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To enter the church at Carmel Mission is to step back in time more than two centuries ago. Most visitors and indeed, even our local parishioners are surprised to discover that the Mission church is not the first Chapel for worship to be erected on this property.
The present stone church was planned by Saint Junipero Serra during his administration as Father–Presidente of the California Mission Chain (1770-1784). However many factors contributed to its actual erection being delayed until years after his death. Serra wished to build a permanent stone house of worship in the style of those in Mexico and Spain like those he erected in the Province of Queretaro in Mexico. This type of building required skilled masons to cut and dress the stones and no professionals were to be had in the province of California.
Serra’s successor as Father-Presidente, Fray Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, finally was able to convince the Central government of New Spain to send an architect and stonemasons to carry out this huge undertaking. Most of the mission churches in California were constructed of adobe (mud –brick) and were only as permanent as the roofs that protected the mud walls from the elements. The very nature of mud as a building material did not allow for much in the way of architectural embellishment and stone, of course, was the preferred medium.
Stone could not be manipulated or engineered without skilled workers and most of the California Missions never advanced beyond the adobe stage which required wide heavy wall, and huge supporting timbers for the roof structures. Since it was nearly impossible to find trees in California that would be of enough height and girth to safely span the lateral walls, churches of adobe rarely surpassed 30 feet in width which made for a long tunnel-like structure in order to hold a fair number of worshippers.
The architect of Carmel Mission’s stone church was Manuel Ruiz of San Blas, Mexico. His brother Santiago, a master stonemason also received a license to work in the Province of California for a period of three years. It was believed that Manuel Ruiz’s original conception for the ceiling of the church was to resemble the six-part gothic ribbed vaulting that he executed in the baptistery of the church. To construct a ceiling of this design would have required much longer than their work visas would have permitted them to do safely. A design of catenary or parabolic arches was settled upon and even so, this design proved to be dangerous in earthquake country and the stone-vaulted ceiling was removed by 1817.
This stone church was begun in 1795 and was basically complete by 1797 when it was dedicated for worship on Christmas Day of that year. Much remained to do to complete the interior, and decoration of the building with the addition of side altarpieces went on for much of the mission-period.
When the church was originally constructed, the exterior was much different than it appears today ( the result of a radical remodeling between 1817-1822. The bell towers that flank the entrance to the church did not achieve their present form until that time. They were simply one-sided, multi-tiered structures pierced with arches to hold the bells.
After the great Earthquake of 1812 struck the length of California leaving most of the missions in shambles ( though apparently doing little damage here), the Padres were terrified by the report of the collapse of the heavy stone vaulted ceiling at Mission Capistrano killing many worshippers who were attending Mass, that they decided to take down the five-foot thick parabolic vault at Carmel. They left the major stone arches in place and unfilled with planking where the removed the vault itself. Let with a tremendous quantity of stone, they utilized the ceiling pieces to construct the Mortuary Chapel of the Passion of Christ (now more commonly known as the Bethlehem Chapel), as well as the back three sides of the bell towers, the exterior stairway, and many massive buttresses to shore-up the tilting walls.
As originally built, the structure did not have an external roof of terra-cotta barrel tiles as it does today, the exterior of the wall was simply plastered on the top, open to the elements as many churches of Mexico are. After the removal of the stone ceiling, the walls of the church were raised three feet to accommodate the trusses necessary to carry the new tile roof.
The interior of the church as it appears today is far simpler than it looked originally when as many as seven large-scale side altarpieces lined the walls. Almost twenty statues adorned these altars and most were lost when a fire destroyed the first Sacred Heart Church in Salinas were then had been taken in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.
In the Mission Period, the large crucifix and flanking statues of Our Lady and St. John were housed in the side Chapel, and the beautiful statue of ‘La Conquistadora’ (Our Lady of Bethlehem) held center focus in a fine glided wood and crystal niche in the center of the reredos.
The original reredos was destroyed when the last portion of ceiling collapsed in 1851, and from the fragments and descriptions it was ascertained that it may have resembled the one at Mission Dolores which was constructed of earlier gilded portions of massive golden wood altarpieces being disassembled at the Mother Church of San Fernando in Mexico City due to the change in architectural fashions. It is known from a letter written by one of the Padres from one mission to another, that the side altar of the church at Carmel were constructed from earlier Churiguerresque – style pieces.
The present furnishings of the church are mainly the originals as far as the statues, paintings and other artifacts are concerned. Most of these are of the lot that were removed from the building by the Monterey Pastor, Fr. Sadoc Villarasa in 1851 when the ceiling began to show signs of giving way. They survived by being used at the Old Presidio Chapel when it was enlarged to serve as a parish church in 1856 and remained in place until their return here in the first half of the twentieth century.
In the early 1960’s, the Diocesan Bishop, Aloyisus Willinger petitioned the Holy See in Rome to be designated a Minor Basilica. A Basilica is the highest honorary rank for a church and implies great historical and artistic importance. Pope John XXlll honored Carmel Mission’s church with the rank of Basilica in 1961 in recognition of Serra’s heroic work in the establishment of Christianity on the western coast of the United States as well as the unique architectural features of the structure such as the Moorish dome and the parabolic ceiling.
In the entry of the church hang the insignia that the church has been declared a basilica, – the pavilion ( papal umbrella) and the “tintinabulum” (basilica bell). Since that designation, Carmel Mission Basilica was honored with a visit of the Holy Father from Rome in 1987, when pope John Paul ll visited the church to deliver an important address on evangelization as well as laying a wreathe at the foot of the grave of the mission’s founder, Junipero Serra, who he would beatify two years later in Rome at the Basilica of St. Peter’s.