Missions tell the story of California's birth


September 29, 1991|By Anne Z. Cooke and Steve Haggerty

Californians take their Spanish colonial heritage for granted, and with good reason. In a culture flying headlong toward the future, the bells in the white stuccoed towers of the great mission churches -- San Gabriel Arcangel, Santa Ines, and San Fernando Rey de Espana, to name a few -- toll for another time and place.

But for Easterners exploring the "other coast," a visit to one or more of the nine missions in and around Los Angeles tells the quintessential story of California's birth.

Two missions are in metropolitan Los Angeles, but if time permits, plan an outing along the scenic Pacific coast to others both north and south.

As travelers are surprised to learn, the missions were built by Franciscan padres between 1769 and 1804, a time when other momentous events -- the Revolutionary War -- were unfolding on the Atlantic Seaboard.

In the 1750s, when California was a far-flung corner of the Spanish empire, news of Russian settlers in the north began to be heard. Alarmed, the Spanish viceroy in Mexico ordered Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra, head of the Baja missions, to found a chain of missions north of San Diego, each a day's horseback ride apart.

For Spain, the mission system, run by Franciscan priests, was a tool to colonize wilderness regions. The Indians were not only souls to be saved, but a vital source of labor. Coaxed to join religious services, they were slowly converted and finally put to work making adobe bricks, plowing fields, tending cattle, tanning leather and weaving cloth.

To gain control, the padres separated husbands and wives and raised the children communally. Rebels who ran away were recaptured by soldiers and flogged or imprisoned.

The missions prospered, becoming vast ranchos. As in Spanish towns, the churches, monastery, living quarters, workshops, schools and cemetery were sequestered behind thick walls.

Made of sun-baked adobe blocks, the walls were cool in the summer and warm in winter. Load-bearing walls were 4 to 5 feet thick to support both the roof and their own weight. A stucco outer layer and tile roof protected the adobe from rain.

But mission life eventually destroyed Indian society, killing thousands by disease and trauma. The 1769 population of 130,000 dwindled to 83,000 by 1834. Ironically, the newly independent Mexican government disbanded the missions that year, breaking up the huge holdings.

A century later, renewed interest in California's early history focused attention on saving what remained of the old adobes. Restoration groups began to replant gardens, rebuild chapels, clean fountains, retile roofs and convert former workshops and dormitories into museums and gift shops.

The missions may have been a day's horseback ride long ago, but today by car, they are only an hour from each other on the road Father Serra pioneered -- El Camino Real, or the King's Highway -- now known as Interstate 5 going south and the Ventura Freeway and Highway 101 going north.

You can tour several in a day; a suggested geographical grouping follows. All are open daily except during Sunday morning services. Expect a small entrance fee.

Metropolitan Los Angeles

* San Gabriel Arcangel in San Gabriel was founded in 1771. Built where three trails crossed, it became an important wayside inn and the largest and busiest mission. Vast fields supported cattle, vineyards and grain. Experts say that the church's capped buttresses and narrow windows resemble the cathedral in Cordova, Spain.

The walled garden, cemetery, church, work shops, well and soap vats give a sense of mission life. The museum has numerous relics and Indian paintings. A 1987 earthquake damaged the old church, which is closed for restoration. Open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 537 W. Mission Drive, San Gabriel.

* San Fernando Rey de Espana was founded in 1797 to close the gap between San Gabriel and San Buenaventura. Completely restored, it looks new. The workshops display authentic period tools in their original setting.

After the 1812 earthquake destroyed the original church and a second one crumbled, the current church was erected. But the big convent is original, with beamed ceilings, iron grills and handmade tiles. The museum and library with Western and Californian titles are open to visitors. Nearby Brand Park has a garden, tables, grills, running water and grassy lawns. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills.

* San Buenaventura in Ventura was founded in 1782 near several populous Chumash Indian villages. The tiny church -- a fine example of early mission architecture -- a courtyard garden and fountain still remain. The Indian cemetery is now a black-topped parking lot and school; former farmlands and grape vines have been divided into city lots.

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