History of San Fernando

On September 8, 1797, the fourth mission founded by Father Lasuén in a period of four months was named San Fernando Rey de España. Although the mission was supposed to relieve the long march between San Gabriel and San Buenaventura, the aged padre set it somewhat to the south because of the barren terrain and poor drainage of the middle area.

Mission San Fernando Rey de España and its beautiful fountain

Even the location at San Fernando presented problems. The land best suited for the mission was already occupied by a Spanish settler, Francisco Reyes, mayor of the pueblo of Los Angeles. Authorities differ regarding Reyes’ willingness to give up the territory, some maintaining that he had received the grant from the King and was forcibly evicted from the rancho, while others claim that Reyes had simply “squatted” on the land and that his retirement was a graceful and obliging one. The records do show, however, that Reyes remained long enough to perform the duties of a patron at the dedication services, and that he was the godfather of the first child to be baptized at the mission.

Two months after the dedication, the church was completed and had a neophyte congregation of more than 40. The padres and their Indian converts continued to prosper and by 1806, San Fernando was producing hides, tallow, soap, cloth and other mission products in considerable quantities. As they were relatively near the pueblo of Los Angeles, they had a ready market. At the height of its prosperity, San Fernando owned 13,000 cattle, 8,000 sheep and its 2,300 horses was the third largest herd in the possession of the missions. These material achievements were not exceptional, however, among the California missions.

Tools used at the Mission by Franciscan Fathers and Indian Converts

It was the accident of location that eventually brought the settlement a unique distinction. Situated directly on the highway leading to the fast-growing community of Los Angeles, it soon became the most popular stopping off place for travelers on El Camino Real. The number of overnight visits at the prosperous mission increased so steadily that the padres kept adding to the hospice, or “hotel” facilities of the convento building. The result was the famous “long building” which today forms the major portion of the remaining mission structure. Travelers, no matter what their station, were accommodated. A special room “the governors chamber” was set aside for the use of particularly distinguished visitors. This room, rediscovered and restored in 1933, reflects a level of comfort and cheerfulness rarely attained within the thick and gloomy walls of the usual mission structure.

After 1811, the neophyte population began to decline, and their lessening numbers coincided with the decreasing productivity of the mission. Soon there were frequent times when the padres were barely able to supply the produce demanded by the military headquarters in Los Angeles. Further misfortune occurred during the earthquake of 1812 when a considerable amount of rebuilding was necessary to insure the safety of the buildings. From that time forward the padres at San Fernando fought a losing fight against the encroachment of new settlers. When Governor Echeandia arrived in 1827, Father Ibarra, who headed the mission, refused to renounce his allegiance to Spain. He was allowed, however, to remain at the mission because of the difficulty in getting another padre to replace him. In 1835, his deep hostility to the acts of the civil authorities made him desert the mission rather than be a party to the secularization process.

In 1845, the inevitable distribution of mission property was completed. Governor Pio Pico leased the lands to his brother Andres and later the land was sold to another purchaser, from whom Andres acquired half ownership. For several years the hospice of the San Fernando Mission was the summer home of the Governor’s brother.

No other mission suffered San Fernando’s subsequent degradation. In 1888, the mission property was used as a warehouse and stable, and later the grounds and patio became a hog farm. It was not until 1896 when Charles Fletcher Lummis, a prominent member of the Landmarks Club, began a campaign to reclaim the mission property that the fortunes of San Fernando improved. In 1923, the Church once again returned to the mission and the property was turned over to the Oblate Fathers. Since then restoration work has made steady progress.

Wicker baskets were used at Mission San Fernando to carry out daily routines.

The beautiful “long building” of San Fernando contains a rich assortment of relics. The great wine press, the smoke room and refectory show no deterioration. The hospice still contains the furniture and rude conveniences of its earlier days. The church, just recently restored, presents an impressive picture of the religious phase of mission life. It is somewhat smaller and narrower than the churches of the other missions, but this only adds to its feeling of intimacy and hospitality. The curious irregular sloping of the walls reminds the visitor of the primitive nature of the workmen who built it.

The building contains two other features worthy of special comment. One is a large and somewhat dilapidated organ acquired during its later years, and the other is the altar, the entire lower section of which is mirror-backed. It is said that this mirror, a rather rare decoration at the time of its adoption, was introduced primarily to enable the padre to keep an eye on his Indian congregation during religious services.

Recently the museum acquired a huge altar, over 360 years old, which was brought to this country and stored at San Fernando. Originally 45 feet high and 47 feet wide, the altar is now in several sections, which completely cover the walls of two of the largest rooms in the mission. The structure is a mass of complicated wood carvings, representing innumerable vines and leaf designs. Some of these ornaments project from the face of the altar such a distance that it seems incredible they could have survived without breaking away from the main body of the carving. The entire mass has been covered with gold leaf which still retains a rich and luxuriant luster. The carving flows in a design around large panels in which oil painted canvases, some five by seven feet in size, relate the story of the Holy Family.

View ot the Mission hospice which became known as the “long building”

Across from San Fernando is a beautiful and spacious park which adds immeasurably to the mission’s importance as an historical landmark. Featured in the park are the old soap works, the original fountain now some 30 feet distant from its first location and a large, oddly shaped reservoir from which the mission fathers were supplied with water. Dominating the entrance to the park is the statue of Father Junípero Serra with an Indian boy.