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The California Missions - North

Sonoma to San Juan Bautista

This list illustrates the seven northern missions in the chain of twenty-one. Other lists cover the central and southern parts of California.

The California Missions were established by Franciscan fathers when California was an extremely remote colony of Spain. The immediate impetus for this project was concern about potential colonial competitors on their northern frontier. Russia had a base at Fort Ross on the northern California coast, the British fur traders were established at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, and Americans were moving west.

This missionary effort was begun by the Jesuit order in what is now Baja California, but turned over to the Dominicans when the Jesuits fell from political favor in Spain. Then the Franciscans were selected to extend the effort to the north, into what is now California. Father Junipero Serra, a man of great energy and dedication, was appointed to lead the program. He established the first California mission at San Diego in 1769.

Father Serra, Father Lasuen, and several other Franciscan monks continued the work and eventually established a chain of 21 missions stretching from the Mexican border to just north of San Francisco Bay. Similar mission-based colonizing efforts had earlier begun the settlement of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as Baja California and across the northern deserts of Mexico.

The missions were not just bases for conversion of the native population to Christianity, though that was the fathers' primary motivation. They were outposts of European civilization and initiated one of the greatest landscape transformations of modern times. From a rich but lightly populated eden for native Americans and pastoral Californios, the state has grown to the size and wealth of a major country.

Most of the missions gave their names to secular settlements nearby, many of which have grown into major cities - San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego. The mule track grandly named El Camino Real, the Royal Highway, connected them together and gradually grew into today's Highway 101. The simple grace of the Romanesque architecture, with its rounded arches and red tile roofs, has become a characteristic part of the California scene.

San Francisco Solano - 1823

Sonoma Mission was the last to be established and is the northernmost of the chain. Nothing of the original mission survives except the soldiers' barracks, and a chapel added later by General Vallejo. Another old adobe building displays original watercolor paintings of the missions by Chris Jorgensen.

The small complex of mission buildings occupies a block diagonal to the town plaza. The Sonoma Plaza area contains a number of other historic buildings, and was the site of the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt.

Official site: Mission San Francisco Solano

Wikipedia article: Mission San Francisco Solano

 thumbnail - Fountain at Sonoma Mission

A fountain recreates something of the ambiance of a mission courtyard at Sonoma Mission.

Sonoma State Historic Park, Sonoma, California

November 9, 2011
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Sonoma Mission
General Vallejo's Home

San Rafael Arcangel - 1817

The mission at San Rafael was never very large or important, and almost completely disappeared after secularization of the missions. The small chapel was rebuilt in the 20th century. Like many of the old missions that ended up in urban centers, the diminutive chapel is now flanked by a large modern church in mission revival style, and a Catholic school.

Official site: Mission San Rafael Arcangel

Wikipedia article: Mission San Rafael Arcangel

 thumbnail - Mission San Rafael

The small recreated chapel of Mission San Rafael, dwarfed by the archdiocesan church of Saint Raphael.

San Rafael, California

November 7, 2011
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San Rafael

San Francisco de Asis - 1776

Known as Mission Dolores, this was the original settlement in what is now the city of San Francisco. The adobe chapel is the oldest building in the city, and one of the most beloved. It was founded by Father Francisco Palou, along with Lieutenant Joaquin Moraga, part of the de Anza expedition.

Despite its adobe brick construction the building survived the 1906 earthquake, and was carefully restored by architect Willis Polk in 1917. A small cemetery garden remains behind high stone walls, but the mission grounds and other buildings have been replaced by a school and modern church facilities.

The towering basilica of San Francisco looms immediately next to the squat mission chapel. Originally built of brick it collapsed in the great quake, and was rebuilt in 1918. It is lavishly detailed in the churrigueresque style made popular by the San Diego Panama Pacific Exposition.

Official site: Mission Dolores

Wikipedia article: Mission San Francisco de Asis

 thumbnail - Mission Dolores

The original Mission Dolores, dwarfed by the Basilica next door.

San Francisco, California

July 16, 2010
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Mission Dolores

San Jose - 1797

Mission San Jose, is both a district within the city of Fremont, and the historic Franciscan mission. It is built almost directly on the San Andreas Fault, and was badly damaged by the great earthquake of 1868. A wooden church with a steeple was built on the footprint of the ruined adobe.

In 1973 plans were made to restore the mission to its original appearance. The wooden gothic building was transported across the bay to San Mateo and became an Anglican church. A new adobe church was built in 1985 with a strict conformity to its supposed appearance in approximately 1809, though under the adobe there is a seismically safe steel framework. Some of the church furnishings and all four of the original bells have been recovered.

Official site: Mission San Jose

Wikipedia article: Mission San Jose (California)

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December 31, 1969
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Mission San Jose

Santa Clara - 1777

All that remains of the mission at Santa Clara is a single adobe wall and fragments of a wooden cross. These have been carefully preserved at the mission's original location, now the campus of the University of Santa Clara. In 1925 the impressive but much-modified church burned down and in 1929 was replaced with the present structure, which serves as the university chapel.

Official site: Mission Santa Clara de Asis

Wikipedia article: Mission Santa Clara de Asis

Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz - 1791

Santa Cruz Mission has had a particularly troubled history. The original site was prone to flooding so the mission moved up the hill. In 1793 it burned down. In 1812 the resident padre was killed by Indians. There were long-running conflicts with the nearby settlement of Branciforte. In 1857 the great Fort Tejon eathquake ruined the church yet again. The large gothic-style Holy Cross Church was built nearby and the adobe left in ruins.

In 1931 private funds were raised to build a one-half size replica of the original church, which is administered as a chapel by Holy Cross. The only mission building remaining is a long low adobe dormitory on a side street, the Neary-Rodriguez Adobe, which serves as a state park museum.

Official site: Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park

Wikipedia article: Mission Santa Cruz

 thumbnail - Museum at Santa Cruz Mission State Park

Originally a dormitory for Indian neophytes, the long narrow Neary-Rodriguez Adobe is now a museum

Santa Cruz Mission State Historical Park, California

February 1, 2013
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Santa Cruz Mission
Santa Cruz Wharf

San Juan Bautista -1797

The mission of Saint John the Baptist was founded in one of the most naturally rich areas of California. The mission prospered, and so did the adjacent town. Today Mission San Juan Bautista stands in a state historical park alongside secular buildings of the Mexican and early American periods. It is the best example in California of the Roman town plan brought to the Americas by the Spanish colonizers, with a rectilinear street grid and a main plaza flanked by church and state institutions.

The mission church is the largest in the state, and the only one to have three aisles. A wooden steeple was added in the nineteetnth century, but collapsed. When Alfred Hitchcock made the movie Vertigo here in 1958 he added a tower with models, special effects, and a studio set.

The steep slope along the east side of the plaza and the mission cemetery is actually the scarp of the San Andreas Fault. Though damaged many times, the church has never completely fallen into ruin. Restoration is ongoing, with the authentic replica campanario (bell wall) added in 2010. The gardens and picnic areas within the compound are among the best in the chain of missions.

Official site: Old Mission San Juan Bautista

Wikipedia article: Mission San Juan Bautista

 thumbnail - Colonnade at Mission San Juan Bautista

Mission colonnade facing the plaza

Mission San Juan Bautista, California

June 1, 2010
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Mission San Juan Bautista
San Juan Bautista
Fremont Peak State Park

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Calif Missions - Central