History of San Luis Rey

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was founded by padre Fermín Lasuén on June 13, 1798, in San Luis Rey, a neighborhood of Oceanside, California. This Mission was named in honor of Louis IX, King of France and for its vast success also became known as the King of all California Missions. San Luis Rey was the last mission to be founded in the south and the chosen location meant to close the crucial gap between Mission San Diego and Mission San Juan Capistrano.

From the day of its foundation, Father Antonio Peyri was put in charge of Mission San Luis Rey and led the mission for 34 years. In 1832, he was forced to leave California in open contrast with Echeandía, the Mexican Governor of California sent a few years earlier by the newborn Republic of Mexico. Father Peyri was a skillful architect and an industrious man. Under its administration San Luis Rey prospered and became one the greatest mission of California.

Image of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

Mission San Luis Rey was organized in a quadrangle. By 1826, the quadrangle measured 500 feet on each side and extended over 6 acres. The “King of the Missions” became the largest and most prosperous of all California missions in a few years after its foundation. The Native Americans who inhabited the area at the time of the foundation, the Payómkawichum (also known as Quechnajuichom) tribe, proved to be industrious and collaborative. At its peak, San Luis Rey counted nearly 3,000 Indian converts living at the mission. The Quechnajuichom neophytes living and working at Mission San Luis Rey also became known as the Luiseño tribe. As a result of their labor, the livestock herd at San Luis Rey rapidly grew from 800 in 1798 to over 20,000 within a decade. In 1832, the total number of animals surpassed 57,000, with more than 27,000 cattle, 26,000 sheep and 2,000 horses.

Ever-increasing sections of the mission lands were brought under cultivation making San Luis Rey self-sustaining. At its best, the surrounding agricultural lands of the mission covered more than 950,000 acres. An ingenuous water supply system collected the water from the river just north of the mission and allowed to irrigate the fields in the valley. In the year 1831, 395,000 bushels of grain and other products were harvested in the mission fields. 2,500 barrels of wine were produced by that same year. Wheat, barley, corn, beans, grapes, oranges and olives were among the crops produced. In the original central square of the mission, the first pepper tree of California, brought from Peru, was planted in 1830. It is still alive and with its nearly 200 years is also the California’s oldest pepper tree.

Portrait of Father Antonio Peyri

Three churches were built over time at Mission San Luis Rey. The first church was erected in 1798, immediately after founding the mission. The original church was a small and simple adobe building. The early success of the mission and an increase in Catholic conversions necessitated the building of a bigger church with adobe walls and a tiled roof. The second church was completed by 1802. The construction of the third church, the one that remains on the site today, began in 1811 and, due to its massive scale and complex architectural design, was not finished until four years later in 1815. Antonio Ramirez, a master stonemason, oversaw the work of native converts who performed a majority of the labor.

The main walls of the new church were impressive: 30 feet high and 5 feet thick with an adobe interior and baked brick exterior. It is the only surviving mission church built in a cruciform plan. The original roof and floor of the church were both of terra cotta tile. By 1829, an octagonal wooden dome sat atop the building. The dome had an eight-windowed lantern that filtered light down into the nave. The original dome has been restored and it is the only one that can be found across all of the California Missions. The main façade of the church is a mix of Baroque and Classical styles. A 75-foot tall bell tower with four bells hanging within its belfry stands at its eastern corner. A western, symmetrical tower was initially in the plans but never constructed. At the time of its completion, in 1815, the church was the largest building of Alta California.

Luiseños converts refusing to work under Captain Pablo de la Portillà - 1835

Several outposts were built in support of San Luis Rey and placed under its administration. The San Antonio de Pala Asistencia, also known as “Pala Mission”, was founded on June 13, 1816, as an “asistencia” or “sub-mission” of San Luis Rey. The site of San Antonio de Pala had been noted by Father Juan Mariner and Captain Juan Pablo Grijalva on an exploratory trip in 1795. The location is some twenty miles inland from Mission San Luis Rey, upstream on the San Luis Rey River. San Antonio de Pala proved to be a successful asistencia and attracted many Native American Luiseños who inhabited near the mountains. Father Peyri directly oversaw the construction of the chapel and the granary complex. By 1820, some 1,300 baptisms had been performed at the asistencia. Pala Mission has the peculiarity to host the only completely freestanding bell tower built in California under the Spanish era. Today, Pala is the only mission-era asistencia still in use.

The Las Flores Estancia, also known as Las Flores Asistencia or San Pedro Rancho, was established in 1823 as the second asistencia of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. Las Flores Estancia is located near Bell Canyon in northern San Diego County, approximately halfway between Mission San Luis Rey and Mission San Juan Capistrano. Las Flores Asistencia featured a chapel, a hostel and a ranch which were built by relocated Luiseño and Juaneño Native Americans under the supervision of Father Antonio Peyri. The buildings formed three sides of a square, 142 feet by 153 feet, all roofed with tile. The bell tower or campanile was utilized as a navigational aid by early sailing ships. The Las Flores chapel was frequented by the inhabitants of two nearby Native American villages, Chumella and Questmille. Mission San Luis Rey began raising sheep at Las Flores as early as 1810 and from 1823 to 1840 the Asistencia provided shelter to travelers on El Camino Real. To make the Estancia self-sustaining, barley, maize, and wheat were grown in the nearby fields. Hides and tallow were among the most notable products at the Asistencia. Today, all that remains of Las Flores Estancia are crumbling adobe bricks.

Rear of the campanile of San Antonio de Pala Asistencia - ca. 1888-1903

In 1821 Mexico gained its independence from Spain. On August 17, 1833 the Congress of Mexico passed the secularization law under the name of “Decree of the Congress of Mexico Secularizing the Missions”. Under the new law, all the California missions were secularized. Each mission was given a 10 year period to fulfill their function of instructing the Native Americans of California. Within the decade, the missions were to be replaced by the pueblos, another colonial institution. Had the final secularization law and its related regulations been followed to the letter, the Indians of central California would have received large allotments of lands around each mission and half of the missions livestock. Instead, with a few exceptions, most of mission lands ended up in the hands of a few privileged and extremely wealthy Mexican families. When the vast and rich Mission San Luis Rey came under the control of the various secular administrators, most of them managed to gain title to larger and larger portions of the former mission land and livestock. The Luiseños, who had greatly contributed to the success of Mission San Luis Rey, were left with nothing. After Secularization, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia went through a period of divided ownership and neglect. Much of the quality materials of the mission church were stripped and used for new constructions in the nearby growing pueblos.

During and after the Mexican–American War, from 1847 to 1857, Mission San Luis Rey was used as an operational base by United States soldiers. Kit Carson, General Stephen Watts Kearny and the Battalion of Mormon Volunteers were some of the notable figures who served at the Mission. In 1850 California became part of the United States as the 31st State in the Union and the Catholic Bishop of California petitioned the U.S. Government for the return of the missions to the Catholic Church. President Abraham Lincoln officially returned Mission San Luis Rey de Francia to the Catholic Church in 1865 but the property was in such disrepair that the church abandoned it. Despite the fact that the site had been neglected for a long time, much of the original mission remained, as did plans, designs and original drawings.

In 1892 a group of Mexican Franciscan Friars from Zacatecas arrived in California and were relocated at Mission San Luis Rey by the Bishop of California. Under the guidance of Fr. Joseph Jeremiah O’Keefe, who became known as the “Rebuilder of the Mission”, massive rebuilding and restoration works began. Indeed, San Luis Rey might have completely vanished from the landscape had it not been for the commitment of Fr. O’Keefe and the small group of Mexican Franciscan Friars. Between 1892 and 1912, Fr. O’Keefe repaired the church and rebuilt the permanent living quarters on the foundation of the old mission which today hosts the mission museum. After the death of Father O’Keefe, restoration works continued at the mission.

Father Joseph Jeremias O’Keefe standing at the brick steps of Mission San Luis Rey - 1900

The mission quadrangle was partially rebuilt in 1949. For a period the building served as a Franciscan college while today hosts the Mission Retreat Center. During the 1950’s and 60’s the Franciscan Friars uncovered the Soldiers’ Barracks and the Lavanderia from layers of dirt and dust which, over the years, had completely covered them. A restoration effort to stabilize and preserve the exterior of the church building was completed in 1984. The museum collection shed light on the Luiseño Indians and the lifestyle at the Mission during the Spanish era. Conservation of paintings and sculptures are an ongoing process at the Museum and, in the mission premises, archaeological investigations continue to unearth the past.

Today, San Luis Rey Mission Church is a part of the restored mission complex that sits on 56 acres of its original land. An active community of Franciscan Friars still worship and live at the mission. Mission San Luis Rey is highly regarded as both a religious and heritage site. The church remains one of the most stunning among all of the Spanish mission churches and is a popular tourist attraction in Southern California. Original patterns found in the church’s old documents and on remnant textiles decorate the interior. On the outside, San Luis Rey Mission Church is believed to look much as it would have when originally constructed.