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National Historic Landmark CARMEL MISSION

Location: Monterey County, Rio Road, Carmel.

Ownership and Administration. Roman Catholic Church.

Significance. Mission San Carlos de Borroméo, or Carmel Mission, was the most important of the California missions from an ecclesiastical standpoint. It was the headquarters of the two great Franciscan padres, Junípero Serra and Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, under whose guidance and inspiration 18 of the 21 California missions were established. Records for the missions and a library of 2,500 volumes were housed at Carmel, which served as a personnel and supply center for the founding of new missions and the strengthening of old ones. Both Serra and Lasuén are buried at the mission.

Carmel Mission
Mission San Carlos de Borroméo (Carmel Mission), in 1791, before construction of the present church. This mission served as headquarters of Fathers Serra and Lasuén, who founded 18 of the 21 California missions. From a drawing by Jose Cardero. (Courtesy, Bancroft Library.)

Father Serra founded Carmel Mission on June 3, 1770, at the Presidio of Monterey, as the second mission in California. In December 1771, he relocated it at the present site, 3 miles south of Monterey, to remove his Indian neophytes from the corrupting influence of the presidial garrison. Serra and his devoted companion, Father Crespi, who were based at the mission for the remainder of their lives, served not only the local area but also the other California missions. As father-president, Serra was responsible for establishing nine missions, all of which he visited frequently to provide encouragement and counsel. Ascetic, humble, and meek, yet a vigorous fighter in defense of the religious as against the political order, he rightfully earned the title of spiritual father of California.

When Serra died, in 1784, Father Lasuén succeeded him and ably continued his work. Lasuén was not only tactful in dealing with political and military authorities, but he was also a builder of architecturally sound missions. Before he died, in 1803, he founded nine missions in California. In 1793, he laid the foundations of the present Carmel Mission church, which was built of sandstone from the slopes of Carmel Valley and lime manufactured from abalone shells. The finished church was dedicated in 1797, when the mission had a record number of Indian neophytes, 927. A decline followed, marked in part by the transfer of California mission headquarters to Santa Barbara after Lasuén's death. The number of neophytes was down to 381 in 1820 and 150 by 1834, when the Mexican Government secularized the mission. By 1846, when Governor Pico offered the church for sale, it was almost totally destroyed, and the other buildings were also in ruins. In 1852, the church roof collapsed, and the tiles were carried off to be used in other structures.

Carmel Mission
Modern view of Carmel Mission, built between 1793 and 1797. A feature of its ornate facade is the star-shaped Moorish window.

Present Appearance. In 1859, the United States, which had acquired the mission as part of the Gadsden Purchase (1853), returned it to the Catholic Church. A new roof was built over what remained of the 1797 church, and in 1884 the structure was rededicated as a church. Full restoration of the mission, which began in the 1920's, was at first pursued with more zeal than historical precision. Since 1933, however, the work has continued on the basis of more careful research and the use of native building materials.

The facade and portions of the stone walls of the church are original. The remainder of the structure and all the other buildings are reconstructions. The most distinctive design feature is the ornate facade, which has a slightly irregular and star-shaped window of Moorish design. The church is furnished with the ancient stone font, where the Indians were baptized, as well as original paintings and statues that were returned to the building as part of the reconstruction program. Before the altar are situated the graves of Fathers Serra, Crespi, and Lasuén. [5]

NHL Designation: 10/09/60

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005