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American Latino Heritage
San Diego Mission Church
San Diego, California
The Spanish established 21 Catholic missions along the California coast beginning in the late 1700s. Of these, Mission San Diego de Alcalá was the first in Alta California. Father Junípero Serra initially established San Diego Mission Church in 1769 on Presidio Hill, along with the first Spanish colony and presidio in Alta California. The mission later moved to its present location, six miles east of the hill where several churches have stood over the past two centuries.
Originally completed in 1813, the present building still serves as an active parish church and cultural center. The National Historic Landmark is open to people of all faiths and is one of California’s most popular historic sites. As the mother of the Spanish missionary movement in California, Mission San Diego de Alcalá represents a very significant part of the nation’s Spanish heritage.
Before the Spanish exploration of Alta California, native peoples known as the Kumeyaay populated the area. By the late 1700s, Spain ventured into their territory in order to expand Spanish land holdings up from the south in modern-day Mexico. A religious mission that sought to bring Catholicism to the thousands of natives who called the western coast their home accompanied this political move.
On July 1, 1769, a Franciscan friar, Father Junípero Serra, and a Spanish Capitan, Don Caspar de Portola, founded the first Spanish colony in Alta California (San Diego). Here on July 16, Father Serra established the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, a crude church meant to serve both the Spanish colonists and begin Catholic outreach to local natives. The San Diego Mission became the first of 21 missions on the west coast of California.
The mission remained at its original site for only five years, after which Father Serra moved it six miles to the east. A strong military presence at the San Diego Presidio seemed to deter the native people Serra was trying to reach, and water supplies were insufficient for the church’s agricultural ventures. The new, and present, site was an ideal location close to both the San Diego River and many of the native villages along it. A wooden church and outbuildings constructed in 1774 burned to the ground a year later in the native uprising of 1775. The Catholic Church’s Father Luis Jayme was murdered at the time and became California's first Christian martyr. His remains are buried beneath the altar in the church that is standing today.
The second church on the site constructed in 1777 of stronger adobe brick with a thatched roof was replaced in 1780 by an even larger adobe building, as the mission continued to expand. By the late 1790s, Mission San Diego de Alcalá was at the peak of its success with over 50,000 acres to its name. The mission grew a variety of agricultural crops including corn, wheat, barley, kidney beans, and chickpeas and had some 20,000 sheep, 10,000 head of cattle, and 1,250 horses. A church vineyard produced wine.
The church was rebuilt and expanded once more between 1808 and 1813. Father Jose Bernardo Sanchez designed and planned the new church, which is on the site today. The building is of adobe and white washed brick in a simple, long, rectangular plan. Unlike its predecessors, its roof is of timber shipped over 60 miles from the interior mountains. The church’s most distinct architectural feature was a single, four-story bell tower containing five bells of three sizes.
After Mexico gained its independence in 1821, the government soon secularized all of the formerly Catholic missions. After the Franciscans stopped administering the church at San Diego in 1834, the mission deteriorated into a ruin. Over the next several decades, the site was used privately for agricultural pursuits and as an American military outpost after California became the 31st State in 1850.
In 1862, the U.S. government returned what remained of the mission buildings and land to the Catholic Church. The church retrofitted and made additions to the building and used it as a school for the native population and, later, a children’s home for boys until the early 1900’s. It was rededicated as a parish church in 1941.
THE MISSION CHURCH TODAY
Although much of the original 1813 church had been altered over its many years of evolution and neglect, significant documentation remained of its former layout, size, and appearance. Restoration work began in 1931 to bring Mission San Diego de Alcalá back to its former glory. The church that stands today is largely a reconstruction, and archeological efforts continue to help uncover further evidence of how the church buildings looked and were used.
Visitors interested in the church’s original features should check out the base of the bell tower, the baptistery arch, various parts of the sidewalls, and the wooden lintels above doorways. One of the bells in the tower is also original to the church and dates to 1802. This bell can be distinguished from the others because it is the largest and sports a Spanish Crown at its peak. Visitors are also welcome in the mission’s small, onsite museum, which showcases objects and information about the church’s history. A garden still surrounds the church that is home to the remains of California’s first European cemetery as well as century-old hibiscus, succulents and olive, citrus and avocado trees.
A joyous, annual celebration each July honors the mission’s birthday. Visit during the Festival of the Bells for a chance to witness the only time all five bells ring in unison each year. The occasion includes several days of fiestas and events including traditional Spanish food, dance, and music. See the festival’s official website or call 858-337-5857for more details.