(VERN FISHER/The Herald)
SANS CARLOS Borroméo de Carmelo Mission - better known as Carmel Mission - is many things to many people. For history buffs, it's an important site in California's past. For the faithful, it's where they go to worship and reflect. And for everyone who visits, it's a place of great beauty and peace. Tens of thousands come each year to see what once was the headquarters of the mission system in California, as well as the national shrine of Father Junipero Serra, who guided the building of this and eight other missions in California.

Carmel Mission is world-renowned for its history, religious significance, and simply as a lovely spot to visit. The courtyard and gardens, in the heart of the mission quadrangle, feel like a time capsule of Old California, attracting artists and photographers with pictureperfect views of brightly blooming flowers, stately cypress and rooflines of terracotta tile.

"We get a little over 100,000 visitors a year, and a whole lot of fourthgraders," says Lou Sanna, the mission's managing curator and facilities director. He's referring to the fact that most California kids at that grade level study state history and often must build a mission model. Many schools schedule field trips to Carmel Mission as part of their curriculum.

With all of that going on, it's no wonder that the 240-year-old mission bustles with the energy of a little city. In addition to its five museums and gardens, an active parish attends services in the mission basilica, Sanna points out. One side of the mission quadrangle is used as classrooms for Junipero Serra Elementary School, a private Catholic school.

Two church-sponsored celebrations are held there each year as well: Founder's Day in June, and the Mission Fiesta in September, a 50-year-plus tradition.

And, of course, it's the scene of numerous weddings, Carmel Bach Festival concerts, and other vital community events.

A circa 1900 painting of the Carmel Mission, by Sabrina P. Lathrop.
A circa 1900 painting of the Carmel Mission, by Sabrina P. Lathrop.

Hard to believe, then, that at one point in time, the mission buildings were in ruins. It's been through ongoing volunteer efforts for more than a century that they have been restored and enhanced, befitting the mission's status as a National Historic Landmark.

Established in Monterey in 1770 and moved to Carmel the next year, the mission was originally adobe. The church was rebuilt in stone under the direction of Serra's successor, Father Fermin Lasuén. But the Mexican government closed the mission in 1834, and the beautiful buildings fell into disrepair. After California became part of the United States, the land was returned to the Catholic Church. Restoration of Carmel Mission started in 1884; it continues today.

Much of the credit during the early 20th century goes to Harry Downie, who oversaw the work and gathered mission artifacts for display. Carmel Mission is sought out by pilgrims who wish to view the place where Father Serra lived and died, even more so after he was beatified by John Paul II in 1988. The founder of California's missions was buried beneath the sanctuary floor after his death in 1784, attributed by historians to tuberculosis and asthma.

His austere cell has been preserved for visitors to see, and in the chapel gallery near the basilica, they can also view the impressive memorial monument sculpted by Jo Mora from marble and bronze.

Serra's presence can also be felt in the lovely gardens within the quadrangle, a mixture of native plants, succulents and exotic species. The good padre is found in statuary form here among the roses and salvia.

"Tourists want to see this worldrenowned, tranquil mission," says Sanna, noting that visitors come from around the globe to experience the mission's serenity and contemplate its role in the history of the Golden State.

WHEN TO GO

Carmel Mission, at 3080 Rio Rd., Carmel, is open to visitors Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $1 for children ages 5-17. Docent-led tours are available; information is available on the mission's web site, www.carmelmission.org.


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