California’s first Spanish mission in San Diego.

Facade of old Mission San Diego seen from parking lot.
Facade of old Mission San Diego seen from parking lot below.

A month or so ago I finally visited the famous Mission San Diego de Alcala. I’ve lived in San Diego for many years, and have driven past this important historical landmark many times, but I’d never stepped inside. Writing this blog compels me to check out cool new sights!

Built in 1774 by the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, the building you see was the first of 21 Spanish missions in California. It was constructed several miles inland of the Pacific Ocean near the San Diego River. (The very first mission was actually built in 1769 at the old Presidio, but later relocated to this more fertile location.)

In 1775, just one year after it was built, the mission was burned to the ground by native Indians. Father Junipero Serra returned the next year to rebuild the church and mission buildings.

Over the years the San Diego Mission became very prosperous, with vineyards, orchards and thousands of cattle in its possession. Hundreds of baptized Native American Kumeyaay, whom the friars named Dieguenos, did most of the work.

History is rich here. The mission was claimed by Mexico in 1821, then used by the United States Cavalry after the US-Mexican War. Today its unique facade is one of the most iconic sights in San Diego. Unfortunately, it’s a slightly out-of-the-way place that relatively few tourists visit.

In case you can’t stop by, I took a few photos!

El Camino Real bell near California's first mission.
El Camino Real bell just outside California’s first mission.

These bells on posts mark the primitive road, the King’s Highway, that connected the Spanish missions in California.

La Playa Trail ran along San Diego River from the bay.
La Playa Trail ran along San Diego River from the bay.

You might have read about the La Playa Trail in Two Years Before the Mast. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. rode horseback down it with his friend to enjoy meals at the old mission. The west end, La Playa, located just inside San Diego Bay, is the place where Dana worked for several months in 1835 drying cattle hides.

Sculpture of friar with cross in front of mission bells.
Sculpture of Padre Serra with cross in front of the campanario, containing the mission bells.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala holds Catholic Mass.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala holds regular Catholic Mass.

The historic church has remained active for many centuries.

Corridor in front of mission has plaques and statues of saints.
Corridor in front of mission has plaques and statues of saints.

Small statues of saints in the small nooks along the wall represent the nine missions that Father Junipero Serra founded.

Petra de Mallorca, Spain linked to Father Junipero Serra.
Petra de Mallorca, Spain linked to Father Junipero Serra.
Padres' living quarters with adobe walls and wooden beams.
Padres’ living quarters with adobe walls and wooden beams.

Now we’re inside one of the various mission buildings. The self-guided tour proceeds clockwise around the central square.

Beautiful radiant altar inside the quiet church sanctuary.
Beautiful radiant altar inside the quiet church sanctuary.

The church inside is beautiful and invites reflection.

Garden courtyard by sanctuary contains sunlit statues.
Garden courtyard by sanctuary contains sunlit statues.
Flowers and peaceful walkways lead to holy figures.
Flowers and peaceful walkways lead to holy figures.

Many birds were about and almost no weekend visitors.

Rear view of the Mission San Diego bell tower.
Rear view of the Mission San Diego bell tower, or campanario.
Small tile-roofed shine with Christ on the cross.
Small tile-roofed shine with Christ on the cross.
Modern abstract mural lines wall above wood bench.
Modern abstract mural lines wall above wood bench.

This and the following photo were taken in a space between the garden and a small one-room museum.

Sculpted Pieta with Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Sculpted Pieta with Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Inside the small mission chapel.
Inside the small mission chapel.

This small chapel can be found at one corner of the central square.

Fountain at center of San Diego mission's central square.
Fountain at center of San Diego mission’s central square.
Moving sculpture of Christ after the crucifixion.
Moving sculpture of Christ after the crucifixion.
Native American Kumeyaay hut built of willow branches.
Native American Kumeyaay hut built of willow branches.

The local Kumeyaay provided the labor that enriched the mission. This hut near an excavation site is an example of where they lived while the friars enjoyed greater comforts.

Mission's old foundation investigated by archaeologists.
Mission’s old foundation investigated by archaeologists.
The distinctive facade of California's first Spanish mission.
The distinctive facade of California’s first Spanish mission.

In San Diego, those who hunger for colorful sights and local history should remember to swing by California’s very first Spanish mission in–you guessed it–Mission Valley!

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Published by

Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

2 thoughts on “California’s first Spanish mission in San Diego.”

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