by Wendy VanHatten
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, attractive, stone church, a bell tower, and a peaceful setting. While that may be true for many of them now, each of the 21 missions throughout California didn’t start out that way.
Let’s start by exploring San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo, or the Carmel Mission.
First, a little history. 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 seven missions Father Serra was instrumental in building, this one officially 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, became Father Serra’s headquarters for expanding the California missions.
Like most, Carmel Mission was originally built of wood and mud; then adobe. These mission buildings weren’t meant to last forever, and they didn’t. Weather, decay, and vandalism took their toll on many of them and the Carmel Mission was no different. In 1793 Father Serra’s successor constructed a more permanent structure, but in time it also met with the same issues. Today, the Carmel Mission and its buildings are a result of restoration that began in 1884 and continued through the 1950s. In 1960 Pope John XXIII designated the mission as a Basilica, the highest honorary rank for a church.
Now, take a tour and check out the thickness of the Mission walls as you walk around the irregular shaped quadrangle courtyard. Native yellow sandstone blocks quarried from the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains and mortar of ground up abalone shells from the beaches were used during restoration.
Take time to enter the Mission sanctuary. At 150 feet long, 29 feet wide, and 33 feet high, you first get a sense the walls taper inward to an arched ceiling above. 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 appears to be stone, when in reality it is restored with a lime plaster made from burnt seashells and painted to look like stone. 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. Due to foresight on the part of Father Villarasa in 1851, he removed statues, paintings, and other artifacts for safe keeping 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.
Both bell towers have held a variety of bells over the years, ranging from four to 11. Can you pick out the Moorish influence in its dome? Speaking of bells, 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. If you’re fortunate, you will hear the Ave Maria Purisima, the largest original bell.
Complete your visit by walking through the cemetery, where Native Americans and padres share common ground. Find the grave of Old Gabriel, who supposedly lived to the age of 150. The small museum building next to it offers a brief film of the history and artifacts from the original Mission.
When it’s time to leave, look back at the Mission courtyard. If you squint, you can almost see padres praying with the native population as the bells ring overhead. You have just experienced a part of California’s history at the beginning…
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.
All missions are California Historical Landmarks; many have also been designated as National Historic Landmarks.