Mission Carmel History

In Brief

Founded: 3 June 1770 by Saint Junípero Serra
Named for: Saint Charles Borromeo
Number in Series: 2nd
Indian Name: Eslenes (or maybe Esselen)
Brand: Carmel Mission Brand

Detail

1602: Sebastian Vizcaino sailed as far north as Oregon on a voyage of discovery, looking for ports to service Spanish ships returning from the Philippine Islands. In the process he rediscovered and named San Diego, San Clemente, Catalina, Santa Barbara, Point Concepcion, Carmel, and Monterey (among others). [Side note: We’ll find out later that Vizcaino was also a colorful writer whose descriptions greatly enhanced the areas he visited. Also, Cabrillo had made a similar journey 60 years earlier but Vizcaino’s was better documented so his names stuck.]

14 July 1769: The Portola expedition that founded the mission at San Diego continued northward looking for the Monterey described by Vizcaino. The object was to found a second mission in the north and then, over time, fill the space between Monterey and San Diego with additional missions. Padre Juan Crespi, the diarist wrote they could not find “the port of Monterey so celebrated and so praised in their time by men of character, skillful, intelligent, and practical navigators who came expressly to explore these coasts by order of the king.” That they could not find Monterey demonstrates Vizcaino’s exaggerations. [Side note: They actually did get to Monterey and left a cross on a hill but did not recognize where they were!] The group continued on to San Francisco where, running low on supplies, they abandoned the quest and returned to San Diego in January 1770.

May 1770: Resupplied, Portola (with Padre Crespi) mounted a second expedition by land. Saint Serra traveled north on a supply ship with the goal of meeting the land expedition at Monterey. When they met they now realized they had been to Monterey the previous year and they found the cross they had left. It’s reported that the cross had been adorned with native goods.

3 June 1770: Saint Serra formally founded a Mission dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo. The site of this Mission was in Monterey, approximately five miles from the present site in Carmel. [Side note: The original site is now La Cappilla Reál (the Royal Presidio Chapel of San Carlos Borroméo).]

July 1771: Saint Serra started temporary buildings at the present site of the Mission in Carmel. He found that the Monterey site had far too much interference with missionary work because Monterey was the effective capital of the territory and activities at the Presidio were disruptive. [Side note: A polite way of saying soldiers were becoming involved with Indian women.]

December 1771: The Carmel Mission was formally moved to is permanent location in the Carmel Valley. Saint Serra used this location as his headquarters and from here he ran the entire California Mission System until his death in 1784 (though he travelled quite a bit during this period).

1775: Construction started on the first adobe chapel. (I find no reference to a completion date for the adobe chapel.)

1782: Padre Juan Crespi, famed for his diary of the Portola expeditions, dies. He is buried in the sanctuary of the adobe chapel.

28 August 1784: Saint Serra dies. At the news a General’s salute was fired from a bark in Monterey Bay. This was echoed by the Presidio guns and Mission bells. People streamed to the Mission’s adobe church to pay their respects. Saint Serra was buried in the sanctuary of the church, near the altar and next to his friend, Padre Crespi.

Some time before his death Saint Serra ordered stones cut for construction of a more permanent church. His instructions to Padre Palou, a long-time friend, before his death are reported to be: “When the stone church is built you may place me where you will.”

1784: Padre Palou takes over the job of President-General until…

1785: Padre Fermín Francisco de Lasuén takes over as President-General for an 18-year period. He continues to headquarter at Carmel.

1786: French navigator La Pérouse visited the Mission. His report along with a report from English captain George Vancouver (visits in 1792 and 1793) were complimentary and their drawings are some of the earliest sketches of mission life. Vancouver’s reports are documented in a three-volume book (A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, in the Years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, and 1795) published in London in 1798.

1791: The master mason Manuel Ruiz was tasked to design and build both a new church at the Mission and La Cappilla Reál at the Monterey Presidio.

1793: Construction started on the stone church (this was when the cornerstone was laid). A unique design was used for the church; the walls taper inward so the ceiling is formed as a catenary arch instead of the more usual flat design. The entire design showed a distinct Moorish design influence, down to the destinctive window over the main door. [Side note: Basically, the new church was built over the adobe chapel so Saint Serra’s gravesite was undisturbed.]

1797: The stone church was dedicated.

1803: Padre Fermín Francisco de Lasuén dies and is buried beside Saint Serra in the church sanctuary.

1815: Over time the Mission grew. In this year the quadrangle was closed.

1818: French pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard arrived in Hawaii. Bouchard had been sailing against Spain in the Philippines.

October 1818: Bouchard set sail from Hawaii to California. He stopped in Monterey in November. His men landed and, as the Governor and his defense force had moved inland toward Salinas, he had free hand to burn the town and Presidio. Many supplies were also destroyed. The Mission was evacuated as well, but no damage was seen when the pirates left and the padres moved back in. [Side note: The Governor’s move was understandable as he had 25 soldiers to Bouchard’s 400 pirates. Also, there are further details of Bouchard’s activities along the coast in the Mission Santa Barbara and Mission Santa Ines histories.]

1820: Reports show that Mission population had declined. As with all the missions, new converts were dropping off and the disputes between Mexico and Spain were taking their toll on supply lines to the missions. Mission properties started to decline as people to maintain them left.

1834: Mexico’s Secularization Laws were ratified in 1834. Coupled with the loss of faith in the missions, this was largely the death knell for the Mission. At Carmel, the Mission lands were sold up to the walls of the Mission. The padres had to buy a small strip of land back in order to avoid trespass when entering the church.

1851: The collapse of the Mission property and church was complete. Roof beams had rotted and the roof collapsed in this year. The stone walls stood roofless for some thirty years.

1856: Rumors of Saint Serra’s body being moved caused his grave to be opened so the body could be examined.

1859: President James Buchanan returned the Church and nine acres of land back to the Catholic Church.

4 November 1879: The Mission had a famous visitor this day: Robert Louis Stevenson, the author. At the time he was a journalist at the Monterey Californian. On San Carlos Day (4 November) each year the area’s people all gathered at the Mission for mass and a community lunch under the trees. Stevenson was moved by the community display and wrote about it. The article appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in London and included in Across the Plains, later included in The Amateur Emigrant.

1882: Once more, the rumor of Saint Serra’s body being moved surfaced. It even appeared in the Saturday Evening Post this year. Father Angelo Casanova, the pastor in Monterey from 1870 to 1893 (there was no resident priest between 1846 and 1933), authorized the tomb to be opened and the body examined.

Serra Statuary Hall Statue1884: Father Casanova, wanting to repair the church in time for the centennial of Saint Serra’s death, raised funds to replace the roof. His funding drive was successful and a new, shingle roof was placed on the church. The roof did not match the original, however, as it had a steep pitch. [Side note: This roof, even though eventually replaced because it did not match the original, is immortalized in the U.S. Capital. In 1864, Congress passed a law “…to invite each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration…”. California chose Saint Serra as one of its representative statues and commissioned Ettore Cadorin to produce a bronze statue. The statue was placed in Statuary Hall in 1931. Saint Serra is shown holding a mission model and it just happens to be the Carmel Mission with the steep roof!]

1915: Charles Francis Saunders wrote about the trail Saint Serra took to the top of Carmel Hill and then down into Monterey in his book California Padres and Their Missions. The trail that he wrote about exists today as Mission Trail Park across the road from the Mission.

1922: The bronze and travertine marble sarcophagus showing Saint Serra lying in state with his friends Padres Crespi, López, and Lasuén around him was dedicated in the fall of the year by Catalan sculptor Joseph A. Mora. [Side note: If you’ve been following along here you’ll note that Padre Crespi died before Saint Serra; so the depiction in the sarcophagus is clearly a synthesis and not actual fact.]

1924: The section of the north wing from the Church tower was restored by Father Ramon Mestres in this year. He placed Jo Mora’s bronze and travertine sarcophagus honoring Saint Serra into this wing. He also built a rectory (now used as a museum).

1931: Serra-Crespi Hall was built along a section of the original west wing of the quadrangle. Father Philip Scher was responsible.

1931: Harry Downie was brought to Carmel and given the job of curator in charge of restoring the Mission. Downie was dedicated to the missions and worked on this and other restorations until his death in 1980. His restorations are deemed to be excellent because they were performed only after intensive study of physical and written records. It was Downie who removed and replaced Father Casanova’s pitched roof.

1943: Saint Serra’s body was examined by the Catholic Church to prepare for his possible canonization.

1953: Serra-Crespi Hall was moved to the rear of the church (its present location).

1960: The church is officially called Basilica of Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmel. A Basilica is a Church of historic significance as determined by the Pope.

28 August 1984: All of the Bishops in California gathered at the Mission on this 200th anniversary of Saint Serra’s death. But, that’s not all. Something special happened: the original Mission fountain was returned that day. The fountain had disappeared when the Mission fell into ruin. A replacement had been built but, apparently, a local Carmel family had taken it and the family returned it that day.

References