History In Brief
Founded: 1 September 1772 by Saint Junípero Serra
Named for: Saint Luis, Bishop of Toulouse
Number in Series: 5th
Indian Name: Tishlini
December 1769: On the return leg of their expedition to find Monterey, the Portolá expedition was in need of food. At a marshy valley they encountered an area of much torn-up soil. They quickly learned this was due to grizzly bears in the region digging for young tule roots. When a bear appeared the men, with great difficulty, managed to kill it. During the feast that followed they named the place La Cañada de los Osos (Valley of the Bears).
1772: Missions Carmel and San Antonio were near starvation. A hunting party was sent to the Valley of the Bears. They brought back a reported 9,000 pounds of salted and jerked bear meat plus seeds from the friendly Salinan Indians encountered in the valley. The Indians have a thanksgiving song to the bears. You can hear it as performed by tribal members at a concert at the San Luis Obispo Mission on 13 February 2004. (Bear Song – WMA file, 70.3Kb, 25 seconds – If the sound doesn’t play directly, right click the link and save to your local disk to play from the file.)
While the hunters were away Saint Serra learned about two ships in San Diego and was determined to convince the captains to sail to Monterey with supplies. To that end he decided to travel to San Diego in person and planned to establish the fifth mission near the Valley of the Bears along the way.
1 September 1772: Saint Serra’s expedition arrived at the Valley of the Bears. He selected a low hill near a stream as the Mission site and said the first Mass there. Wanting to get to San Diego and the ships with supplies his party left the next day. Padre José Cavaller, five soldiers, and two Indian neophytes were left to start building the Mission.
Original Mission buildings were the typical adobe with thatched roofs. Curious local Indians came to the Mission site. They were generally friendly and shared food with the missionary party. Neophytes were baptized and the mission colony grew.
11 November 1774: The first white child baptized in Alta California was baptized at the San Luis Obispo Mission on this day of his birth. The honor goes to Juan José Garcia.
1775: Around this time work began on the Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia.
November 1776: Not all local Indians were friendly to the missions. To the south, some of the Indians were determined to drive the missionaries out of the area. On this night some of these Indians fired upon the Mission buildings with flaming arrows and set the padre’s quarters afire. Everything except the granary and church was burned. Two leaders of the raid were caught and sent to Monterey. This did not stop the attacks however.
1782: The King of Spain levied an assessment against the California missions. San Luis Obispo’s fair share was $107 which was paid. This assessment can be seen as the start of the end as it showed that Spain was already in financial trouble.
1790: The missionaries, still under periodic attack from flaming arrows and remembering the tiled roofs of Spain, started to experiment with making roofing tiles to protect the structures against the arrows. The first tiles were made from clay worked by animal hoofs in a pit. Squares of the clay the right thickness were pressed over curved wooden forms, trimmed, dried in the sun, and then baked in a kiln. These first tiles were about 22 inches long with the width tapering from 12 to 20 inches. They were the first made in California.
The tiles did the job against the flaming arrows and, more importantly perhaps, served much better to protect the adobe walls against crumbling due to the weather. Very quickly, all of the California missions adopted the tiles as part of their construction. Indeed, throughout California today you still see such tiles of this design on many roofs.
Church construction using the new tiles was begun.
1792: Construction of the belfry began. It was completed in 1793 along with the church itself.
1794: The padre’s quarters (present-day museum) were finished.
1798: Padre Luis Antonio Martínez arrived at the Mission. He stayed for 34 years and was the primary architect of the Mission prosperity. It was noted for its wines, olive oil, fruits, and vegetables.
Padre Martínez did not always get along with the civil authorities. He was apparently not a very “political” person who, instead, told things like he saw them. The novel Ramona even has a story about Padre Martínez which says that one day an important Mexican General and his bride were visiting. To entertain them, Padre Martínez arranged a parade of all the poultry at the Mission–enough to last an hour.
1819: The entire Mission quadrangle was completed.
1820: Four mission bells made in Lima, Peru arrived (they were cast in 1818). The bells were commissioned by Padre Martinez and cast by Manuel Vargas, a noted bell-maker of the time. The largest bell, the Angelus (or Gloria in some accounts) weighed 1,800 pounds and is the present center bell at the Mission. Two small bells in the original shipment cracked in transit and were recast into a single bell in San Francisco. This bell was named Sorrow while the remaining smaller original bell was named Joy. Side note: The job of a mission bell ringer was a serious job. Indians given the job were often trained for up to two years. The bells, much like the bugle in the military, were used as a communication mechanism. Bell patterns, some complicated, woke people in the morning, called them to Mass, announced the afternoon siesta, etc. A whole vocabulary of patterns. The most famous bell-ringer was Gregorio Silverio who was taught to ring the bells at age 13 by Florentino Naja, the Mission’s first Indian bell-ringer who, himself, was taught by the padres when just 11 years old (Naja stopped ringing the bells at age 92!). Silverio kept the job until he died in 1954. The task was taken up by Judge Paul Jackson until the mid-1970s and he was followed by Johnny Noggle who rang the bells until his death in 2000. The present bell-ringer is Greg Dillman and he has trainees.
1830: Padre Martínez finally stepped on one too many toes and was arrested and deported. But, even then he had the last laugh on the civil authorities. Predicting the results of secularization he allowed the Mission properties to fall into some disrepair toward the end of his tenure. This would reduce their plunder value.
1834: Mexico’s Secularization Laws were ratified in 1834. Mission San Luis Obispo was secularized in 1835. As anticipated by Padre Martínez the Indians did not profit; the politicians and cronies did; but, not by much…
1845: The Indians had driven off all livestock and the Mission buildings had deteriorated such that when finally sold the property once valued at $70,000 was purchased for the sum of $510.
1846: The church became involved in a “skirmish” during the Mexican-American War. Frémont was given information that the Mission was occupied by a band of Mexican insurrectionionists and surrounded it. The insurrectionionists turned out to be a group of women and children.
1846: In a second action regarding the church, Frémont is said to have used it as the location for a treason trial. While the accused was convicted, his conviction was later reversed.
1859: The Mission ruins were returned to the Catholic Church.
1868: The second of two earthquakes damaged the belfry and vestibule. Some structure alterations were made to relieve stress.
1880: The front part of the church was removed and the church largely rebuilt into the form of a New England church. A steeple was added and the face of the church boarded over with white siding.
1893: A chapel on the right of the church Nave was added. It’s built of concrete and brick.
1920: A fire destroys the roof of the church. A new tile-covered roof replaced the original.
1921: Pastor, Fr. P.M. O’Flynn instructed the parish bellringer, Gregorio Silverio, to either ring the Angelus bell pattern three times a day (6-Noon-6) or not to ring the pattern at all. Mr. Silverio could not meet that schedule and so stopped ringing the Angelus pattern. As far as is documented, the next time the Angelus pattern (nine rings in groups of three) was rung at the Mission was in 2004.
1933: Father John Harnett took over administration of the church. It was during his administration (1933-1939) that the majority of the renovation that returned the Mission to a form closer to its original took place.
1934: Restoration of the Mission began. The siding was removed and steeple taken down. The original narthex was constructed of unreinforced red bricks with a skim coat of cement. A large air space was left to give the appearance of a thick adobe to make the whole look original. The wooden floor was retained. [Revised 4/30/16 to reflect a first-person report given to me.]
1949: Another restoration took place under the guidance of Msgr. Patrick Daly and Sir Harry Downie. It was at this time that, among other things, the wooden floor was replaced with the concrete floor that you see today.
Because the city of San Luis Obispo has grown up around the Mission only a square block of the original structure is still available.
- California Missions by Sunset Editors. (September 1979) Sunset Pub Co
- Weber, Msgr. Francis J. Encyclopedia of California’s Catholic Heritage. St. Francis Historical Society and The Arthur H. Clark Company. 2000.
- Mission Info Page previously at http://www.californiamissions.com/cahistory/sanluis.html
- Mission Info Page previously at http://www.bgmm.com/missions/sanluiso.htm
- Mission Info Page at http://www.tsoft.net/~cmi/Obispo.rpt.html
- Mission Web site previously at http://www.thegrid.net/slomission/Main.html
- Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record San Luis Obispo Mission Data Sheet at the Library of Congress
- Displays at the Mission and museum at the Mission.
- Hamilton, Tracy Idell. “For whom the bells toll.” New Times, Vol 16 #8, 4-11 Oct 2001, pp 10,12.