The missions started as essentially Spanish colonies. But, with the decline of the Spanish empire and the arrival of non-Spanish trading ships the Spanish influence at the missions declined over time. This was not helped by the defection of major Spanish colonies from the Crown; particularly New Spain (Republic of Mexico) in 1810. The resulting disruption of supplies caused the missions to become even more independent of the mother country.

Overshadowing all this was the normal progression of colonial activities for Spanish colonies. This process was called secularization and basically, it allowed missionary fathers 10 years to colonize an area and convert/educate the natives. After that period, the mission was secularized and turned into a pueblo. The Church was allowed to retain the priest’s quarters, garden and chapel; to be operated by a parish priest instead of the missionary order. All other buildings were turned over to the government of the new pueblo. The mission lands were likewise divided to be used for agriculture, the growing city, and housing for natives and new residents.

Secularization worked fairly well in most Spanish colonies; but, for a variety of (valid as it turns out) reasons, the padres opposed it in the California missions. But, pressure mounted from new residents who could not own property until secularization took place and from Mexico who was trying hard to establish its independence from Spain.

In 1834, Mexico’s Secularization Laws were ratified under the governorship of José Figueroa, bringing the mission system to an effective end over a ten-year period. Using Spanish secularization as a model, the missions buildings were divided (sometimes physically with a wall!), and the lands given to the native Indians. As predicted by the padres, the natives were not yet sufficiently trained in the significance of property “ownership” and were easily tricked into giving away their “rights” to speculators.

Without the central guidance of the padres the mission lands were quickly moved into private hands and the Indians effectively banished from them. Likewise, the buildings in the mission system were often routinely looted and the materials used for private construction. Without roofs and routine maintenance the adobe walls often just dissolved away in the rains.

When Americans arrived and took over the properties, the Federal Land Commission reviewed the situation and, through acts of Congress and court actions in the 1850’s and 1860’s the mission properties were largely returned to the Church. The Church was not always able to take on the burden of maintenance, however, so some missions continued their decline.

Fortunately, over time, the importance of the missions was recognized by various restoration groups and the mission chain continues restoration activities to this day.