Discovery Of A Mission, And A Few New Friends – San Diego de Alcalá, CA

The Missions of California (map from

If you come to California one of the “must do” items, in my mind, is to visit the Missions. The Missions here have their own unique story and there are over 21 of these historic settlements scattered along the coastal trail that we now know as Hwy 101 (a great RV drive too, by the way). From the very first Europeans to inhabit California to the heady days of early frontier living the Missions were a transformative part of the State’s history. Many were lost and rebuilt, a very few were attacked (surprisingly few considering their purpose), but the gorgeous adobe buildings remain as a testament to a Spanish force that forever changed the way of life of Native Americans on the West Coast.

We were on a mission to a Mission to discover where it all started…..and we were going to meet some new friends too! Our chosen spot was California’s very first mission San Diego de Alcalá, and our new friends were RV folks (always the best!) who we’d met through our blog -> Lu and Terry of Paint Your Landscape. And BOTH were utterly fabulous!

A touch of modern on old adobe walls
Gorgeous Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcalá
Paul chats with Lu and Terry in the Mission gardens

When we met Lu and Terry we immediately hit it off (as we so often do with travelling folks like ourselves) and joked about the fact that since we both wrote a blog, it would easy to just say “see the other’s post” for what we did that day. Well Lu beat me to the punch and since she wrote such a great history of the place that’s exactly what I’m gonna do…so go see this post! She’s got all the juicy stuff so I’m just going to do my own very short version with impressions of the Mission from that day.

The Padre’s living quarters, as they appeared around late 1700’s

The Mission itself was started in  July 16, 1769, when Franciscan Fathers Junipero Serra, Palou and Parron dug a hole eight feet into the beach-head near the mouth of the San Diego River, planted a large cross and held mass. A bell was suspended from the limb of a nearby tree and the site was dedicated to St. Didacus (San Diego). It was the very first Mission in California, the “Mother of the Alta California Missions”, it was completely isolated (there was literally NOTHING there) and it must have taken quite some guts to get it going.

For the next ~100 years the mission went through a bunch of transformations. In 1774 it was moved 6 miles inland, in 1775 it was attacked and burnt to the ground by the Native Americans (the event remains the single biggest attack on a Mission in California history), in 1833 repossesed through Mexican Secularization, in 1847 taken over by the American Military and then (finally) completely abandoned. It was a total wreck and barebones structure that was returned to the Catholic Church in 1862 and it took until 1930 to fully restore to its former glory.

That’s the short-version story of the place. The present-day impression is a beautiful, white-washed adobe structure that maintains an active church (and school), contains a wonderful little museum, several simple (but pretty) chapels and manicured, bloomingly wonderful gardens. It’s topped off by “The Capanario“, a gorgeous 46-foot tower of bells whose musical tolls were an integral part of early life at the Mission. The bells are one of the first things you notice when you arrive and put a real mark of distinction on the place.

Father Junipero Serra gives thanks to God for the arrival of supplies (1771)

We spent a good hour and a half walking around, enjoying the grounds and learning about the history. I tried to imagine the dedication (fervour?) it must have taken these early priests to come to a barren land and impose a foreign way of life on the locals. Quite predictably the early years were fraught with clashes with the Kumeyaay Indians and conditions must have been harsh with biting-cold winters, baking hot summers, limited supplies and struggling agriculture.

Yet the relationship did produce good too. The Spanish introduced livestock, fruit, flowers, grain and water-ways, the very first of which (Padre Dam) was built right here in San Diego and provided water to the Mission and surrounding lands.

All 4 of us thoroughly enjoyed both the visit to the Mission and the rest of the day hanging out in town. Lu and Terry are workamping up at San Elijo State Park so if you go there, drop on by and say “hi”.  We’ve plans to meet again too, so if you didn’t make the first mission, be ready for our next one….

The Capanario = the gorgeous bell tower
Just a sampling of many gorgeous flowers in the Mission gardens
The Mission Church
Statue of Jesus and Mary in the Pieta Garden
Another front-view of the Mission
View down the front of the Mission hall
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  1. says

    We visit every Mission we can. There are many in Texas that are just beautiful and have wonderful stories. I agree…what dedication. Several of the Missions in San Antonio area were set up to convert the Indians to Christianity. I can’t image the language barrier. Great photos.
    Enjoy your Sunday. ~wheresweaver

    • libertatemamo says

      Texas does have some great missions. Each with their own story and so very interesting to visit!

    • libertatemamo says

      North of San Francisco 101 you run out of missions, but you hit the lighthouses!! Lots of gorgeous lighthouses along the OR coast and all are well worth the stop! Nina

  2. says

    Hi Nina,
    Bob and I learned more about the Mission San Diego de Alcala than we would have touring the mission itself. Every time we drive down Friars Road past the Stadium towards Grantville, I think about going to the mission. I think the last time I was there was when my elementary school class went there on a field trip. I must put this on my to do list. Thanks.
    ps. we are leaving beautiful Azna Borrego tomorrow to spend a few days at the Salton Sea. Looking forward to seeing you at the Strand.

    • libertatemamo says

      Hope you guys avoid the big winds!! Look forward to meeting up when you get over to the coast.

  3. Sheila says

    I did a doubletake when I saw your photo of the bell tower at Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcalá. We have a watercolor painting of it that we bought at Balboa Park on our honeymoon in September of 1971.

    • libertatemamo says

      What an interesting coincidence! It’s definitely one of the prettier bell-towers I’ve seen.

  4. Terry says

    Missions and churches nationwide make for great photography, which are one of my favorite subjects. If you find yourself in Montana on the Flathead Indian Reservation you might consider a visit to the St Ignatius Mission. The interior is spectacular. Painted by Brother Joseph Carignano, the cook at the mission.

    • libertatemamo says

      A great link, Terry. Many churches I hadn’t heard about on that list. Thanks for sharing!

  5. says

    Oh my, what a beautiful place. We lived in California off and on for a very large part of our lives and have seen many of the Missions. We have always wanted to do a tour of all 21 in one year. Have we ever done that? No. Do you suppose we will? Hard to say, but it’s still out there as a possibility. Thanks for this delightful tour, and we’ll watch for the next one.


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