San Diego's Spanish heritage is nowhere more firmly rooted than in its dramatically beautiful missions. It was here the missionary monks, led by Father Junipero Serra, began their chain of 21 missions throughout California. Two missions and two assistencias can be found in the county.
Often called the "King of the Missions," Mission San Luis Rey is the largest of all 21 California missions. Located on Highway 76, four miles north of Interstate 5 in the seaside community of Oceanside, the mission is the second in geographical location heading north among coastline sites. Established by Father Fermin de Lasuen in 1798, the mission was the eighteenth founded and was named after King Luis IX of France. The mission now serves as a Parish church and retreat center.
Until the mid-1800's, the Mission's church was the largest structure in California. Soon after its founding in 1798, Mission San Luis Rey housed and served the largest population of Native Americans (more than 2,000). The Mission was the only one in California to have a wooden cupola and dome of its type and design, made from pine trees brought down from Palomar Mountain. Mission San Luis Rey features a museum that houses the largest collection of 18th and 19th century Spanish vestments in the United States and is open to the public Mondays thru Fridays from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM and Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM for self-guided tours. Like Mission San Diego de Alcala and the two assistencias, San Luis Rey is still used as a house of worship.
In 1769, Gaspar de Portola and his expedition founded the Presidio of San Diego (military post), and Franciscan friars then raised and blessed a cross, establishing the first mission in what was known then as Upper California. Mission San Diego de Alcala, the first of all the Franciscan establishments in California, was founded on Presidio Hill on July 16, 1769, by Father Serra. Colonists began arriving and soon after the native people rebelled. They killed the priest and two others, and burned the mission. Father Serra organized the rebuilding and two years later a fire-proof adobe structure was built. In 1774, the mission was relocated to its present site six miles inland, along the San Diego River, to assure a good water supply. However, an Indian uprising and massacre in 1775 forced a temporary retreat to the Presidio. By 1797 the mission had become the largest in California. You can visit the mission today, which is known as Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, and overlooks San Diego's historic Old Town. The mission, which was restored in 1931, is open to the public from 9:00 AM to 4:45 PM daily and features a museum, gift shop, archaeological ruins and beautiful gardens. Services are held daily in the original mission chapel.
The Father Luis Jayme Museum at the mission is the only permanent interfaith, ecclesiastical art museum in Southern California. The museum features some of the original mission records in Father Serra's handwriting, as well as many early liturgical robes, books and other relics.
Presidio Hill, the original site of the mission, is sometimes referred to as the "Plymouth Rock of the West Coast." It is now the location of the Junipero Serra Museum, which stands prominently atop the hill overlooking historic Old Town State Park and Mission Valley. The Junipero Serra Museum contains thousands of artifacts unearthed from this historic site.
Twenty miles northeast, on Highway 76 near Mt. Palomar, is the Assistencia de San Antonio de Pala, better known as the Pala Mission, built in 1816 as a branch of Mission San Luis Rey. This is the only California mission still used as a school and place of worship by the Indians. The Pala Mission museum, containing Indian artifacts, is open 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM daily except Mondays and some Tuesdays.
Southeast of Pala, on Highway 79 near Julian, is Santa Ysabel, an assistencia of Mission San Diego de Alcala. It is open to the public during summer (Memorial Day thru Labor Day) from 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM and from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM the rest of the year each day. Both the San Antonio de Pala and Santa Ysabel assistencias are now under the care of the Verona Fathers, a religious order.
If you're planning a day-trip outside of San Diego County, visit Mission San Juan Capistrano, located just a short drive up the coast in Orange County. Father Serra founded this mission in 1776. Known as the "Jewel of the Missions," the mission celebrates the return of the cliff swallows each March 19 (St. Joseph's Day) and hosts year-round fine art exhibitions, performing arts concerts and cultural programs for children.