December 02, 2021

Photo Essay: The First California Mission Named After a Female Saint (And the Only One on a University Campus)

At some point, I'll get to visit all of the California missions. But for now, I'm slowly ticking them off my list as the opportunities present themselves. 

My August trip to San Jose brought me to Mission Santa Clara de Asis—the eighth out of the 21 total, but the first mission to honor a woman. 

Saint Clare of Assisi, its patron saint, was one of the first followers of Saint Francis of Assisi in Middle Ages-era Italy—and she was the first woman write a set of monastic guidelines (for the Order of Poor Ladies, a monastic order she founded for women, now known as the Order of Saint Clare).
She's the patron saint of good weather, among other things. Perhaps that's what helped the mission survive the floods and earthquakes that imperiled the area—and forced the missionaries to relocate it multiple times before settling here.

Mission Santa Clara was the second-to-last mission to be founded by Junipéro Serra, right before Mission San Buenaventura, in 1777. It started out as La Misión Santa Clara de Thamien at a different location, right in the crosshairs of the floodwaters along the Guadalupe River.

Today, what's left of the mission is on the campus of Santa Clara University, which was established by the Jesuits as Santa Clara College in 1851. Oddly, its patron saint is St. Joseph. 

The school maintains the adobe lodge from 1822...
...and its crumbling walls, which are all that's left from the 1928 fire that destroyed the rest of the mission.

The lodge once housed apartments and workshops... 

...and its veranda, with its long tile-roofed corridor, once faced the mission patio. 

A line of olive trees planted in 1822 marks where the old south wall of the adobe apartments was. 

The current Mission Church, which dates back to 1929, now serves as Santa Clara University's student chapel—though it's also available for Roman Catholic weddings and funerals for those affiliated with SCU. It's a modern interpretation of the original 1825 chapel (the mission's fifth such church), which also burned in that 1926 fire. 

Outside its front entrance is a modern cross monument whose base contains remnants of the first cross erected by Fray Tomas de la Peña at the entrance to the first mission back in 1777. 
The church abuts the beautiful Mission Rose Garden—which is also adjacent to the historic cemetery for the mission (active 1820-1846, now closed to the public with no active interments). (Scroll to the bottom for my coverage of the current Mission Cemetery.)

Like Mission San Buenaventura, Mission Santa Clara was never abandoned—not even after the Mexican government ejected the Franciscan friars who remained loyal to Spain in 1836 (as part of the Mexican Secularization Act of 1833).

Mission Santa Clara is the only California mission located on a university campus. 

And Santa Clara University is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of California.

On one side of the mission's quadrangle (which is fitting for a college campus "quad") is Nobili Hall—a student residential hall named after Jesuit priest Father John Nobili, who founded Santa Clara College in 1851.

Today, the campus is filled with students. But tens of thousands of livestock animals once roamed these grounds—including thousands of cattle and sheep, as well as horses, mules, and pigs.

The old mission water well is covered by the "Sacred Heart" statue of Jesus, which contains two inscriptions from the 11th chapter of the gospel of Matthew: "Venite Ad Me" ("Come to Me") and "Discite A Me" ("Learn from Me"). Seems fitting for a Jesuit university. 

About a mile southwest of the present-day mission site is the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, founded in 1851 when the Jesuits who took over the mission site realized the old mission cemetery (the one by the rose garden) was full. 

Its mausoleum dates back to the 1930s.

Noteworthy burials include early pioneers of the region, California's first elected governor Peter Burnett (in the period between Mexican rule and U.S. statehood), and legendary bandit Tiburcio Vásquez

The Jesuits of Santa Clara University still own and run it. They bury an average of 800 dead a year. 

And they continue to build new structures and expand the cemetery's footprint. 

After all, if you're going to beckon the living to join you...'ve got to serve them after they're dead (and make room for them wherever you can).

Stay tuned for more dispatches from Santa Clara, California.

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