Those who were born and raised in California may remember learning about the state’s many historic missions in grade school, often starting with the one located closest to their hometown or city. Learning about the missions, as well as the novels of John Steinbeck and the great natural wonders the state has to offer, are only a few of the many educational pursuits that contribute to the formation of one’s identity as a Californian.
For those who may not have spent their formative years as a resident of California, the state’s historic Spanish missions may come as a pleasant surprise. Not only do these locations offer a living snapshot of California’s storied past, but they are beautiful places to visit and a perfect excuse to take a day trip with friends or family.
This Cityseeker feature series titled “Along the King’s Highway” will focus on each of the California missions and provide background on their history and their relationship to the cities and towns in which they were established. Beginning with California’s first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, this series will cover each of the 21 Spanish missions established along the state’s historic El Camino Real in the order in which they were founded. In addition to being educational, we hope that the information you learn about California’s historic missions will prompt you to get out this weekend and take a tour of the one closest to you.
For nearly 350 years the Mission San Diego de Alcalá has stood as the earliest reminder of California’s Spanish colonial history. Founded in the summer of 1769, the mission was the first to be built by Father Junipero Serra and his fellow Franciscan missionaries. The founding of the mission marked the successful beginning of an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolà, known as the Portolà Expedition, with the primary goal of securing Spain’s claim to the Pacific Coast territory by establishing a strong military and religious foothold in regions throughout.
The Mission San Diego was named after Saint Didacus of Alcalá (known in Spanish as San Diego de Alcalá) who was a 15th Century Franciscan Monk known for his work as a missionary in the Canary Islands, then a newly-conquered territory of Spain. He was later canonized in 1588 by Pope Sextus V. Due to being the city’s namesake, Saint Didacus was fittingly selected by the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego as its patron saint.
The mission is perhaps one of the simpler looking missions in California. The building’s main facade is comprised of whitewashed adobe (a type of organic brick and plaster made from mud) and is situated next to a four story bell tower (campanario in Spanish) that was used to announce meal times, special occasions, and daily mission services. The tower houses five bells and all five are rung only once a year on the Sunday closest to July 16, the date of the mission’s founding.
The mission church interior looks very much the same as it did several centuries ago despite being rebuilt five times over the course of its history. The interior is mostly sparse with the exception of an ornate altar situated at the front of the church. The length of the church is a hallmark of most Spanish mission churches, and so are the high windows, which were placed in such a way so as to protect those inside from attacks on the mission.
Outside the mission church is a lush courtyard garden that residents could use for peaceful contemplation. The garden features a variety of plants, memorials, as well as statues of important figures to the Franciscan Order, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who founded the order in the 13th Century. The statue of St. Francis also acts as a wishing well for making the dreams of visitors to the mission come true.
Once you wrap up your visit to the mission, it’s highly recommended that you take a short 15 minute drive west on the Mission Valley Freeway to the Junipero Serra Museum at the top of San Diego’s Presidio Hill. Where the museum now stands used to be the original site of the Mission San Diego de Alcalá. In addition to being able to view artifacts unearthed from the original mission and presidio, visitors can enjoy gorgeous views of the City of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.
In our next installment in this feature series we’ll take a long trip north on El Camino Real to visit the second mission established by Father Serra in Carmel-by-the-Sea. If you’re a fan of Carmel and its environs, this next part of the series shouldn’t be missed!