It was about the turn of the century (I love that phrase) that Istarted taking a bit more than a passing interest in the California missions and the rich history surrounding them. For the uninitiated I am referring to the 21 missions started by the Dominican Friar, Junipero Serra, the first one built right here in San Diego in 1769 and the final one in the Napa Valley some years later.
In truth I was motivated by a couple of commercial outfits that no one would suspect of such an endeavor. One of these was a department store, Mervyn’s, that is no longer in business. Mervyn’s sponsored a PBS program on the missions that aired periodically. In addition to that the store featured, for sale, genuine replicas of the mission buildings. These were very popular and entire sets were collected by some.
The other company was Standard Oil who commissioned an artist to do vintage watercolors the prints of which were given away to gasoline buyers. Seems strange for a gas company to give anything away but this was a different age.
According to some notes written at that time I made six separate trips in the quest of seeing the missions. The idea was to photograph them and speak to docents and other principals at each venue. I almost accomplished my goal.
There were two that we bypassed and missed altogether and this seems rather strange since they are both in the Los Angeles area, a freeway or two from here. And here enters son, David.
Regular readers of this space might recall that a year ago David and I took a short one-week excursion to the desert, visiting almost everything in the Palm Springs area. This was in that period shortly after the death of my wife, Zula, when I received encouragement from all quarters to get away for a while. Not wishing to argue I acquiesced. As if on schedule a month or so ago I heard from David and he suggested that it was about time we took another of those trips but this time we should opt for a coastal quest. A leisurely ride up the California Coast: who could resist such a treat?
At David’s suggestion we started by taking a drive to the Los Angeles area to visit the two missions there, the ones that we skipped some years ago. I really don’t understand why it took so long because within a couple of hours from Bonita we were at the first of these, San Gabriel the Archangel.
The one characteristic that we can say about each mission is that are all going to differ in some parts. San Gabriel, for example, is in the heart of a community of the same name but almost lost among a cluster of small commercial establishments. The other one, San Fernando Rey de Espana, scarcely 30 minutes away, is on property large enough to house a standard golf course.
San Gabriel, named for the Archangel, was established in 1771 by Father Serra. The main building itself resembles more a fortress than a church. The walls are made of brick five foot thick and the windows are narrow of a type not found in any of the other missions. On our previous trips we learned that the missions were supposed to be one day’s walk from the adjoining one. It is scarcely that distance from the sister Los Angeles Mission, San Fernando Rey de Espana.
We were at San Gabriel’s on a weekday afternoon and saw half a dozen school busses deposit classes of children from neighboring schools. In a conversation with one of the docents that escorted us this was the norm. San Gabriel was visited as much as the others
Next week we will continue events of this latest jaunt. I will touch on San Fernanco and Santa Ines, two that I think are the favorites of many mission aficionados.