What is now known as the Mora Chapel Gallery was constructed between 1921 and 1924 over a portion of the original convento in order to house the life-size memorial cenotaph dedicated to the founding Padre Presidente of the Alta California missions, Fray Junípero Serra.
Working at the invitation of Father Ramón Mestres, sculptor Jo Mora also designed this building and the rectory across the courtyard. His model was reportedly the Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, the only remaining structure in Alta California where it could be proven that Father Serra had celebrated Mass.
Mora erected a temporary workshop amid the adobe ruins of the great quadrangle. There he first modeled his ideas in clay and later created full-scale plaster maquettes which, once the final design was approved, traveled to New York to be cast in bronze. From the day he accepted this commission, Jo Mora knew that it was to be “the supreme professional effort of my life.”
The final grouping was comprised of Father Serra reclining on his bier surrounded by Fathers Crespi, Lasuen and López, companions in life who are interred beside him under the altar of the Basilica. The three missionaries keep vigil around Father Serra, who lies on a renaissance-style travertine casket featuring scenes in cast bronze from the conquest of Alta California as well as likenesses of the reigning Pope and the King of Spain at the time of Serra’s death. Jo Mora even inscribed a life history of Father Serra on a bevel of bronze atop the bier. (The stone portions of the monument were carved directly from Mora’s clay maquettes by the Italian sculptor Thomas Corsini.)
The Mora placed a cast-bronze bear cut under Father Serra’s feet, an emblem of California that lightens this sad tableau with a tender stroke of whimsy. The altar table and large gilded cross – adorned with the stylized figures of Saint Francis of Asisi, San Carlos Borromeo, and Saint Anthony of Padua – were also created by Jo Mora for this chapel [photo], where for several years a special mass was celebrated on San Carlos Day.
On September 24th, 1924, as part of a week-long Serra Pageant promoted throughout the state, hundreds witnessed the dedication ceremony, among them the Spanish Ambassador, who traveled from Washington, D.C. for the occasion.
Master craftsman Harry Downie, who dedicated nearly half a century to restoring the 1797 stone church and recreating the mission complex as it appeared in its 1820s heyday, added cabinets to the Mora Chapel for the display of liturgical vestments. In 2006, the vestments were relocated in order to provide space for rotating art-and-history exhibitions of six-month duration.