Certainly one defining piece of California’s history is the missions. Mention California missions and many people immediately bring to mind an image of a large, stone church, a bell tower, and a peaceful setting. Think of famous ones like San Juan Capistrano or Santa Barbara. Yet, while many of the 21 missions throughout California did look somewhat similar at some time in history, individually they offer their special window to California’s past. All missions are California Historical Landmarks; many have also been designated as National Historic Landmarks.
Few states, or regions within states, have such a visual, physical timeline of history as the California missions. That all started when the Spanish government extended its empire in the New World, settling and protecting the whole territory north of Mexico City…the northern frontier. Missions were the quickest and most effective way to colonize and control this huge area, now called Alta California. After all, missions, to some extent, had been used successfully in Texas and Arizona.
Missions and padres were the ideal plan in the church’s mind, as well. What better way to convert the natives to Christianity? However, the padres knew that in order to continue to receive any support from Spain, they had to be productive. That meant to produce more food, cured cattle hides, tallow, wine, fabrics, and other desirable goods. And, for that the padres needed the natives to tend the fields, herd the cattle, construct buildings, and start a new town surrounding the mission.
Let’s start exploring San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo, or the Carmel Mission, as it is one designated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.
Father Junipero Serra and Don gasper DePortola led the first Spanish expedition to the area we now know as Carmel and Monterey. Second, of the missions Father Serra was involved with, this one started in 1770 when Father Serra hung a bell from an old oak tree in what is now the site of the Royal Presidio Chapel in Monterey. A year later, Father Serra moved the site of the mission closer to the Monterey Bay…better water, better land for growing crops, and less tension between the soldiers from the Presidio and the American Indians he was trying to convert.
Carmel Mission, named for an Italian Cardinal from the 16th century, Saint Charles Borremeo, now became Father Serra’s headquarters for expanding the California missions. Father Serra would go on to be directly involved in building seven other missions.
The Carmel Mission, like the rest, was originally built of wood and mud, then adobe. These mission buildings weren’t meant to last forever…only as long as the roof could keep the inside safe. In 1793 Father Serra’s successor supervised the construction of a more permanent structure, which also met with some vandalism and decay. Restoration began in 1884, with major work started in 1933. Most of that ongoing work is what we can visit today. Further work continued from 1936 to the 1950s as more buildings were restored, culminating in the designation of the mission as a Basilica, the highest honorary rank for a church.
Check out the thickness of the walls as you walk through the courtyard. Made of native yellow sandstone blocks from the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains and mortar from ground up abalone shells from the beaches, the church is 150 feet long, 29 feet wide, and 33 feet high. Manuel Ruiz, a master mason from Mexico City, incorporated Moorish elements in his design…complete with a Moorish window, or star window, over the entrance.
When you enter the church…look closely. The walls seem to taper inward to an arched ceiling. Actually, they start at five feet thick at the base and become wider as they go up, thus curving the walls inward into a parabolic arch. Just one more unique feature of Mission Carmel. Look up. The ceiling looks like stone when it reality the ceiling is restored with a lime plaster made from burnt seashells and painted to look like stone.
Both bell towers have held a variety of bells over the years, ranging from four to 11. The larger tower again has the Moorish influence in its dome. Why did the missions have bells? With nobody wearing watches…bells were used to call everyone to church service, to regulate daily life in the community, and to announce meals.
When you take the time to visit this piece of California history, walk through the reconstructed Carmel Mission, wander around the irregularly shaped quadrangle courtyard, quietly enter and marvel at the design of the sanctuary, and pay a visit to the cemetery where many graves use abalone shells as markers.
Visiting today you see buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries as well as more recent construction; all built in the California mission style. Due to foresight on the part of Father Villarasa in 1851, he removed statues, paintings, and other artifacts for safekeeping when the roof was in stages of collapse. For that reason, today many of the church’s interior furnishings are original. Be sure to check out Father Serra’s 400-year-old Bible.
If you go: The Carmel Mission is located at 3080 Rio Road, Carmel, CA. Admission to the museum and grounds is $6.50 for adults. Check the website for more information on hours and admission, www.carmelmission.org. You should know there is a private school, grades Kindergarten through eighth, in use on the grounds and you may not be able to visit the church if it is in use by the students. Check before you go.