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The chapel is still an active church, and is open to the public as part of California's Monterey Historic State Park. It is in excellent condition and one of the city's most significant historic sites. Visitors to Monterey should not miss the Royal Presidio Chapel, where interpretive features help guide visitors through the extraordinary history that the nearly 250 year-old building represents.
The Presidio of Monterey was originally founded on June 3, 1770 as the second of four presidios that would eventually be established by the Spanish in Alta California (Spain's first and third Californian presidios are also featured in this itinerary and can be found here: San Diego, San Francisco). Don Gaspar de Portolá, Governor of California, and Father Junípero Serra established the Presidio along with approximately 60 Spaniards. They were the first European presence in the area. Within a matter of weeks, the colonists had erected rough log huts to serve as housing and a primitive mission for Catholic worship. This original chapel was plastered in mud and covered by a roof of layered twigs, leaves, and earth.
Soon Monterey's makeshift buildings were replaced with more permanent structures, including the chapel, which was rebuilt as an adobe building in 1773. By 1776, Monterey became the Spanish capital of California and the chapel remained in use until it was destroyed by fire in 1789. The Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City designed the new Royal Presidio Chapel (which still stands today), while Native American laborers under the direction of master stonemason Manuel Ruiz completed its construction. Completed in 1795, the sandstone chapel was one and a half stories and had a rectangular shape with a classic basilica plan. A square two-story bell tower with a flat roof graced the northeast corner, and the main chapel roof was arched and covered with clay tile. Pilasters, decorative niches, and intricate sculpture embellished the front facade of the chapel. Today the Royal Presidio Chapel is the most elaborate and ornate of all of the Spanish-constructed churches in California.
After the chapel's construction, an Argentine pirate, Hippolyte de Bouchard, attacked Monterey in 1818, overtaking the Spanish defense force, which abandoned the presidio along with its residents. Before departing, Bouchard ransacked Monterey and burned most of its buildings but did not destroy the stone chapel. Only adobe walls remained of much of the rest of city. After Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821, Monterey slowly began to rebuild and would soon become a bustling Mexican capital and center of commerce once more. As the city began anew, the remains of Spanish-era buildings deteriorated, and by 1841, the Royal Presidio Chapel was the only remnant left standing.
Changes were made to the chapel in 1858 when it was enlarged by 30 feet and transepts were added to the southern end – transforming the building's plan to a cross. Gothic-style stained glass windows were also inserted into the chapel's walls around this same time. The last notable change to the Royal Presidio came in 1893 with the replacement of the original flat roof of the bell tower with its current peaked pyramid style roof. The crosses along the roofline today were also likely added at this time.
Despite these later alterations, the façade, main walls and much of the interior of the Royal Presidio Chapel have remained intact and original since the 1790s. Still in use as a church, the chapel welcomes visitors who want to experience such an important and authentic part of California's Spanish past.
THE ROYAL PRESIDIO TODAY
The last remaining Spanish presidio church in America, the Royal Presidio Chapel is also significant as the oldest stone building in California and longest continually operating church on one site in the State. It became one of the nation's earliest National Historic Landmarks in 1961, and gained official cathedral status in 1967 with the arrival of a new bishop in Monterey. It is currently the smallest Catholic cathedral in the continental United States. Now known as San Carlos Cathedral, the chapel is part of a complex of church buildings including offices, a rectory, and an early grade school.
Visitors to the Royal Presidio Chapel can experience not only the original features of the building's exterior and façade, but also explore inside. The chapel's interior is open to the public and contains decorative religious motifs that are notable examples of primitive art. The Stations of the Cross are original, as are the statues of St. John, the Sorrowful Mother, the Spanish Madonna, and the bas-relief of Our Lady of Guadalupe, carved in chalk rock above the entrance. San Carlos Cathedral also operates a small museum and heritage center next to the chapel that houses Catholic relics, including the iron safe used by Father Serra, a rudely carved reliquary of Indian manufacture, and Father Serra's chalice, cape, and dalmatics. Docent-led school programming, and group/individual tours are available daily. For more information, including operating hours, check out the San Carlos Cathedral website.
Royal Presidio Chapel is also part of the Monterey State Historic Park, a California State Park. This park consists of many significant houses and structures throughout Old Monterey, connected via a two-mile walking path navigated with yellow-tiled markers. Visitors are welcome to explore the “Monterey Walking Path of History” on their own with the help of an interpretive brochure located online here. Guided tours are available. Visitors may purchase tickets at the Pacific House Museum or by calling the Monterey State Historic Park office at 831-649-7118.