History of Carmel Mission

On the first day of June, 1770, the Spanish packet San Antonio put into the pine-bordered harbor of Monterey. It had been over a month in covering the more than 400 miles from San Diego. Once ashore, the passengers, with Father Junípero Serra at their head, were surrounded by the men of Governor Portolá’s land expedition. The latter group, which left the southern mission after the sailing of the San Antonio, had arrived more than a week before. During their wait, Portolá realized that he had camped on the shores of Monterey on his previous journey without recognizing the harbor.

San Carlos Borroméo De Carmelo

After the joyous religious ceremony which accompanied the raising of the Spanish flag, held on June 3, 1770, news of the occupation was immediately dispatched overland to the authorities in Mexico. Within a few weeks, a church was erected, and the military presidio settled into a business-like routine. The heavy stands of forest that surround the settlement made adequate housing easy to construct. Rough as it was, it presented an almost luxurious contrast to the mud and brush shelters in San Diego. Fr. Serra found the climate and surroundings of Monterey so much to his liking that Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo became his favorite mission and the headquarters of the mission chain.

In July, 1770, Portolá turned his command over to Lieutenant Fages, and departed forever from the pages of California history. The new military commander was unlike the easy-going Portolá and immediately began to inject himself into mission affairs. Soon Fr. Serra decided that the mission was more likely to prosper at a distance from the presidio and in 1771 he moved it some five miles south to a verdant pasture bordering the Carmel River. The church at the Monterey Presidio continued in use for the soldiers of the garrison until 1794, when it was replaced by the structure which is still in use as a place of worship.

After the new mission had been settled, life was divided between short intervals of sufficiency followed by long waits for additional supplies from Mexico. This situation continued until agricultural efforts began to flourish in the late 70’s. In 1774, during the visit of de Anza, who had led the first overland party from Mexico Fr. Palou’s embarrassment at the lack of provisions for his guests finds eloquent expression in his diary. Nevertheless, the mission boasted 165 Indian converts by the end of 1783.

In May, 1774, upon his return to Carmel after a journey to Mexico, which required about a year and a half, Fr. Serra found himself increasingly in the defense of his missions. He lived in a little hut adjacent to the mission where he pursued the life of an ascetic and administered the affairs of the growing mission chain. During his conferences with the viceroy in Mexico, he had succeeded in having Commandante Fages removed but Rivera y Moncada, who followed Fages was, if anything, more difficult. There were to be even darker days ahead after Rivera’s removal to Loreto, and the arrival in Monterey of Governor Filipe de Neve.

The moving of the capitol from Lower California to Monterey was followed by the transfer of California affairs from the friendly viceroy, Bucareli, to the newly created office of commandant-general, occupied by Teodoro de Croix. The latter, more concerned in other fields of colonization, was inclined to rely upon de Neve, whose opposition to the Franciscans was not like on the contentiousness, which the military commanders Fages and Rivera had displayed.

He seems to have regarded the colony simply as an outpost of Spanish empire and was not personally interested in the welfare of the Indians, whom he distrusted. He was anxious to make California’s mission establishments into thriving communities, well-populated with citizens of Spanish blood. To accomplish this, he began forcing the Franciscans out of the economic and political phases of colonial life and encouraged immigration. Fr. Junípero resolutely opposed de Neve and, while he succeeded in defeating the governor’s aggressive acts against the established missions, the struggle caused a long delay in mission expansion. Only one new mission was founded in the period between 1777 and December, 1786.

Already the illustrious names connected with the early days of the missions were beginning to pass. Fr. Crespi, the constant journalist of those Spartan beginnings, died in 1782. A year later, Fr. Serra, in his seventieth year, made his last journey down El Camino Real and then settled back in his beloved Carmel to await the end he knew would not be long in coming. He died August 28, 1784, attended by his old friend and life-long companion, Fr. Palou. Father Serra had devoted 54 years of his life to the cause of Saint Francis, of which the last 15 in California had been the most difficult and exacting. He did not live to witness the mission prosperity or the imposing structures we see today but they are a part of him more than any other.

After Father Junípero’s death, Carmel remained the “parent” mission. Fr. Palou became presidente until he retired to Mexico in 1785. His successor, Father Fermín Lasuén, became presidente at the age of 49. He actively guided the missions of California for almost 20 years, and it was under his administration that they reached their greatest prosperity . During most of this period he lived at Carmel, which developed considerably under his direction, although its success never approached the impressive proportions of some of the later missions.

Seated as it was, in the shadow of the governor’s office, Carmel was always the first to endure the effect of each new mood for “mission reform.” As the pressure for divorcement of the missions from their rich holdings increased, the properties of Carmel diminished. When the act of secularization finally came, not even the buildings remained in her name.

Native artifacts

From 1836 until the property was restored to the Church by the United States, the mission lay abandoned and decaying. In 1882, an effort was made to preserve the existing ruins but nothing further was accomplished until 1924, when a part of the structure was restored. The mission became a parish church in 1933 and since that time the property has been undergoing a series of restorations. Today it is one of the outstanding historical landmarks on the California coast. The work is largely the result of two men, Father Michael D. O’Connell, pastor of the church after 1933, and Harry W. Downie, one of the leading authorities on mission architecture and reconstruction.

Carmel has recaptured much of the stateliness of its happier days. Set apart from too much evidence of the modern world, the very atmosphere that surrounds it seems haunted with an ancient solemnity which gives emphasis to its connection with the past. A rude, wooden door leads visitors from the present into yester-year when they enter an ancient room, where historical treasures are displayed. An array of implements and garments, carefully fashioned by patient hands with unhurried hours, reveal the hardiness of early mission life. One room contains a complete reproduction of an early mission kitchen. The curio rooms are filled with crude tools and examples of the amazing basketry of the Indian neophytes. Here and there among the statuary and ceremonial articles brought to the mission from Mexico, is a native Indian carving, gaunt and arresting consequence of the welding of two alien cultures.

Outside, a walk leads through the beautifully kept gardens to the Serra Chapel, constructed in his honor. Inside the chapel is the sarcophagus created by the California artist, Jo Mora, and dedicated to Franciscan zeal. Both the chapel and this bronze and stone memorial were completed in 1924.

Just beyond stands the imposing stone church, which was built under the direction of Fr. Lasuén in 1797. The use of stone, which is shared by three other churches in the mission chain, represents a departure from the usual adobe structure. However, the rounded, catenary arch that forms the roof, and the strong Moorish influence reflected in the tower dome, are singular qualities of structural beauty that belongs to Carmel alone.

The early mission kitchen

At the foot of the altar of this church are buried the earthly remains of Fathers Junípero Serra, Juan Crespi, Fermín Lasuén and Julian Lopez.