History of San Diego De Alcalá

On July 1, 1769, Father Junípero Serra and Don Gaspar de Portolá arrived on the shores of the beautiful land-locked harbor which had been named San Diego by Vizcaíño. Of the 219 men who had left Lower California some two months before, little more than a hundred had survived, and these were weak, sick, and exhausted by their journey.

San Diego De Alcalá image

To Governor Portolá, San Diego was only a way-stop and after two weeks rest he gathered the sound men about him, and marched northward to find the long sought bay of Monterey. He took Fathers Crespi and Gomez with him, and left the task of founding a mission at the new settlement to Father Serra. The ship, San Antonio, was sent back to Mexico for additional supplies.

Two days after Portolá’s departure, Father Serra called upon those who were able to move about, and they erected a crude brushwood shelter which, on July 16, 1769, became the first church of Christ in California. The Indians, for whose salvation he had embarked upon the long and dangerous journey, were slow in coming. They watched the development of the new settlement with wonder and approached the strangers with caution. In time, they grew boldly indifferent to the gestures of friendship made by Fr. Serra and his Franciscan followers and came only to steal whatever was not resolutely defended. Fr. Junípero, anxious to win the natives to him, forbade the use of arms until an Indian attack in force left no alternative. A few volleys put an end to all harassment, but the early missionary efforts bore little fruit.

Six months passed before Portolá returned to San Diego. He had failed to locate the harbor of Monterey. In his absence, little had been done beyond the marking of 19 new graves. Food and supplies were dangerously low. While the fathers prayed for the arrival of the supply ship from San Antonio, Portolá sent some of his men overland to Loreto for aid. His calculations set the middle of March as the last possible date the feeble settlement of Christianity could be held.

The little ship, San Carlos, unable to sail because of the death of most of her crew, lay in the harbor. After hearing of Portolá’s determination to return if aid did not arrive, Fathers Serra and Crespi talked long and earnestly with the captain of the San Carlos. It was agreed that no matter what Portolá might do, they, and whoever else might be persuaded to join them, would sail northward on the small vessel to find Monterey.

Blessing of the small vessel San Carlos

The San Antonio was sighted far out at sea just one day before the fateful date of decision. The ship passed over the horizon but the vision of the sail had been enough to convince even Portolá that a delay of a few more days might be rewarding. Three days later, the San Antonio put into the harbor, and plans and counter plans were soon forgotten in the tumult of cheers that greeted its arrival.

Within three weeks time, Portolá and his expedition set off again for the north. He was determined this time to find the elusive harbor of Monterey and he took the hardy Fr. Crespi with him. Fr. Serra sailed aboard the San Antonio because the leg, which he had infected at Vera Cruz, had become ulcerous as a result of the overland trip from Loreto. During his subsequent journeys along El Camino Real, this affliction was to bring him near death on several occasions.

Fr. Serra left two priests at San Diego and they, with three workmen and eight guards, attempted to carry on the missionary work. A year of bitter struggle against illness and the hostility of the Indians left the two fathers exhausted, and they retired to Mexico, their places being taken by two newcomers, Fathers Jáyme and Dumetz. The situation was obviously critical. Fr. Dumetz immediately set off to Baja California for vitally needed supplies. When he returned some months later, bringing foodstuffs and a small flock of sheep, the mission had already received assistance from the new establishment at Monterey. From this time on, the question of supplies was no longer critical.

Other problems began to press upon the mission fathers. Portolá returned to Mexico and his post as military commandante was assumed by the energetic Pedro Fages. Lieut. Fages soon began demanding that the Franciscans subject themselves to the control of his office. Fr. Serra took the controversy to Mexico and, with the aid of his Franciscan college in the capital, he was able to have Fages removed. This did not solve the problem because a fundamental difference in viewpoint was to cause friction and misunderstanding between the missionaries and the civil authorities throughout the mission era.

While Fr. Serra was in Mexico on the Fages matter, significant changes were taking place in San Diego. The missions of Lower California were transferred to the Dominicans and 10 new Franciscans, including Palou and Lasuén, arrived in Alta California. During his stay at San Diego, Father Palou, who had been made acting presidente in the absence of Father Serra, had caused the mission site to be moved six miles inland in order to relieve the difficulties the padres were having with the soldiers. When Fr. Serra returned early in 1774, he was greeted by Fathers Jáyme and Fuster. Many priests had been in charge since the founding of the mission but these were to be remembered for a special reason.

On November 4, 1775, a large force of Indians attacked the mission and a brief and bloody fight ensued during which Fr. Jáyme, a blacksmith and a carpenter was killed. Removed as it was from the presidio, the conflict went unnoticed by the soldiers, who otherwise could have routed the invaders easily.

The incident impeded further development of the missions. Not only were the fathers forced to return to the military establishment on the bay, but Mission San Juan Capistrano, then in the process of being founded, was abandoned, and its padres brought back to San Diego. As a further result of the revolt, Fr. Serra came into conflict with the new military commander, Rivera y Moncada, who was determined to make a bloody example of the Indian ringleaders, and saw no immediate reason to rebuild the mission. Since the attitude of Rivera threatened to intensify the difficulties in winning over the Indians, Fr. Serra opposed him with considerable energy and won out after months of delay.

The missionaries did not return to the valley site until July, 1776, and a temporary church was finished in October. The church building, constructed in the fashion we recognize today as mission style, was not completed until November 12, 1813. This was 29 years after the death of Fr. Serra, who did not live to see the large tile roofed buildings, which stand today as monuments to his zeal and energy.

After the early eighties, the years that passed were peaceful. At the height of its prosperity, Mission San Diego possessed 20,000 sheep, 10,000 cattle and 1,250 horses. It covered an area of 50,000 acres and had a great reputation for its wine. The decline of the mission began about 1824, with the encroachment of civilian settlements. Following the Mexican revolution of 1830, the ambitions of the civilian authorities resulted in the expropriation of the mission’s properties under the secularization laws. In 1846, the mission was sold to Santiago Arguello for “services to the government.” It was not until 1862, when a little more than 22 acres were restored to the Church by the United States Congress, that Mission San Diego resumed its spiritual function. For the 15 years prior to restoration, it served as a military garrison for the United States Army.

San Diego De Alcalá old painting

When restoration was begun in 1931 only the facade of the church and the base of the belfry remained. Incorporating these, the church building and the bell tower were rebuilt in exact duplication of the original. Recently, a long portico was added, which, from sufficient distance, indicates the size and appearance of the original structure. The mission’s relics, while interesting, are not extensive for most of them are now in the Sera Museum, a public repository of mission history which stands on the opposite side of the valley, some miles to the west.