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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 still be found within the county.
Between 1769 and 1823, the Spanish built 21 missions in a chain that stretched from San Diego to north of the San Francisco Bay in an attempt to colonize "Alta California" (present day California, Nevada and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico). The missions were approximately 30 miles apart, which was considered a one-day’s journey on horseback. The road connecting the missions was known as the El Camino Real, which means "The Royal Highway." Father Junipero Serra established nine missions before his death and burial at Mission San Carlos.
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 east 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-1800s, 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. It’s open to the public Monday through Friday from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM and Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM for self-guided tours. Last self-guided tour begins at 4:30 PM. Like Mission San Diego de Alcala and the two assistencias, Mission 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 21 Franciscan establishments in California, was founded on Presidio Hill on July 16, 1769, by Father Junipero 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 ensure 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. Restored in 1931, the mission is open to the public from 9:00 AM to 4:30 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 an interfaith, ecclesiastical art museum, featuring 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, the Assistencia de San Antonio de Pala, better known as the Pala Mission, was 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 contains fascinating Indian artifacts and is open Wednesday and Friday 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, Thursday 12:00 to 4:00 PM, Saturday 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Sunday 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM, and closed Monday and Tuesday.
Southeast of Pala, on Highway 79 near Julian, Santa Ysabel is an assistencia of Mission San Diego de Alcala. It is open to the public daily 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. 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, Mission San Juan Capistrano is located just a short drive up the coast in Orange County. Founded by Father Serra in 1776 and known as the "Jewel of the Missions," the historic spot 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.
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