Monday, February 25, 2013

Mission San Diego de Alcala

Along the Mission Trail

What a thrill to finally visit the very first of the twenty-one California missions.  It is the mission that almost wasn't.  How different our state history would have been if that fateful day did not occur on March 19, 1770.  

Father Junipero Serra had arrived here, accompanied by Captain Gaspar de Portola in July of 1769.  They had been part of a land expedition to finally occupy Alta California on the orders of King Carlos III of Spain.    The king feared the Russians were encroaching into territory which belonged to Spain through "right of discovery" nearly two hundred years ago.  Getting here from Baja had been extremely difficult for both the land and ship expeditions.  Half of the men lost their lives.  So sick and weakened when they finally arrived here, no permanent buildings could be erected.  With little water and poor soil, food was running low.  Men continued to die from scurvy.  The tiny settlement was attacked by local Indians within a month.  Converting any of the natives seemed like an impossible task.  A decision was made to abandon San Diego and go back to Baja if a supply ship did not arrive by Saint Joseph's Day, March 19th.

History is full of interesting twists and turns.  Just before the sun set on that day, a ship was spotted sailing into the bay.  The San Antonio was heading for Monterey, completely oblivious of the mission's plight, but she had lost an anchor and was forced to land before continuing her journey.  Had St. Joseph answered the padre's prayers?  I doubt it, but nevertheless, the mission was saved.  Father Serra wrote in his journal that if San Diego were abandoned " . . .centuries might come and go before the country would again be revisited."  Would our streets, cities and parks have Russian names instead of Spanish ones?  Such alternative histories are interesting to ponder.
Mission San Diego de Alcala continued to suffer.  In 1775, the mission was attacked and burned to the ground by local Indians who resented Spain's presence on their land.  The pastor, Fr. Luis Jayme, was killed that day and is considered the first Christian martyr of the new California.  A decision was made to move the mission six miles east to a better water supply.  Even so, it remained the poorest of all the missions.  It did not achieve any success until twenty years later when several hundred Kumeyaay natives finally started to convert to the new religion and live on mission grounds.

When Mexico gained its independence in 1821, the mission was given to Santiago Arguella by Governor Pio Pico "for services rendered to the government."  The land was broken up into ranches.  In 1853, the U.S. military took control of the buildings but like many of the other missions, they were soon abandoned.  There was a brief period between 1891 and 1908 when the Sisters of Saint Joseph used the compound for an American Indian school.  The mission we see today was rebuilt in 1931 and is an active parish within the Diocese of San Diego.  In 1976 it was bestowed the honor of "Minor Basilica" by Pope Paul VI.
It's a lovely mission to visit.  There are mosaic tiles of the Stations of the Cross and beautiful statues and paintings throughout the site. There's a museum and an interesting re-creation of Fr. Serra's living quarters.

The mission bells were of particular interest.  They played a very important role in mission life, calling the newly baptized neophytes to Mass, work, meals and siestas.  The bells' unique rhythms signaled danger or death.  Or joy!  How easy it is to forget not all was doom and gloom.  Weddings, fiestas and feast days were all celebrated with a long, joyous ringing of the bells.

A baptism was taking place inside the church on the day we visited.  We were happily allowed to enter.  I can safely say that Mission San Diego de Alcala is no longer the poorest of the missions.  Clearly, it enriches the lives of many, many people.

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