The Missions of California represent the real birthplace of the Golden State.
California has recognized this for many years and studying the history of the missions is part of the 4th grade curriculum. Many of us "older" Californians can still remember doing the research (long before the internet) and constructing a model mission out of sugar cubes.
There are 21 missions throughout the state and 8 of them are found here in Central California. Of the eight here, three were founded by Fr. Junipero Serra.
Of these eight Central California missions, six of them are still functioning as active parishes, their original intention.
There are still many things being found out about the missions and that era. Archaeological studies continue to turn up the remnants of that period as well as foundations of buildings and elaborate irrigation works.
It has recently been shown that some of the mission churches were aligned in a precise manner that results in solar illuminations on particular feast days.
You can barely go through any city in this state and not find at least one building whose architecture has been influenced by the Spanish missions.
In those same cities, you will find Spanish street names which reflect the mission history. Sometimes it is a mock Spanish which doesn't translate well, but sounds good nonetheless.
Lesser known than the missions, there are a number of historic adobe houses in Central California, most of which are open for visits. Some, like the Rios-Caledonia adobe in San Miguel, are very close to the missions which prompted their building.
There is the road which links all the missions together, the El Camino Real or The Royal Road. Here in Central California Highway 101 basically follows the El Camino Real.
Finally, along the El Camino Real are the mission bells which are found every few miles on the highway and in front of the missions which were served by that route.
If you will be traveling through Southern California on your trip, you might want to visit some of the missions there. I can recommend a good site with information about visiting Mission San Buenaventura which is located in the town of Ventura south of Santa Barbara. (Link opens in a new window).
First, the missions are a place apart from the bustle of the modern world. They are places to relax and refresh yourself.
They are places of beauty. Beauty, along with goodness and truth, draws something special out of us and renews us in exchange.
The history of the missions and their appeal is really something more than just a cold list of facts. There is a special feeling of standing in a place which has endured for several centuries, amid changes of all sorts. If we cock our ear just so we can hear echoes of those who first set down the marks in the raw soil so long ago:
"Here is where we lay the line. Here is where the wall will rise. Here is a place that will last long beyond our small lives. This will be a place for all who come after to care for and enjoy. They will be buildings that do more than just shelter, but which will protect and nourish. These adobe blocks contain more than just the soil, water and some straw, but all the hopes of those who made them and set them into place."
The California missions are also extremely photogenic. Be sure to bring charged-up batteries and extra memory.
Here is a gentle reminder that most of the missions are active churches. A respectful quiet inside the church is welcome. And flash photography is banned as it speeds up the aging process, which is already fast enough.
You may be visiting at the same time as a wedding or other ceremony. Please respect the participants by waiting to enter or entering quietly and sitting in a pew in the rear of the church. It is also customary for men to remove their hats upon entering a church out of respect.
Finally, misconceptions about the mission era prevail, especially in some supposedly enlightened circles.
These misconceptions have surfaced again (Jan. 2015) with the decision to canonize (declare a saint) Father Junipero Serra sometime in the fall of this year.
Since the padres, soldiers, settlers and the natives were all real people and fallible humans, undoubtedly there was crime, cruelty and injustices.
Was this systemic and wide-spread? Probably not. But as in all human interactions the truth is as complex as we are.
In an interview with Leslie Dunton-Downer of the California Mission Ride, Dr. Ruben Mendoza had a bit to say about this subject.
Dr. Mendoza is Director of the Institute for Archaeological Science, Technology, and Visualization at California State University, Monterey Bay. He is an influential scholar, a much-loved professor, and a tireless explorer of past eras whose work has earned him numerous awards, honors, and major grants. Dr. Mendoza’s expertise ranges far in time and space, with notable research conducted in California, the Southwest, and throughout Mesoamerica.
California Mission Ride: Professional and amateur historians alike note that there are lots of mission myths that pass for facts. If you could correct once and for all a mission “fiction” that people keep repeating as if it were true, which one would it be?
Dr. Mendoza: Perhaps one of the most persistent, egregious, and politicized of those misconceptions that plague our understandings of the Mission Era are those that continue to characterize the missions as plantations defined by the enslavement of native peoples. One need only carefully examine those Mission Era documents penned by the friars and other settlers to obtain a richer and more nuanced view of how it was that Native Californians adapted to the changing conditions of the time. These same accounts similarly reveal just how it was that mission neophytes and their so-called gentile counterparts were self-governed and active agents in their own destinies. One such account consists of a handbook on how to found and manage a mission; and it is there that it is made clear that the neophytes had the right to select their own alcaldes or magistrates with the judicial and administrative authority to preside over the rights of their fellow neophytes. It is the myth, otherwise identified with that brand of Christophobic nihilism that serves to minimize or denigrate the contributions of Native Californians and missionaries in the California mission, that I would most like to address and challenge with the public.