Map of Monterey County missions
Download a map of Monterey County missions. (James Herrera/The Herald)
LIKE THOUSANDS of California students, Ruben Mendoza"s introduction to history came on a fourth-grade field trip to a Monterey County mission.

Years later, the Fresno native is still digging around in local missions. As director of the Institute for Archaeological Science, Technology and Visualization at CSU-Monterey Bay and a founding member of the California Missions Foundation, Mendoza has undertaken archeological projects at nearby missions and the San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey.

"If you really want to get a sense of where California began, the missions are a great point of departure," says Mendoza.

And the four missions located in and around Monterey County offer a wide range of experiences, from splendor to simplicity and from relics to ruins.

Religious artifacts on display inside Mission San Juan Bautista.
Religious artifacts on display inside Mission San Juan Bautista. (Photo by David Royal)

But there are recurring themes at all four - Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmel, Nuestro Senora de la Soledad, San Antonio de Padua and Mission San JuanBautista. Each is a monument to history, architecture, religion and agriculture. And at each, visitors can sense both the passage of time and a sense of timelessness.

At Mission San Antonio de Padua, located along the isolated southern edge ofthe county, there"s a stillness disturbed by little more than the squabbling of birds and the occasional breeze. Of the 21 missions established in California by the Franciscan order between 1769 and 1823, only Mission San Antonio - tucked in a remote valley in the Santa Lucia range - remains in an environment that closely resembles what the area was like in its founding days.


Advertisement

It touts itself as "the mission that time forgot."

As California"s third mission, San Antonio de Padua was established by Father Junipero Serra in 1771, on land both lovely and lonely, a scenic valley dubbed Valley of the Oaks near the unincorporated community of Jolon. To call it out of the way would be understatement: Getting there requires a winding meander along Jolon Road, a 26-mile trek from King City or a slightly longer stretch if coming up from the more southerly Jolon Road highway exit near Bradley.

(Photo by David Royal )

To get to the mission, one must also pass through the gates at Fort Hunter-Liggett, so a valid driver"s license, vehicle registration and proof of auto insurance are required. Admission is free; a tour of the mission"s museum has a requested donation of $5, and docent-led tours for groups are available with advance notice.

The trek is worth the effort. On a recent Sunday afternoon, a lone family picnicked in a shady spot, the only other parked car belonging to a mission employee. The pace here is slow, which gives visitors plenty of time to savor the silence, and to absorb the well-marked points of interest throughout the grounds.

Signs detail dozens of points of interest,including the original site of the oak tree where Father Junipero Serra rang those first bells to signal the founding of a new mission. There"s the matanza tree, a large oak where cattle were slaughtered and until recently was carpeted with mounds of bones, and the original retaining wall of a reservoir filled via an aqueduct from the San Antonio River.

Also marked are the sites of a Native American cemetery, the original barracks where one corporal and five soldiers were initially stationed, and the cobblestone foundations of an old adobe, now decayed and disappeared, that once stood parallel to the church.

In the corridors and passageways, one can feel the coolness of adobe, see time"s passage in the crackling and crumbling ofthe walls.

On a sunny day, the reconstructed church glows with light and, while there"s no stained glass, the interior manages to be both rustic and graceful. A gold-hued archway is set against a background of brilliant blue, inset with stars, and in front of the altar stands a metal baptismal font. The Stations of the Cross, their paint darkened by the brushstroke of age, adorn the walls throughout, and standing sentry at the back of the church is an ancient organ. Few concessions to the modern day are visible, other than a sign notifying visitors of the presence of a video surveillance system.

Each year, the mission draws an estimated 15,000 visitors.

San Antonio de Padua survives today as a working parish of about 35 families, but that"s not enough marriages and deaths and births to require a full-time priest, nor can the parish afford the cost along with the mission"s upkeep.

Up the road, the Carmel Mission offers a much different experience.

The grandest of the county"s missions, it features a thriving parish and a parochial school, as well as five on-site museums and collection with 35,000 pieces of art and artifacts. Its imposing church, built of sandstone from the nearby Santa Lucia range, is designated as a National Historic Landmark. Chandeliers hang the length of the church, and an awe-inspiring 30-foot ornamental backdrop, or reredo, of intricate detail is set behind the altar.

In 1961, the mission was granted status as a Minor Basilica by the Pope. The designation, says the mission"s pastor, Father John Griffin, indicates the importance of the church site in the history of the Roman Catholic church as headquarters for the mission system in its heyday and the burial place for Father Junipero Serra, the California mission founder who died there in 1784. He was buried before the mission"s main altar.

Each year, approximately 125,000 people visit the mission, said Griffin, and in 1987, one of them included Pope John Paul II on his U.S. tour.

It takes four full-time employees and a small army of volunteers, including docents and gardeners, to maintain the grounds. The mission gardens include a historic plant museum featuring plants the padres brought to there, such as artichokes, grapes from root stock dating back to the mission era, as well as olive trees and a pear tree of that vintage, said Griffin.

The church, constructed after Junipero Serra"s death, is distinctive among California"s missions for its Moorish architecture and arched ceilings, said Griffin.

This spring, the mission will begin a $5 million seismic improvement project designed to ensure its future integrity, and a separate project will invest $2 million into improving the museum exhibitions.

Just across the county line, the San Juan Bautista mission is more of a rustic treasure, with its simple main altar and a reredos completed by an American sailor who jumped ship in Monterey and painted the impressive ornamented wall. The mission"s history includes links to the Donner Party; the surviving Breen family used a storeroom at Mission San Juan as a temporary home.

While seeking potential mission sites, the padres were apparently unaware that the land on which San Juan Bautista sits is located smack dab over the San Andreas Fault, on one of the more active earthquake zones in California. As a result, the mission has seen its share of restoration.

While San Juan Bautista and the Carmel Mission - once close to ruins - has seen extensive restoration, the passage of time has not been as kind to Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, established in 1971 by Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen.

Twice restored after floods, the mission was demolished by a third and final flood. The small chapel on the mission grounds is a recreation, built in the 1950s, where visitors can still see the original Stations of the Cross. In addition to a small gift shop, museum rooms showcase history and artifacts ranging from old medicine bottles and boots to silver bread boards and bibles.

The bread board was gifted by the San Gabriel Mission in 1791, along with an altar cake iron used to press and bake bread for the host used during mass.

Behind that structure are the stumps of foundation, slowly crumbling to ruin, that are, in essence, the graves of a once-flourishing mission.

Signs mark the grist mill where grain was ground into meal, the blacksmith and carpenter shops; more visible are the remains of Indian workshops.

Each year, the mission draws about 12,000 visitors.

And it is the Soledad Mission that particularly interests Mendoza.

During an architectural dig a few years ago, Mendoza and his students unearthed the original site of the mission"s 15-mile aqueduct. He also believes the mission to be the site of the first medical treatise written in California. While researching "The California Mission Sourcebook," he found that Father Francisco de Sarilla had written a guide for friars, in 1830, to save infants via Caesarian section when the mother was ill.

"One can argue," said Mendoza, "that Soledad is responsible for the first original contribution to medicine in California."

Mendoza, who grew up in Fresno, said he became interested in history after a fourth-grade mission trip to San Juan Bautista. "If it weren"t for that trip, I don"t know if I would have aspired to history, or even college."

The missions, he said, are invaluable links to our past, and so much more, including art and architecture. Required study matter for California fourth-graders, they are also a source of interest and inspiration for visitors year-round.

"I think it"s important that these sites be recognized for what they are," said Mendoza. "It could very well be that the next time a mission is damaged in an earthquake, it could be bulldozed. If we as a society don"t cherish those landscapes, we don"t deserve those choices."