88. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá:
California's First Spanish Mission
California Road Trip #7
By Miguel Pérez
We had to make a few stops before coming here. But finally, The Great Hispanic American History Tour has arrived at Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the 21 Spanish missions built in California between 1769 and 1823, and the one that gave birth to this beautiful city.
So if this was the first one, why didn’t our tour begin here? Good question!
First, we had to go to the mission’s original site on the hilltop Presidio Park, and the site of the fort that also stood there. We had to make a stop at the park’s Junípero Serra Museum and the Old Town San Diego which was born at the bottom of that hill.
We also had to establish that Spanish exploration of California had begun more than two centuries earlier, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo claimed the territory for Spain and so, before coming here, we had to visit the Cabrillo National Monument.
But I have always wanted to visit San Diego de Alcalá, considered “The Mother of all Missions.” And frankly, having to make all those necessary stops has only increased my anticipation of arriving here.
Since it was moved here in 1774, this mission has been rebuilt several times. So most of it is not as old as it looks! And yet when you are here, you feel like you have gone back in time, at least a couple of centuries!
The architecture is primitive and yet majestic, the old church inspires prayer, the beautiful garden stimulates meditation, the museum promotes essential Hispanic-American education. And so do the excavations and the "Ewaa" typical dwelling of the Kumeyaay natives of this region during the mission days.
Need I say more? You can't decide what you want to see first!
It's like walking into a history book! Here you learn that the mission grounds (22 acres) were occupied by the U.S. military in 1847 and deeded back to the Church by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. You learn that the current church was restored in 1931, following the specifications and appearance of the church in 1813.
But over the years, this mission has had at least four different churches and three different "conventos," or priests' living quarters.
Mind you, you need time to really appreciate this place. The longer you spend here, the more time you have to discover fascinating details about the mission's history.
For example, you learn that "the church is long and narrow because the width of the buildings was determined by the height of the trees available for beans."
You learn that, "original materials present in the (church) building include the wooden beams over the doorways, the adobe bricks in the baptistry arch, and the dark floor tiles made by the padres and Indians." The rest came during the mission's many revisions, after 1774.
You see a room that has been furnished to illustrate the simple lifestyle of the mission padres, even a room believed to have been used by California apostle Junípero Serra, the mission's founder.
"Ideally two priests were assigned to a mission; one priest would have been in charge of administration of the mission and the other priest would have been responsible for the education of the local Indian people," according to a sign posted here. "In reality, for many years, only one priest was assigned to Mission San Diego."
You learn that after establishing this mission at it's original site on Presidio Hill, Serra kept moving north to establish other missions.
You learn that it was Padre Luis Jayme who, having replaced Serra as administrator, relocated the mission to this site in 1774 and that only one year later, he was killed by Native Americans who attacked the mission.
"What perhaps began as a raid on the mission for clothing and goods quickly developed into an open attack that sought to destroy the mission," according to a mission poster which also explains that while saying, "Love God, my children," Father Jayme was beaten to death, and thus became California's first Christian martyr.
A Spanish blacksmith and a carpenter were also killed in what became the only attack by Native Americans on a California mission. And yet the mission was rebuilt by other priests and Native Americans, starting in 1776, "with the aid of Father Serra himself."
Here you learn that the mission Padres called the Indians "Diegueños," and that "the men learned agriculture, carpentry, and blacksmithing. The women learned cooking and weaving" from the Padres. You also learned that together, they build California's first aqueduct system.
The education you receive by visiting this mission has no bounds. If you take the time to absorb the exhibits, you walk out in owe of how much Hispanic-American history you have learned.
So now you know why I always wanted to come here!
To enlarge images, click on them!
To enlarge images, click on them!
At San Diego de Alcalá, you also learn that although the mission was moved here to be closer to water, the friars had to find a way to bring even more water to the mission, to maintain their crops and livestock. And so, between 1813 and 1816, Indian laborers and Franciscan missionaries built a dam and flume system that redirected the San Diego River water toward the mission.
It's still there. It goes by two names, either "Old Mission Dam" or "Padre Dam." It takes a bit of a hike into the wilderness, but it's the next stop for The Great Hispanic American History Tour. Are you ready? Stay tuned.