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Fr. Serra’s Legacy, the Mission Communities Today

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September 14, 2015

Nearly 250 years after Fr. Junípero Serra planted the seeds of Christianity in Alta California, 19 of California’s 21 missions still serve as active Catholic communities and places of worship to serve the religious needs of thousands of Californians.

How they serve Californians varies, focused on the needs of contemporary communities.

Fr. Serra’s hope in founding the missions was to bring Christ to Native American peoples. Some still serve those populations.

Yet the service has gaps. The original missions were secularized in the 1830s. Some became local parishes. Many were sold off cheaply or abandoned for decades, even becoming stables. 

Archbishop Alemany initiated the slow process of returning the mission buildings to the Catholic Church in 1853. President Lincoln returned these lands to the church just one month before his assassination.

Today the missions serve contemporary, diverse communities; large and small; urban, suburban and rural.

The first founded is Mission San Diego. Its adobe church, now just above a busy freeway near new apartments and offices, is jammed with worshipers for weekend Masses.

Sixty miles north in southern Orange County, San Juan Capistrano was one of the most successful mission communities founded by Fr. Serra, and it built a beautiful cruciform stone church, which collapsed in a violent 1812 earthquake.

Faithfully rebuilt in recent times, the impressive church now serves an energetic congregation of more than 2,500 families, drawn together in their common Catholic belief from many heritages.

Special among them are the Acjachemen people whom Serra first served. Some of their descendants still worship at San Juan, contemporary citizens both faithful Catholics yet sensitive to—some pained--by the impacts of the early Europeans.

Capistrano is a key historical destination, enriched by exhibits and education programs that thoughtfully detail both its pre-European and missionary histories.

Between the two, San Luis Rey began later (1798). But it quickly grew due to increased military efforts. Its well-watered valley was favorable to agriculture and had the potential to  provide the food security for the many Native Americans that were brought there.

San Luis Rey today serves a large, vibrant Catholic community, ministered by the Franciscan fathers. Eight Masses are celebrated each weekend in the magnificent mission church, and youth, adult bible and other programs reflect the parishioners’ enthusiasm.

A different feel is found in San Antonio de Pala, a small mission church deep in the San Diego County Mountains. Started in1816 as a sub-mission of San Luis Rey, this mission remains a community church primarily serving its original Native American community, the Pala Band of Mission Indians.  

Further north in the Los Angeles basin, Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Fernando Rey have grown into comprehensive contemporary faith communities with schools, compassionate social services and strong religious education and worship.

Yet their adobe brick churches remain special places of deep worship for modern Californians, connecting people of faith to God as surely as they did 200 years ago for native peoples.

On the central coast, Santa Barbara is called the “queen of the missions” for its grand twin-tower façade. Facing the ocean reflects the mission’s original goal, to bring the gospel to the Chumash, the most ocean-oriented of the many California tribes. Today, Santa Barbara is a lively urban parish as well as a major visitor destination.

Proportionally the largest presence of Serra is found in the Diocese of Monterey where seven missions founded by the Franciscans and built by Native Americans remain in use as churches, including the cathedral itself.

Its parishes serve the wide range of the diocese’s people.

San Miguel was started to serve a large Salinan native community. Even a devastating earthquake in 2003 did not end the original church’s service to a small, rural farming community. San Miguel continues as a Franciscan-served community.

Forty miles north is the very remote San Antonio de Padua mission, in a rural area that feels much like the original open hills where the Franciscans sought to reach native peoples.

San Carlos Borromeo  is second mission Father Serra founded, in 1770. Serra made Carmel his headquarters, close to but not within the temporal seat of government in Monterey.

Today the beautiful Carmel basilica is the icon of the California missions, a graceful church in a lovely seaside community.

But when Serra lived, the Carmel chapel was a simple mud and wood shelter; the native peoples lived in ruks. Carmel’s basilica was not constructed until the 1800s; fell into ruins in mid-century—even its roof collapsed—then was gradually restored beginning in the 1880s.

At its northernmost, the Franciscan missionary effort reached San Francisco Bay, where five missions were founded.

First is San Francisco de Asis, also known as Mission Dolores. The oldest building in San Francisco, they located on a creek they named Dolores, or sorrow, in 1776.

Mission Dolores today serves an extremely diverse slice of San Francisco’s people, with a wide ethnicity in its congregation and an array of faith outreach, education, food and other social justice efforts. 

On the east side of San Francisco Bay, Mission San Jose began in 1797, mostly peopled with members of the Ohlone tribe, who had already been baptized across the Bay at Mission Santa Clara (which today is the heart of Santa Clara University).

In 1806, a measles outbreak killed a quarter of Mission San Jose’s residents. Over the next few decades, different native peoples from farther north and east of the mission were brought by the military, especially the Yokuts, Miwoks and Patwin.

Today, Mission San Jose is an energetic faith community of strong beliefs, diverse social outreach, and an eagerness to share its cultural origins, a pattern seen in most of the mission communities.

As Mission Dolores confidently declares its modern mission statement “We…pledge ourselves to be a light shining in the darkness through the love that we share in the name of Christ.” Those words could easily have been used by Fr. Junípero Serra.

They remain the guiding, spiritual force today energizing the 21 missions. It began nearly 250 years ago with a faith-driven Franciscan from Majorca, who was determined to bring the love of God to native people in Alta California. The seeds Father Serra planted continue to impact the lives of thousands of Californians, as they did in the late 1700s.