By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: The story of Junipero Serra’s mission at Carmel, California reflects many of the influences that the Franciscan leader had on the Golden State. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.)
Few California sites contributed as much to the historical story of early California as Monterey. It was here in 1770 that Father Junipero Serra founded Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo. Father Serra died in 1784 and was buried at the Carmel Mission. It should be noted that the actual mission was not completed until 1797.
Consequently, you can easily immerse yourself in the founding of the Golden State, both secular and sacred, at this mid-state coastal location.
All the visions and controversies involved in the Spanish settlement of California come alive here.
Moreover, Monterey’s historical story also extends to the Victorian houses of Pacific Grove, which grew out of a Methodist seaside camping retreat. Furthermore, writer John Steinbeck immortalized Monterey in his novel, Cannery Row. The novel depicts the town’s early sardine fishery and its workers.
Downtown Monterey and the waterfront have critical adobes and later structures that embody the story of California, especially as the state moved from Mexican to U.S. control
Monterey history includes all these fascinating episodes, which remain vital today, starting with Serra’s Mission in Carmel.
Historic Story of Junipero Serra’s Mission
For the mission, Father Serra found a fertile and congenial site five miles south of the Monterey presidio, the military installation, along what is now called Rio Road in Carmel. Carmel was the second of the 21 missions that Franciscans founded in California from 1769 to 1821. In addition, the church also became the headquarters of the mission movement because Serra resided here. Serra died here on a simple bed consisting of three boards covered with a blanket.
Some background: Spain’s King Carlos III decided in 1768 to send missionaries to California. He hoped to thwart the ambitions of Russia in this remote territory. To do so, the king sent Mallorcan Franciscan, Junipero Serra, along with two of his students, Francisco Palou and Juan Crespi.
A linguist and an explorer, Serra named many of the early California landmark settlements, from San Diego to Carmel. In addition, Serra was an agriculturalist. He inaugurated the vegetable, fruit, and cattle industries for which the state of California is now famous.
Pope Francis canonized Father Serra in 2015. However, his sainthood in the Catholic Church occurred in a context of controversy. Many felt that he did not deserve the honor because the Spanish virtually enslaved and brutally treated the Indians. The Carmel mission today does not directly address the controversy.
Carmel Mission as National Landmark
Nevertheless, the Carmel Mission is a National Historic Landmark. And it was raised to the rank of minor basilica by the Vatican in 1960. In 1987 Pope John Paul II visited the mission.
Look at the restored mission facade and front gardens. They suggest the fountains and vegetation that once surrounded the Franciscan enclaves. For instance, the Carmel Mission has a Moorish tower and a star-shaped window. Missions tended to face east so as to catch the warmth and light of the morning sun, encouraging the attendance of worshippers.
The attraction has several museums. For example, the Mora Chapel Gallery houses a life-size bronze cenotaph of Father Serra. In the statue, Serra is surrounded by this fellow missionaries Fathers Crespi, Lasuen, and Lopez. They are all interred under the altar of the Basilica.
The Downie Museum sits in a small building to the right of the Basilica. It commemorates the work of Sir Harry Downie, who restored the mission. Among its displays, the museum offers an overview video of the major periods in the church’s history.
The Munras Museum displays the family heirlooms from five generations of a prominent Monterey family.
Alterations Made in Junipero Serra’s Mission
The Basilica appearance changed many times over the years due to fires and earthquakes damaging the structure. Of the present furnishings, only the statues, paintings, and a few other artifacts are original.
The Convento Museum is among the attractions at the mission. It houses the artifacts of Father Serra. The building contains the Missionary’s cell, the Padre’s kitchen, living room, guest dining room, and refectory. The Serra Sarcophagus resides here. There are also books from Father Serra’s library and an original leather vest worn by a soldier in the Monterey presidio.
The amazing library contains more than 600 volumes that Serra accumulated here. His colleague, Fermin Lasuen, catalogued the library around the year 1800. Lasuen marked the books, so it is known that these were volumes used in that early era.
The mission deteriorated quickly when all the missions became secularized in the 1830s. However, in 1882 one Father Casanova discovered the graves of Serra and Lasuen in the church. From that point on, public interest in restoring the mission remained high.
Large number of Native Americans are buried at the mission adjacent to the church. Their reality shows in a memorial of abalone shells around mass graves.
Adjacent to the mission, you walk into a huge courtyard that was typical of the mission style. The courtyard consists of large fountains and elaborate gardens, all part of an active contemporary parish and school.
The Missions of Northern California, beyond Carmel, could be an interesting rationale for many historic trips. Other Northern California missions include San Miguel, Soledad, San Juan Bautista, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Sonoma. They range from a mere melted adobe ruin (Soledad) to an entire restored church (San Francisco).
The Mission is on the south side of Carmel, adjacent to the river at 3080 Rio Road; 831/624-1271; https://carmelmission.org.
Be Sure to See
The Mission itself is a sufficient destination. Allow time to peruse its many details, such as Serra’s library.
Best Time of Year
Any time of the year is good. Summer can be foggy. Winter can be rainy. Check the 10 day weather forecast for the period of your visit.
Downtown Carmel, only one square mile, offers many charming lodgings. One is Hofsas House. For seven decades one family, the Theis family, has owned the place, with current generation leader Carrie Theis now in charge. Some rooms have ocean views and are large, amounting to two rooms. Moreover, all patrons can engage the staff over breakfast and get local info on art walks, hiking on the beaches, and the diversified fine dining scene in Carmel. Hofsas House is at 4th Ave and San Carlos St, PO Box 1195, Carmel, CA 93921; 831/624-2745; https://www.hofsashouse.com. One quirky aspect of Carmel is that there is no mail delivery to physical addresses. All mail resides at the post office. This creates a village culture where folks meet daily as they go to the post office to pick up their mail.
The picturesqueness of Carmel meets its culinary counterpart in a Swiss fondue establishment a few minutes drive away in the Barnyard Shopping Center. You’ll almost find yourself in a yodeling mood at Lugano’s Swiss Bistro, run by Nargis Lengacher. Consider here a leisurely dinner either of cheese fondue or a cook-it-yourself in hot broth seafood fondue. Dip your scallops, shrimp, salmon, and sea bass chunks in the hot broth for three minutes each and they are ready to eat, washed down with a draft beer or chilled white wine. Lugano’s is at 3670 The Barnyard; 831/626-3779.
Carmel,with all its lovely beaches for hiking, is also a prime lunch picnic location. For picnic supplies, consider a stop at the 5th Avenue Deli, 3300 5th Avenue, for sandwiches of sliced Harris beef, perhaps with a side salad of Japanese edamame beans or North African couscous.