Tag Archives: Mission Monday

Alamo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Remember the Alamo

It’s been awhile since I ran my Mission Mondays series, but I figured it was high time to add an honorary member to the list. Because after all, America’s collection of Spanish missions are not limited to California. And there’s probably no mission more famous than the Alamo.

Alamo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I visited the Alamo last winter, on my first visit to San Antonio. After all those sunny days visiting California missions just a couple of weeks earlier, it was a surprise to find it cold and rainy deep in the heart o’ Texas.

Alamo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Still, while the weather didn’t exactly provide a desert-southwest feel to the surroundings, it ended up creating a contemplative setting that somehow seemed more fitting for the Shrine of the Lone Star State.

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Mission San Francisco Solano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission: Accomplished

This is the twenty-first and final installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

Here we are, at long last! The very last California mission, in all its (understated) glory.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The northernmost mission in the Alta California system was also the very last one founded—fitting, since the while the missions in the middle are a jumble of out-of-sequence dates, the southernmost was also the first.

Mission San Francisco Solano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Francisco Solano is located at the center of the town of Sonoma, California’s famous wine-country gem. In fact, the first vineyard in Sonoma Valley was planted by the mission priests, for producing their own sacramental wine. And every October there is still a “blessing of the grapes” ceremony on site.

Mission San Francisco Solano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

In 1835 the mission was deconsecrated, and Commander Mariano Vallejo turned much of the site into a military garrison to defend the interests of the newly-independent country of Mexico (Alta California was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain until 1821, and wasn’t ceded to the U.S. until the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo). In the intervening years, the property was abandoned, fell into serious disrepair, and over time was gradually restored.

Mission San Francisco Solano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Today the mission is just one historic property among many in Sonoma, kitty-corner to the town plaza and surrounded by tidy streets and upscale shops. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like before the valley was populated with modern residents and tourists—but it’s not hard to find the spirit of the place, and fall into a contemplative silence.

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That’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual road trip with me. Now that we’ve visited all 21 missions, maybe it’s worth looking back at how far we’ve come. Here’s that map again:

California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And a list of all the posts for each site:

MIssion San Diego de Alcalá
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Gabriel Arcángel
Mission San Fernando Rey de España
Mission San Buenaventura
Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Inés
Mission La Purísima Concepción
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission San Miguel Arcángel
Mission San Antonio de Padua
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo
Mission San Juan Bautista
Mission de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz
Mission Santa Clara de Asís
Mission San José
Mission San Francisco de Asís
Mission San Rafael Arcángel
Mission San Francisco Solano

Because I love travel stats, here are a few:

Miles traveled: Well, not counting the 1200 miles between San Diego and my house, nor any of the non-mission-related side trips I took along the way, I drove approximately 925 miles just between the 21 missions (I know my map says 600 miles, but modern highway routes and some required back-and-forth affected the actual driving distance).

Time period in which missions were founded: Between 1769 (San Diego) and 1823 (San Francisco Solano).

Number of missions where all or most of the structure is a 20th-century replica: 7 (All but one of those are in the northern half of the chain.)

Number of missions that still have consecrated churches or chapels on site: 18 (La Purísima, Santa Cruz and San Francisco Solano do not.)

Number of times I didn’t see a mission from the inside: 5 (Two were closed when I got there, one was in the middle of mass, one had a wedding going on, and another was hosting a quinceañera.)

Most touristy: San Juan Capistrano had the gift shop and theme-town thing down, but I saw the greatest number of actual tourists at Santa Barbara. There were gobs and gobs of them.

Least touristy: San Antonio de Padua, where I was the only one there—though La Soledad was a close second, most likely because it’s literally in a farm field and nearly unmarked.

Most underrated: This one’s hard, because almost all of them are underrated in some way. But I’m going to go with San Miguel, because it’s such a stunning place, and the adjacent freeway just sends people flying right on by.

Best architecture: Tie between San Juan Capistrano and Mission Carmel, but with a special shout-out to the Moorish design of San Gabriel—and to the folks at Mission San Jose for being sticklers in choosing a period-authentic replica over a glitzy showpiece.

Overall favorite mission: La Purísima. Hands down. But the runner-up remains San Juan Bautista, which was my first love.

Final thoughts:

The thing that most struck me is the contrast between the missions—not only the various architectural styles, but the varying states of repair and disrepair. I would love to see an integrated system like the National Parks System has, encouraging tourists to visit all 21 missions and share a common pool of resources, staff and funding for upkeep and repairs.

Whatever system there may or may not be in future, it doesn’t change the fact that all of the missions are worth visiting and preserving. I’d do the whole trip again in a heartbeat—and I hope I get the chance to do just that, someday.

Mission San Rafael Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Pretty in pink

This is the twentieth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

This is yet another replica mission—making it compare less favorably to places like San Francisco or San Juan Capistrano, and one of the least visited in the chain. In fact, when I later had dinner with a local and told him what I’d done that day, he said, “Yeah, but it’s been totally rebuilt, so it hardly counts.” Well, fair enough. Still, I’m a completist, so here we are.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Rafael Arcángel completes the trio of missions named for the three arcangels (Gabriel, Michael and Raphael). Originally it was built as an asistencia or sub-mission (there are still several sub-missions still standing, but I didn’t visit any of them—it was hard enough to get to the 21 main missions!), but it was “upgraded” to full mission status in 1822.

Mission San Rafael Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The pink tower of St. Raphael’s Church is the most eye-catching feature of the complex, but what’s more interesting to me is that the mission served as (what would become) Marin County’s first hospital. Taking advantage of the superior air quality to that of San Francisco, San Rafael was organized as a sanitarium for the local Indigenous tribes.

Mission San Rafael Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Sadly, there’s really no trace of the original mission left today—which makes the old wall at Santa Cruz seem like precious treasure. The current buildings are twentieth-century replicas, and not even the layout of the original complex has been preserved. So I can see where my local acquaintance was coming from, I guess. Still, I can’t write the place off entirely—whatever form it takes, it’s a link to California’s past.

Mission San Rafael Arcángel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

As far as I’m concerned, it still counts.

Mission San Francisco de Asís sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Pillar of the community

This is the nineteenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

Mission San Francisco de Asís (or Mission Dolores, if you prefer the nickname) is the centerpiece and namesake of San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. Yet the mission itself, tucked away on a residential block, behind towering palms and ficus trees, seems to get lost amid all the trendy restaurants and busy hipsters flooding the rest of the neighborhood. It’s even overshadowed by the tall spires of the basilica next door—many people don’t even know that the squat adobe building is the actual mission, not the towering cathedral.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

As an aside, I did this one out of order… as I happened to be in the Bay Area at the beginning of my trip, rather than the end, I did the last three missions first, in reverse order.

Mission San Francisco de Asís sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This is one mission I knew well—at least from the outside. Every time I’m in San Francisco, I end up with errands to run, or people to see, or at least a route that takes me through this neighborhood. So Mission Dolores has gone from familiar landmark to old friend. The interior was a mystery to me, though, and it took all of three seconds to know I’d found a hidden gem. I stepped one foot inside—

Mission San Francisco de Asís sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—and that ceiling just took my breath away.

Mission San Francisco de Asís sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The mission chapel is no longer a consecrated church, but it still deserves plenty of reverence. After all, Mission Dolores is the oldest intact building in San Francisco—which, considering the devastation of the 1906 earthquake (not to mention all those other destroyed missions), is really saying something.

Mission San Francisco de Asís sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So if you find yourself in San Francisco, on your way to Tartine (come on, I know I’m not the only one), stop here first. I promise it’ll be worth the detour—and I can’t think of a better place to pay homage to the City by the Bay.

Mission San Jose sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Suburban pilgrimage

This is the eighteenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

This place might be a little confusing if you let yourself get tripped up by the name. Mission San José is not actually in San Jose—Santa Clara is the mission upon which the city of San Jose is founded. Mission San José is further north, on the east side of the Bay and in the modern-day suburb of Fremont. It’s perched on the edge of the Contra Costa hills, surrounded by a Gold Rush-era enclave that’s itself surrounded by contemporary ‘burbs. Clear as mud, right?

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Jose isn’t the northernmost in the chain, but because of its location on the east side of the Bay, it was actually the very last one I visited. In fact, its location rather defies the “rule” of placing the missions a day’s horseback ride apart from one another—unless you put your horse on a boat to cross the bay to San Francisco, I suppose.

Mission San Jose sketches by Chandler O'Leary

Once again, what’s there now is a totally a rebuilt mission—but the place is a pleasant surprise. Of all the replicas, this one is possibly the most faithful to the original style of architecture.

Mission San Jose sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Even the interior of the church is authentic in every detail. I loved the wooden, unadorned ceiling.

Mission San Jose sketch by Chandler O'Leary

They even managed to preserve some old wall remnants and original foundations, creating a nice mix of old and new. The overall result has some of the character of a place like San Juan Capistrano, and the tidiness of the restored missions like San Luis Obispo.

So while the northern missions might not all have the style and substance of the ones in the south, there’s still plenty that’s worth discovering. And this one, in particular, is well worth making a pilgimage to the ‘burbs.

Mission Santa Clara sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Campus mission

This is the seventeenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

Like its neighbor in Santa Cruz, Mission Santa Clara de Asís is one of those missions that’s been almost totally reconstructed. When I got around to Santa Clara, I was nearly at the end of my journey along El Camino Real, and by then the tale of yet another rebuilt mission felt like rote litany: earthquake, flood, fire. Earthquake, flood, fire. Yet unlike Santa Cruz or Soledad, which are mere placeholders today, Santa Clara has been remade into something greater than it was before.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission Santa Clara began as one of the earlier missions in the chain (eighth founded), and was the beginning of what is now the sprawling city of San Jose. After a series of typical California disasters over the years (everybody sing along: earthquake, flood, fire), the mission is now on its sixth—yes, sixth—completely rebuilt church. But what’s more interesting is that for the last 150 years or so, the mission has been the centerpiece of Santa Clara University, a Jesuit college that also happens to be the oldest continually operating institution of higher learning in California.

Mission Santa Clara sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The campus is technically private, but anyone can visit the mission by first checking in at the front gate. The nice security guard gave me a visitor badge so I could wander around the grounds, and I ended up spending the whole morning there. The church looked like it had just had a new coat of paint—all the better to appreciate the façade. It’s a curious thing, built in 1926-28 to resemble the Victorian rebuild/approximation of the 1825 iteration of the church (clear as mud, right?)—all with that distinctive 18th-century Spanish roofline. The result is an anachronistic mish-mash of styles, but for all that it still manages to be a gorgeous building.

Mission Santa Clara sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The complex still has a few original remnants, though—like the original adobe brick mission wall…

Mission Santa Clara sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…or the 1822 residence quarters, now called the Adobe Lodge. The Lodge was closed when I was there, so I couldn’t tour the interior, but just the hand-hewn door had enough details to keep me busy for half an hour.

Mission Santa Clara sketch by Chandler O'Leary

There were other original details to be found, too—as well as newer replica features. And I loved that it wasn’t always easy to tell which was which.

Mission Santa Clara sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I walked a little further afield to see more of the university campus, and was happy to find that the whole place worked as a harmonious whole. The old mission walls, the rebuilt church, the 20th- and even 21st-century campus buildings all melded together seamlessly. It was the kind of careful consideration that makes my heart happy—and that so seldom seems to happen in America.

Mission Santa Clara sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I happened to be there on Ash Wednesday this year—mass had just let out when I got there (which was why I was able to get into the church at all that day), so I expected to see a lot of people around the grounds. Yet I hardly saw anyone else at all, which only added to the peaceful, contemplative feel to the place.

Mission Santa Clara sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Best of all was turning the corner to the back garden, and finding a massive saucer magnolia in full bloom. Not to be outdone, even the back of the church looked its very best. Every inch of roof beam, every tile, every windowpane, every plane of plaster—everything was pristine. It felt good to know that however many earthquakes, floods or fires may lie ahead (heaven forbid), this place will continue to be well cared for. I can only hope the rest of the missions might be so well loved in future.

Mission Santa Cruz sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Model mission

This is the sixteenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

After the splendor of Carmel and San Juan Bautista, I have to admit that Mission Santa Cruz (or La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz if you want to use its full name) felt like a bit of a letdown. If you didn’t know the story (and I didn’t until I got there), it’d be easy to just breeze into town, see a tidy little church in a neighborhood square, shrug and move on.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The original mission was the twelfth founded along El Camino Real, and never one of the large ones. It was first built in 1791 on the flood plain of the San Lorenzo river, but within months it was destroyed by flood waters. Not eager to repeat all of that, the padres rebuilt the mission on the hill overlooking the original site, but that too was destroyed in an 1857 earthquake.

Mission Santa Cruz sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So all that’s left of the original mission on the hill is one long quadrangle wall; and in the sketch above you can see the steeple of the Victorian-era Holy Cross Church they built on the rest of the original site.

Mission Santa Cruz sketch by Chandler O'Leary

What stands in for the mission now is a 1930s replica—but what’s odd is that it’s a scale replica. I suppose with the addition of the Victorian church across the square, there wouldn’t have been room (or in the 30s, I suspect, the funds) to build a full-scale copy of Mission Santa Cruz. It’s easy to give the replica structure a miss, but I think the fact that it’s built to half scale makes it something of a curiosity. What’s also curious is that the new structure exists thanks to a sole benefactress, one Gladys Sullivan Doyle. She single-handedly funded the construction, on the condition that she be buried on site upon her death.

So strolling through the back garden of the replica mission felt like being on a film set—or inside a human-scale puzzle. It felt odd to try to piece together the story of the place, and finding both real historical remnants and false clues presented like red herrings.

Of course, in the end my stupid brain had the last word, and dashed any further serious inquiry by replaying that Monty Python line in my head: “It’s only a model.”

Mission San Juan Bautista sketch by Chandler O'Leary

If these walls could talk

This is the fifteenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

San Juan Bautista was the first mission I ever visited, more than two years ago now. It’s the one that inspired me to see all 21 of them, and even though I now have plenty to compare it to, it’s still one of my very favorites.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

San Juan Bautista is one of the more famous missions, thanks to its role as a film location for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And judging by the changes it’s undergone, and the hidden details it holds, it might have the most stories to share. But it’s certainly not the oldest mission by any stretch—in fact, it was the fifteenth founded in Alta California, built well after Blessed Saint (as of this year) Junipero Serra’s death.

Mission San Juan Bautista sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The last time I visited here, it was far too early in the morning for the buildings to be open. So this time, I was eager to get inside the place. I could go on about how lovely the interior was, though with the exception of the triple-wide nave, it wasn’t so different than any of the other mission churches. The part that really slayed me, though, were the tiny animal paw prints in the tile floor! I almost missed them entirely—I dropped my pen, and when I bent to pick it up, I saw one. Apparently the tiles had been outside curing in the sun when some small dog or other had run across them. Rather than throwing out the “ruined” tiles, they just used them anyway. Such an enchanting little detail.

Mission San Juan Bautista sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The other real treat was seeing the interior courtyard garden. The plants and layout were similar to any other mission, but I loved that all the doors and windows were painted turquoise. It felt like stepping through a California doorway and emerging into a hidden pocket of Santa Fe.

Over the course of two visits, I’ve racked up a sizeable pile of sketches of San Juan Bautista. Yet somehow, it still doesn’t feel like I’m finished exploring. I have a feeling I’ll be back, and that you haven’t seen the last of this place here.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission Control

This is the fourteenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

I had some technical difficulties with the site this week, so Mission Monday couldn’t happen on Monday—but everything’s back up and running now, and anyway, isn’t better when Monday turns out to be Friday anyway? So let’s get back to it!

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel Mission for short) is the exact opposite of its nearest neighbor, La Soledad. It’s in the center of town, rather than way out in the country. The structure is mostly original, instead of a rebuilt replica. The complex is ornate and unusual, in contrast to the simple, almost stereotypical style of La Soledad. And while La Soledad is nearly forgotten all the way out there in the valley, Carmel is bustling with tourists and well-to-do townsfolk—there’s no danger of this beloved mission falling into disrepair.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

In fact, the buildings are in fine fettle. This is one of the missions I’ve visited before, and when I was here two years ago, the façade was covered in scaffolding and tarps. So while the weather was brighter that first day, I’m glad I got to see it again without any distracting construction equipment around.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Carmel Mission has an interesting history, and a special place among its 20 siblings. It was the favorite of Blessed Junípero Serra, the priest who founded the first nine of the Alta California missions. He made Carmel the headquarters and seat of power of the entire chain, and directed operations for all the missions from this site until his death in 1784 (he’s even buried beneath the chapel floor). And in recent years Carmel has been made a basilica, giving it special status (and therefore protection) among the Catholic Church’s properties.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Like most of the missions, Carmel has seen many modifications over the years, and spent time in serious disrepair—but great pains have been taken to restore it to its original glory. As a result, it’s considered the most architecturally authentic of the missions. Later additions like steep rooflines and Victorian details have been removed, so what you see now is as close to the original as possible.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I love how Carmel perfectly marries different architectural styles into one lovely whole. There are the more “traditional” mission elements like tile rooftops and adobe colonnades—

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—and then there’s the stone cathedral, with the more unusual Moorish influence (like that of Mission San Gabriel) of its ovoid dome and that spectacular star window.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

But what I love best is the interior. The ceiling of the nave is arched, but not in the way a Gothic (pointed arch) or Romanesque (semicircular arch) nave would be. The shape here is a specific type called a catenary—the precise curve formed by a chain held with both ends up and its length hanging between them. Catenary arches aren’t found as commonly as other types (though since they perfectly balance the opposing forces of tension and compression, maybe they should be), but if you’ve ever seen the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, you’ve seen a catenary before.

(If you haven’t guessed, I’m a sucker for simple, mathematical perfection found in very old and unlikely places.)

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The rest of the interior is a rabbit warren of brightly painted side chapels, living quarters and historical dioramas (warning: if dolls creep you out, you might want to skip this bit).

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And when you wander back outside, you can breathe in the sea air and the fragrance of citrus and bougainvillea.

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Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Lonely outpost

This is the thirteenth installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

The “Soledad” in Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad means “solitude.” And boy howdy, is that ever accurate.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The third of three missions located in the Salinas Valley, La Soledad is also the most remote. It’s not as far off of modern Highway 101 as Mission San Antonio, but it’s the farthest from civilization.

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad sketch by Chandler O'Leary

In fact, even though there’s almost nothing left of the original complex (thanks to the caprice of the Salinas River)…

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…you really get a sense for how self-sufficient the missions had to be when they were founded.

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad sketch by Chandler O'Leary

That’s because the mission is located smack in the middle of a bunch of vegetable fields. Quite literally. There’s no fanfare about the place—there’s barely even any waymarking to find it. It’s a bit of a shock, actually, after seeing mission after mission in town centers or near tourist traps.

But that’s the best part of the place: being able to stand in the shade and look out at a landscape right out of a Steinbeck novel.