July 04, 2013

Photo Essay: Faces at California's First Mission

The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala - more commonly-known as San Diego Mission - is remarkable not only as the first of 21 missions founded by Father Junipero Serra (and therefore the birthplace of Christianity in the Western U.S.)...

...but also for surviving at all.

It was actually originally built in 1769, much closer to the ocean, overlooking the bay, but five years later was moved six miles inland atop a hill in the middle of nowhere...

...much closer to the Native Americans the missionaries were trying to convert.

A year later, 800 local Native Americans rioted against the missionaries, stormed and pillaged the mission, burning it to the ground and massacring its pastor, Father Luis Jayme (who became California's first Christian martyr).

The mission was painstakingly rebuilt, and 1797 was reported as its most successful year in terms not only of baptisms and conversions, but also harvest.

When California was secularized in 1834, the Franciscans lost control over the mission, and when the U.S. gained control over the area from Mexico, companies of artillery and cavalry occupied it through the 1850s, making some repairs and additions.

For over 30 years, the mission stood abandoned and decaying on that hill, until the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet moved in to start a school for the local Native American children.

In the early 1900s, the school moved out, and the once-expansive structure was crumbling to the ground.

In the 1930s, a group of local preservationists took it upon themselves to rebuild the mission to the best of their ability, based on historic drawings, paintings, floor plans and early photographs, as well as some of the foundations that were still visible. Admittedly, the current mission isn't exactly what once stood there, and most of what stands on the current campus is newly-built (right beside and surrounding an active archaeological site where floor tiles and ephemera from its military days and other detritus are still being uncovered. But in those early days of preservation, they did their best to reconstruct a bell tower, for instance, as it would have been back in those days.

And it's amazing that anything is there at all today.

Because I considered most of what I saw at the San Diego Mission new, what I found most interesting were the faces of worship - the sculpted characters, frozen in time, frozen en scène - around the campus of this now-active, operating Catholic Church. I would have liked to have seen its incredible ruins 100 years ago...

For more historical photos, click here.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: The Faces of Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Photo Essay: Unwanted Christ in a Desert Park

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