History of Santa Clara de Asís

An attractive meadowland in the area immediately south of San Francisco Bay had been selected as the site for Mission Santa Clara. Its actual settlement was another matter. Fr. Palou, though willing to set up his mission at Dolores, despite the objections of the military commander, decided against the founding of the second mission until he had talks with Rivera, especially as Fr. Serra was still absent in Mexico.

A portrait of Mission Santa Clara de Asís

The San Francisco mission was three months old before Fr. Palou had the opportunity of learning the will of the military commander. At that time, Rivera came up the coast to give his tardy approval of everything the missionary had done on his own responsibility. The captain’s new attitude would indicate that he had received pointed instructions from the viceroy in Mexico for he seemed happy with Dolores and sent Lieut. Moraga and Father de Peña to found the mission of Santa Clara.

Mission Santa Clara de Asís joined the growing chain of Franciscan settlements in January, 1777. The mission was in existence less than six months when Lieut. Moraga returned with a group of de Anza colonists, who had been waiting at San Gabriel. Moraga had received instructions to found a new pueblo close by the mission and this he accomplished without delay. Moraga’s pueblo has long since been known as the prosperous city of San José but its founding drew little applause from the fearful padres. They knew only too well the distracting influence it would have on their neophytes. They also knew they could look forward to a long series of disputes over land boundaries. Actually, it was not until after 1801 that the division between pueblo and mission lands was fixed by an official survey.

An olive tree inside the mission garden

In 1784, after a series of disastrous floods, the mission was moved to a new site on higher ground. In building the new structure, the padres undoubtedly received the aid of skilled workers from the pueblo, for the buildings were unusual in their elaborate and finished appearance. The new missions served the fathers until it was destroyed by earthquake in 1818.

In May, 1805, a story was brought to the priests that the Indians who had not been converted were planning a general massacre. A hurried call for help was sent to Monterey and San Francisco, and troops hastened to Santa Clara from both presidios. However, an investigation proved that the wild yarn had been spread by certain neophytes, who had hoped to escape punishment for their misdoings by frightening the padres.

It was during this period that Fr. José Viader, a powerful and athletic padre at Santa Clara, gained renown. One night in 1814, he was attacked by a huge Indian known as Marcelo and two companions. The priest bested his three antagonists in a terrific rough and tumble fight and then forgave them. Marcelo became one of the father’s most devoted friends and followers.

A third set of buildings, constructed on a site some miles away from the original, was finished in 1825 and remained intact for many years. It was replaced by two wooden churches, both of which were razed by fire. By the time of its finally destruction, the mission had long since been transferred from Franciscan to Jesuit authority, and had been operating as a college for more than 75 years. As a mission, it had gone through an extended period of prosperity after 1784 and was second only to San Gabriel in the wealth of its possessions. It was especially well known for its fine weaving.

A hut of the native Ohlone tribe

In the 1830’s, Santa Clara began to decline, suffering the same withering destiny that fell to the other missions when the California Dons cast off the restraining yoke of the Spanish throne. The mission disappeared under the Mexican flag until it was restored to the Church by the American Government. Although it has been used as an educational institution since its occupation by the Jesuits in 1851, it was not recognized as a college until 1855 and thus missed by four years the honor of being California’s first institution of higher learning. Today, it enjoys both a scholastic and athletic reputation far exceeding the proportions expected of a school of its size.

At the time he gave the establishment of Santa Clara his belated approval, Captain Rivera was already in the process of being transferred. As the result of Fr. Serra’s opposition, orders were already underway removing him from military command of Alta California. In this position he had been under the nominal jurisdiction of Governor de Neve in Lower California. The new directives moved the capital and de Neve to Monterey, and Rivera was transferred to Loreto, the former capital of the coastal provinces. In his new post, Rivera’s authority was restricted and one of de Neve’s first orders to him was to result in the death of that unfortunate officer, and furnish a tragic episode in mission history at this point.

The restored original cross stands in front of the new church

Rivera was settled at his post in Loreto when de Neve’s fateful orders arrived. The captain was instructed to take a company of soldiers to the northwest provinces of Mexico and bring back as many families of new settlers as possible. Although Rivera found many people that were living in privation, he could induce only a few to make the trip to California despite the promise of fertile land and new belongings. When Rivera arrived at the Colorado River, he sent the emigrants on to the coast with part of his company as escort. With the remainder of his military complement, he planned to set out again in search of additional colonists. However, a few days after the emigrant party departed, he and all of his soldiers were destroyed in a surprise uprising of the Yuma Indians.

Two mission establishments were also attacked and destroyed. These were not part of the California chain but Father Carces, whose travels and writings are so vitally linked to the history of El Camino Real, was killed in the attack. The authorities in Mexico were quick to blame de Anza with giving a false description of the docility of the Indians, and the uprising resulted in the closing of the overland route to Mexico. From this time onward, the Spanish colony of California was forced to depend upon the sea lanes. The abandonment of the Colorado crossing by Mexico left the way open to the east and the trail was reopened by the Americans in 1849.

Black and white image of Mission Santa Clara de Asis

All that remains in the story of Mission Santa Clara, which was founded in 1777, is written today in the cloister garden wall and piece of the cross that was a part of the first dedication ceremony. This fragment, encased within a large cross of concrete, stands in front of the beautiful new church which was erected after the fire of 1926 in faithful reproduction of the original design.