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The California Missions of San Diego

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 within the county.

San Diego's Spanish Heritage

Mission San Luis Rey

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. It’s open to the public Mondays through 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.

Mission San Diego de Alcala

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 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. You can visit the mission today, which overlooks San Diego's historic Old Town. Restored in 1931, the mission, 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.

Pala Mission

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 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM daily except Mondays and some Tuesdays.

San Antonio de Pala and Santa Ysabel Assistencias

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 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.

Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County

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 ain 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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