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Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, California


I visited quite a few of California's Spanish missions on my California road trip last spring. I'm not compulsively religious, just curious, and I quickly became aware how much there was to be curious about, as I learned more and more about the purpose and history of the missions, their similarities and their differences.


One of the differences I noted over and over again was differences in how the past was acknowledged at each, and how the local exhibits and museums addressed the abuses of a system that proclaimed itself to benefit the local peoples while using their largely unpaid labor under harsh conditions.

P1130755Baptismal font in the mission church

But there were other surprises for me in the story of the missions from their founding, their flourishing, secularization and decay, and eventually, at least for some, restoration after the U.S. Civil War. Some aspects came clearest for me at the last mission I visited, and one of the last established, the Mission of San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside, just north of San Diego.


To begin with, the string of 21 missions along the California coast, came with a political and military purpose along with the religious aspects; when the first missions were started late in the 1700s, Russian traders based in Alaska were making their presence known in California, even establishing a few forts and trading posts. Until then, Spain had largely ignored the northern expanses of its American empire.

P1130782P1130779The San Luis Rey mission has perhaps the largest museum of any of the old missions, including displays of native people's craftwork

The missions were to be established by parties of priests and brothers, and each was accompanied by a small military party to provide protection; eventually small communities of Spanish civilians grew up around the missions: mission, presidio and pueblo depended on each other.

P1130789P1130818P1130844The museum also shows many of the religious objects associated with the Franciscan fathers who staffed the missions.

But all depended on developing the land, exploiting the forests, growing crops and becoming first self-sufficient and later supplying other areas. That meant bringing the indigenous people under control of the missions, converting them (willingly or not) to the church, and regulating their lives in many ways. At their peak, the missions included well over 20,000 native people, and controlled nearly a sixth of the land in California.

P1130817P1130791These ancient books were our first Where in the World clue this week; it helped George G identify the location. Professor Abe also got the correct solution. Congratulations to both!

The scale of the missions at their height is nearly incredible. Looking at the small whitewashed campuses we see today, it is hard to realize that they had among them over 150,000 head of cattle; nearly 140,000 sheep, almost 15,000 horses, and thousands of other animals including mules, goats and pigs.

P1130807 Production of meat, wool, leather and tallow was on a truly industrial scale.

P1130796P1130810P1130812Objects of everyday life at the mission are on display, including a Franciscan's cell, but not the living quarters or conditions of the native neophytes.

Bits and pieces of that history were familiar to me, but not the story of their end, an end largely determined by events far away. In 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, Spain was overrun by French troops, and funds to pay Spain's army and other officials in the Americas was cut off; even after Napoleon's fall the payroll was never fully restored.

P1130762P1130761P1130763The mission cemetery is not large, but it is still in active use, with a number of unusual monuments.

Military and civilian officials began unofficially taking chunks of mission lands for themselves. Spain's control of Mexico loosened, and in 1821, Mexico became independent, but at first paid little attention to Alta California; it waited several years before sending a governor, and in 1833, it took control of missions and mission lands, in part because the church had largely opposed the revolution.

P1130829P1130874Bells played a significant role in mission life, not only as signals for prayer times but to summon people to work and meals

The lands that had been taken unofficially became official grants, founding large ranchos. And the remaining native people either left the area or ended up working on the ranchos. Half the land was supposed to be set aside for them, but few were able to receive any, and most lost whatever stock or goods they had.

P1130885P1130891P1130833On a slope below the mission, the lavanderia, or laundry, provided a brick-surfaced area with water running from above; the water came through the gargoyle like figure's mouth. A model of it is in the museum.

And then came the Americans. First in relatively small numbers, settling here and there, and then, after the 1846 war with Mexico that made California a U.S. territory, in larger numbers, especially after the discovery of gold in the north. While Americans were taking land for themselves, largely ignoring the Spanish and Mexican grants, the Catholic Church asked for a return of its lands. What it got was a little over a thousand acres: basically the footprint of the missions themselves, with their gardens and cemeteries.

P1130839P1130865A group of friars from Spain who were part of the late 1800s rebuilding at the San Luis Rey mission. An 1890s image shows how badly it had decayed.

In the years since then, many of the missions have been restored, but only as churches, museums or monuments. At San Luis Rey, its present mission is as a parish church, museum and conference center. Without the land and without the labor the missions could never again play an economic role in the new California, except, as they are today, as the state's most-visited attractions for tourists.

P1130824P1130826The huge key to the church door, and two pleasant scenes. Below, the 'Disney Doors.' Now in the museum, they were mounted in a mission doorway in the 1950s when Disney shot parts of the Zorro television series at San Luis Rey.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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As a youngster I always enjoyed that Zorro TV show with Armando Joseph Catalano (January 14, 1924 – April 30, 1989), better known as Guy Williams.  Never knew it was filmed here until you uncovered the place and that he shared a job with me in working at a soda fountain in our teenage school days.

George G

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