Friday, December 16, 2016

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

Along the Mission Trail

I understand now why Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, located in Oceanside, California, is known as "The King of the Missions."  It has a grandeur and an elegance, both inside and out, that the other missions lack.  That it is named after a king is perhaps another reason for its nickname.

The mission was named after King Louis IX of France who lived from 1214 to 1270.  He was known for his reforms, but also for his Christian zealousness.  He led the 7th and 8th Crusades to the Holy Land and expanded the Inquisition.  That he was canonized in 1297 for these events makes me shake my head with horror, but such is history.  It seems odd that a mission run by such a humble order of monks, the Franciscans, should honor such a man.

But then again, that is why following the mission trail has held such a fascination for me.  That the Spanish government should use the Franciscans to further their colonization of Alta California was an interesting strategy that, of course, eventually failed.

  However, The Powers that Be got lucky with this one.  It was one of the later missions to be founded in California; Number 18.  Founded in 1798 by Fr. Fermin Lasuen, the site was chosen to fill in the gap between San Diego and San Juan Capistrano.  The Luiseno Indians who were rounded up to provide the labor to build, harvest and maintain the mission were easily coerced into doing so and thus attributed to the mission's success.  It thrived for 31 years.
There are many interesting exhibits in the adjacent museum, but now that I am reaching the end of my mission journey, I recognize the bias in the church vs. state run operations.  Because Mission San Luis is an active Catholic parish and houses the Franciscan School of Theology, the exhibits praise the order and the founding fathers.  It seems that they did no wrong.  They were loved and respected by all.

It would be interesting to read the "Conversion de los San Luisenos de la Alta California", the only written account of mission life according to one of the natives.  Pablo Tac, a Luiseno Indian who was born at San Luis in 1822, actually accompanied Fr. Antonio Peyri back to Rome and was interviewed while there.  

I also found some of the sculptures in the museum to be quite appealing for their artistic merit in the "folk art" category.
In the church, too, the depictions of Christ were much more bloody and gruesome than usual.  They turned my travel buddy's stomach, but held a macabre fascination for me, a cradle Catholic.

. . . and the scourge of Christ followed us into the garden.

But, by far, what puts this museum on the map is the original document signed by President Abraham Lincoln, returning the mission to the Catholic Church on March 18, 1865.  The document was signed less than a month before he was assassinated.  It sent chills down my spine.

What also makes Mission San Luis Rey de Francia worth a stop on the mission trail is the fact that it was never neglected for any lengthy period of time like the others.  Once the missions were sold by the Mexican government during the period of secularization, many of them were abandoned and picked apart until completely destroyed.  This mission is like a cat with nine lives.  It just kept on living.

During the Mexican-American War, the mission housed military troops and repairs were made to the quarters.  Then in 1892, a group of Franciscans from Zacateras, Mexico, took refuge here.  With the help of an English-speaking priest from Ireland, reconstruction began in earnest and the church was re-dedicated in 1893.

Although the Franciscans returned to Mexico in 1903 and the mission was abandoned, thirty years later the Works Progress Administration (WPA) undertook to restore it yet again.

  Because of the care it was given over its 200 year old existence, it is one of the most beautiful of the California missions.  It is the only surviving mission laid out in the cruciform plan and its wooden cupola is unique.  During its heyday, the buildings covered six acres of land.  Its quadrangle design with its 32 Roman arches make it a beautiful site.  Then and now.

 The livestock count reached an unprecedented 20,000 with an additional 26,000 sheep.  Wheat, barley, corn and beans were planted to provide food for the 3,000 neophytes who lived there.  No wonder it was considered the most successful of all the missions.

Oh . . . .it even had a Hollywood role in the 1957 Walt Disney Zorro t.v. series

Today, 28 Franciscan friars live at the mission.  Not only that, but as many as 6,000 people come here yearly for private retreats.  The idea of a weekend devoted to solitude and personal soul searching is very appealing, and I love the fact that there is no formalized spiritual service.  The cemetery, too, is open to people of all faiths.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is definitely worth a stop along the mission trail.  It is historically significant and extremely beautiful.  The fact that it lives on as a spiritual center for so many people, adds to its appeal.  Even my travel buddy (who is getting a bit jaded) couldn't help but remark, "How did I not know about this place?"

And that says it all.

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