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Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the great California missions, marks the origin of Christianity in the American west. Founded in 1769, this remarkable historical shrine provides an understanding of the roots of Catholicism in this part of the world, and a look at the extraordinary dedication of the Spanish priests who traveled far from their home country.
Nestled in the heart of fast-moving Mission Valley is a tropical garden, secluded and peaceful. Brilliant magenta bougainvillea stands in sharp contrast to white adobe, while spiky yucca evokes old Mexico. Birdsong mixes with the gentle tones of Gregorian chants, and time falls away.
The garden is a secret place within a sacred space, a courtyard in the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, California's first church.
For 12,000 years, the indigenous Kumeyaay people lived in an area that reached from present-day Oceanside to Ensenada, Mexico. The ships of the Spanish Empire arrived on their shores on September 28, 1542, bearing the conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. He named the bay San Miguel in honor of the saint's feast day. Sixty years would pass until another explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, arrived in 1602. He renamed the area San Diego after Saint Didacus of Alcalá.
It was not until 1768 that King Carlos III of Spain, troubled by reports of Russian fur traders encroaching on the territory, ordered an expedition to settle the area and ensure Spain's dominion. Two Franciscan friars, Father Junípero Serra and Father Francisco Palóu, were selected as missionaries and diplomats, while the appointed governor of Alta California, Gaspar de Portolà, led the military.
Three ships, the San Carlos, the San Antonio and the San Jose, departed Baja California in early 1769. Two groups left in the spring and traveled on foot, 270 miles up the coast from Velicatá, near El Rosario, Mexico.
It was an arduous trip. The San Jose was lost at sea, while the two land expeditions suffered breakdowns and casualties. A letter written by Father Serra, dated July 3, 1769, described what he saw when he reunited with the fleet: “The San Carlos is without sailors, for all have died of scurvy, save one and a cook." Slightly more than half of the expedition survived.
The early days in San Diego were consumed with finding fresh water and food, tending the sick and burying the dead. On July 16, 1769, Father Serra held the first service in a temporary shelter at the top of what is now Presidio Hill. It would be the first home of the Mission San Diego de Alcala, and it shared the land with a military fort.
In January 1774, Father Serra left San Diego to continue north. He would eventually establish nine of 21 missions throughout the state.
The Mission San Diego remained on Presidio Hill for only five years. It was hard to haul water up from the San Diego River, the soil was not fertile, and the soldiers' presence made it difficult to build trust with the Kumeyaay. The pastor in charge, Father Luis Jayme, moved the mission six miles to the east where it remains today, the namesake of Mission Valley.
Despite the Catholic Church's good intentions, colonization and conversion threatened the Kumeyaay way of life. On the night of November 4, 1775, according to Father Palóu's notes, hundreds of Indians raided the grounds, setting fire to the mission and killing Father Jayme. He became California's first Christian martyr and is buried in the sanctuary.
Father Serra returned to San Diego to lead the rebuilding. Fearing there would be another raid, the padres adopted strategies from the army, laying out a quadrangle surrounded by a high wall. Over the years, the compound expanded to accommodate a growing population.
Mission San Diego de Alcalá struggled in the beginning. By 1797, however, it appears the Spaniards and Kumeyaay were working together. According to historical documents, the church performed 565 baptisms and converted 1,405 people to Christianity that year. The mission occupied thousands of acres of land, harvesting corn, wheat, barley, chickpeas and grapes, thus laying the foundation for California’s agriculture. Livestock totaled roughly 20,000 sheep, 10,000 head of cattle and 1,205 horses. In light of San Diego's arid climate and canyon-studded terrain, this growth is astounding.
In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Wanting to sever ties with the Roman Catholic Church, the Mexican government secularized the missions and sold the land. More than 58,000 acres of Mission San Diego's holdings were given to Santiago Argüello, a soldier and landowner from a prominent local family. In today's terms, that would reach from Old Town San Diego to El Cajon.
After the U.S.-Mexico War and Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, San Diego became U.S. territory. Troops occupied the mission at various times between 1853 and 1859, altering the church and adding a second floor. It was then abandoned for decades. In 1892, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet moved into the compound where they operated a school for Native American children for the next 17 years.
In 1931, the mission was again rebuilt, this time to mirror the 1813 version. One of the bells is original, dating to 1802. It is larger than the others and has a crown on top to represent the king of Spain. The other large bell was recast in 1895 from remnants of original bells.
In 1976, Mission San Diego de Alcalá was named a basilica, an honor bestowed upon a church by the pope. Only three other California missions are basilicas: Mission San Francisco de Asís, also called the Mission Dolores; Mission San Carlos Borroméo, known as the Mission Carmel; and Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The mission serves as an active parish church and cultural center for people of all faiths. Tours are offered Monday through Friday, and Mass is held every day.
At the gift shop, pick up a free guide to the beautiful artworks inside the church, including paintings and statuary from the 15th century through today.
Near the southern edge of the compound are the remains of the 1806 convento, the area where the friars lived. An archaeological excavation began in 1966 and is ongoing, yielding clothing, pottery, weapons and tools that are more than 175 years old. Many of the artifacts are in the mission's museum, along with photos of Kumeyaay elders and examples of the tribe's craftsmanship.
Around the compound, interpretive displays give glimpses into early life. A popular stop is the Casa de los Padres which recreates living quarters. Nearby is an example of a typical Kumeyaay 'ewaa, or hut, and cooking oven.
An intimate chapel is located on the grounds but it is not part of the mission’s history. It was constructed to house a set of beautiful choir stalls that were donated to the mission in the 1970s, along with an altar table and throne. The choir stalls date back to the 1400s. Look closely and you’ll see that they are decorated with whimsical animals, stylized plants and heraldic symbols.
Before you leave, take a moment to linger in the meditation garden. Under the shade of the fan palms, reflect on the history of this place and the people it impacted.
In 2019, the mission celebrated its 250th anniversary.
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