmel Mission was dedicated for service. The church literally grew around Serra in his final resting place.  

This stone church was dedicated in the same year that George Washington finished his final term as President. 

Mexican and Early American Era 1821- 1852

Mexico ceded from Spain in 1821, as former colonials throughout the Americas rebelled against European rule.  As a result, Alta California became a part of an independent Mexico. The Mission lands and buildings under the Mexican government were secularized in 1834, and the Mission Indians and Spanish Franciscan Fathers were forced to leave.  In 1846, only months into the Mexican-American War, the U.S government took charge of Monterey without significant resistance.  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the war was signed848.  At the start of the American Gold Rush in 1850, California off in 1icially became the thirty-first state and the sixteenth free state of the United States of America. 

The Mission fell into disrepair, and in 1852 the Mission roof collapsed.  The Mission’s collection of colonial art and liturgical artifacts was brought to Monterey for safe keeping. 

Mission Restoration 1853- 2016

In 1853 Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany was successful in having former Mission lands returned to the Church.  By the end of the 1880’s, the Mission became a historic attraction, visited by tourists who traveled to the Hotel Del Monte by way of the newly established rail line to the Monterey Peninsula.  The Christian Mission Indian families continued to preserve the site as a sacred space, and services during secularization were regularly held for the community in the Mission Church sacristy on the feast day of San Carlos.

Carmel Mission’s importance to California history helped establish efforts to restore the Mission. Beginning with the Centennial in 1883, a celebration led by Father Angelo Casanova memorialized Father Serra’s passing (August 28, 1784), and an appeal for funds was made to the People of California. The proclamation for the restoration of the Carmel Mission was signed by Governor George Stoneman along with 50 local and state dignitaries and concerned private citizens.     

The church roof was first restored in 1884. In 1921 Father Ramon Mestres, with little funding, started the reconstruction of a Mission building (Mora Chapel) that would come to house a monumental sculpture, known as a cenotaph, created by Jo Mora for Father Junípero Serra.  In 1933 the Diocese of Monterey enlisted the aid of Harry Downie for initial restoration work. The noted Mission restorer worked for 50 years as the Mission Curator, and the Community of Carmel-by-the-Sea grew alongside the Mission’s restoration.  Over the years Harry Downie labored and partnered with craftsmen, parishioners, and capable assistants, including Huu Nyguen and former curator Richard Menn. In 2013, through the efforts of the community, the Carmel Mission Foundation was formed, and a modern seismic retrofit of the Mission Basilica Church was completed, ensuring the historic building would be secured for the benefit of future generations.

In 2016 the Mission Quadrangle courtyard was restored and improved to meet the needs of our Parish and our annual schedule of events.  We benefit greatly today from the enduring efforts to preserve and protect this sacred space, and we continue in that work today.

Over generations this humble Mission has been host to world leaders, presidents, and kings.  In 1960 the Mission was honored with the title of Basilica, and community efforts in the cause to canonize Father Junípero Serra were fully formed.  The future Saint, Pope John Paul II, visited the Mission in 1987 and later beatified Father Serra in Rome, a significant step in the liturgical process of becoming a saint.

In 2015 Saint Junípero Serra was canonized in Washington D.C during his Holiness Pope Francis’s official State visit to the United States.  During this historic moment, the Mission Courtyard was at the center of multiple community celebrations, and parishioners and visitors watched the canonization celebration together live via satellite feed.