Mission History

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Thank you for inquiring about our beautiful Mission. The following is a brief explanation of its history that we hope you find helpful in your study.

Alta (upper) California was first discovered in 1542 by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo. Although known to the Spanish from that date, Alta California was the last frontier of Spanish colonization. It was over 200 years before they showed an interest in establishing colonies in Alta California. In the year 1769, the Spanish sent an expedition from New Spain (today’s Mexico) to take possession of Alta California. The plan was to establish missions and presidios (forts) at San Diego and Monterey to colonize the territory for Spain. The expedition was under the leadership of Father Junipero Sera and Don Gaspar De Portolá. On July 16, 1769, they established the first mission and presidio at San Diego.

On June 3, 1770, after a year of journey and hardship, the soldiers of De Portolá and the missionaries led by Fr. Serra, gathered by the Monterey Bay to witness a formal ceremony of the erection of the Holy cross that would mark the establishment of the second mission which was to be called Mission San Carlos Borromeo. The Mission was located near the Monterey Presidio beside the Bay of Monterey.

Some of the soldiers at the Presidio were treating the Indians badly. This kept many away from Fr. Serra. The Indians felt Fr. Serra was a part of the Presidio. So, on August 24, 1771, Fr. Serra moved the Mission from Monterey to its present site in Carmel. This also put the Mission closer to a fresh water source and better land for growing crops. The early years here at Carmel were hard. The first Church and dwellings were made of wood and mud. The padres depended mostly on ships from Mexico for their supplies. Unfortunately, these ships did not make it to the Monterey Bay very often. So the Indians shared what little food and supplies they had. Over time, the Padres were able to grow their own crops, and this provided a great deal of the food for the people. Also, the wood and mud buildings were replaced with adobe structures. Carmel became the headquarters for Father Serra and all the Missions. It was from here that he oversaw the building of seven other Missions in California. Here he labored with his Indian friends until his death on August 28, 1784. Today, if you visit the Mission, you can see the cell in which he slept and where he died.

After Fr. Serra’s death, Fr. Fermin Lasuén continued the work. It was Fr. Lasuén who built the stone church that stands today. It was built on the site of the original adobe church with stone quarried from the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains. It was the first California Mission Church to be built from stone. The only other Mission Churches of stone were at San Juan Capistrano and Santa Barbara. The eighteen other Missions were built of adobe. The remaining buildings at the Mission today have been rebuilt on the same foundations of the buildings built by Fr. Lasuén. So the layout of the Mission today is much like it was in the early 1800’s. The Carmel Mission flourished under Fr. Lasuén.

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain. Now, California became part of Mexico. The Mission continued to grow. Then in the year 1834, the Mexican government closed the Mission and took over the Mission lands. Although they said that the mission land would go to the Indians, most of the Indians did not receive any land. Instead, the land was sold to the new settlers coming to California.

The Indians were forced to leave the Mission. Many of them returned to their old native ways or worked for the new settlers as ranch hands or servants. The Padres also were forced to leave the Mission. Some of them went back to Mexico or became priests in the Churches of the new towns of California.

Sad times lay ahead. After the Indians and Padres left, the buildings fell prey to vandalism and decay. The quadrangle, which was built of adobe, became nothing more that piles of mud. The church of stone remained a sorrowful reminder of the past. Its roof fallen in, its adornments removed, it stood a ruin.

In 1846, California won its independence from Mexico to become an independent country called the Republic of California. In 1848, it officially became a Territory of the United States, and in 1850 it became the thirty-first state of the Union. The Mission continued to remain in ruins. Then on October 19, 1859, the United States government returned the Mission to the Catholic Church.

Restoration of the Mission began in 1884 and continues to this day. In 1933 the greatest period of restoration began. It was then that Mr. Harry Downie was put in charge of the restoration project. Due to the lack of funds, the work started slowly. Excavation of the ruins and the study of old documents, sketches and photos were necessary to make plans. Work was started on the padres’ quarters which today houses artifacts of the early mission days. Mr. Downie was able to gather these from many scattered places. It is one of the finest collections in California.

In the year 1936, the roof of the church, first repaired in 1884, required immediate attention. Through various means, funds were raised, and the stone church, in major part, was restored to the beauty of the early Mission days.

In the year 1941, attention was given to restoring a building on the east side of the quadrangle. This building originally served as the soldiers’ quarters. Today it serves as the Mission office and rectory.

Restoration of the building on the south side of the quadrangle, of which nothing was left but the foundation and a few crumbled walls, was started in 1943. This building, which originally housed the Indian children, is today classrooms for Junipero Serra Elementary School.

In 1946, a ruin of the original padre’s kitchen and the blacksmith shop on the east side was restored and today is used as a chapel. This building made complete three sides of the quadrangle.

To complete the restoration of the quadrangle the west side buildings which originally housed workshops and the residence for the single Indian women was restored in the 1950’s. Today it is also classrooms for Junipero Serra Elementary School.

We hope this information will help you with your study and that one day you will be able to visit this historic place that is so important to the beginnings of California.

The Priests, Staff and Volunteers of Carmel Mission