Mission San Luis Rey was the womb of North County settlement as well as
its economic heartbeat and social center well into the last century.
There had always been a hefty Indian community populating the valley,
which inhabitants called Quechla. Then came European conquerors at a time
when Spanish rule girdled the globe.
Accompanying the 18th-century conquistadors on their march of California
conquest were Franciscan friars dedicated to spreading the Gospel. One of
their footholds was on a rolling knoll overlooking a lush valley sustained
by a river that empties into the Pacific Ocean just a breeze away.
Three distinct stages of evolution are visible in the development of
Mission San Luis Rey.
There are its first three decades, when it flourished and became the
largest and most successful self-sustaining operation in California's
Then there's its renaissance that began in the 1890's after almost a
half-century of abandonment. Its reconstruction is still going on today.
It's about to enter its third phase as an historic icon becoming a
successful self-marketing spiritual enterprise in the modern materialistic
The expedition that passed through in 1769 named the valley San Juan
Capistrano and earmarked it as a site for a future mission. The site had
the most important ingredient for a successful mission operation: water.
The troupe was on its way to Northern California from Mission San Diego de
Alcala to establish a Spanish buffer to ward off enterprising Russians. It
took almost 30 years for the friars to return because they were busy in
filling missions along El Camino Real.
By the time Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen was ready to open the 18th
California mission on this site June 13, 1798, Mission San Juan Capistrano
was already in place. The founding date was the Feast of St. Anthony de
Padua, but the chain already had a mission named after him.
The 17th mission, San Fernando Rey de Espana, was founded a year earlier
and had been named for Spain's saintly king. So, in a gesture of
international amity, the mission on El Camino Real (Royal Road) between
Mission San Diego de Alcala and Mission San Juan Capistrano was named after
King Louis IX of France.
This was the last of the nine missions founded by Lasuen. The first nine
California missions were established by Father Junipero Serra, who died
four years earlier at Mission San Carlos Borromeo.
The padre responsible for the initial success of this enterprise was
Father Antonio Peyri, who began supervising construction of the complex
from the first day. As was the custom, he was assigned a companion -
Father Jose Faura.
Apparently 29-year-old Peyri and his squad of seven soldiers assuaged the
locals fears with small talk and gifts because, as Pablo Tac, a Native
American historian, wrote:
"It was great mercy that the Indians did not kill the Spanish when they
arrived because they have never wanted another people to live with them
and, until those days, they were always fighting."
According to an account by Father Domingo Rivas, the two friars "were
appointed to establish a settlement without any other aid than some
pickaxes, a dozen plow-shares, half a dozen crowbars, some blankets, a
quantity of flannel and two dozen bolts of cloth with which to clothe the
During his 34 years as guardian - the longest tenure in its history -
Peyri and his fellow Franciscan not only catechized and baptized the Native
Americans here, but they also taught the San Luiseno tribe of Mission
Indians new methods of construction and agriculture.
The mission became home to some 3,000 Native Americans. The church was
completed and dedicated on the Feast of St. Francis, Oct. 4, 1815. It's
the only one in the California chain with a wooden dome. The original
pulpit still stands inside.
Mission San Luis Rey grew into the largest building in the Californias
before it was ripped out of Spain's grasp by the emerging Mexican nation.
The original adobe quadrangle covered 6 acres. And despite being deserted
and cannibalized for more than a half a century, it has risen back to its
pre-eminence as the largest of the 21 missions that form the backbone of
California's El Camino Real.
Farms and pasture land extend 15 miles in all directions from the mission
and it produced as much as 67,000 bushels of grain a year.
Some 27,000 cattle and 26,000 sheep grazed here, providing the locals with
meat as well as hides, wool and tallow that were traded for tools and other
necessities. These exports were carted to the port at San Diego to be
shipped off to Spain.
A laundry, under reconstruction in front of the church, was fed by two
natural warm-water springs that the natives used for bathing and washing
Then the course of history changed. The Spaniards were ousted from
Mexico in 1821. The new nation gave the Franciscans another 10 years to
teach the Native Americans to read and write. Mexico began secularizing
church property in the 1830's.
About this time, the giant pepper tree, the grandfather of all
California's pepper trees, was planted on the mission grounds. It still
stands in the quadrangle.
Peyri, to save himself the embarrassment of a lengthy farewell, sneaked
off to San Diego to catch a ship back to Spain. Accompanying him was a
Native American lad named Pablo Tac.
Although the Native Americans were supposed to receive former mission
land, not many were in a position to maintain it for more than a few years.
So California Gov. Pico Pico began selling tracts of mission land to
friends and family. The parcels were formed in ranchos.
One of them, the 133,440-acre Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, was
first controlled by the governor's brother-in-law. It eventually was
purchased by the U.S. government and dedicated as Camp Pendleton in 1942.
Mission San Luis Rey was sold in 1846 for $2,437. The buildings were
scavenged for material for other structures. Most of the 36 magnificent
arches stretching west across the front of the mission collapsed. Twelve
that have been reconstructed are all that remain today.
Native Americans, abandoned along with the mission, remained in the region
and tended to the more than 3,000 of their ancestors buried in and around
Still buried at the mission are the bodies of Fathers Francisco Ibarra and
Jose Maria Zalvidea, the last two guardians at the mission before it was
sold. These two guardians - from 1837 to 1846 - were buried under the
church floor to mark the end of an era. Mexico had announced the mission
would be taken out of the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, and it was
believed at that time that it was the end of any Franciscan connection with
this or any other mission.
American and Mexican soldiers streamed through the mission during the
1840's. Then the Treaty of Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and
California became the 34th state.
Legendary scout Kit Carson led Capt. Stephen Kearny and his troops when
they established an encampment that lasted from 1846 to 1857 at the
mission. They were charged with protecting the mission and its inhabitants.
Just a month before he was assassinated in April 1865, President Lincoln
signed a proclamation restoring Mission San Luis Rey to the Roman Catholic
bishop of Los Angeles. These documents are housed in the mission's museum.
But it took another three decades before the mission's second life began.
In 1892, a group of Franciscans fleeing from persecution in their native
Mexico came to the mission. These religious refugees from Zacatecas were
joined by the Rev. Joseph O'Keefe, the "rebuilder of the missions," who was
the guardian there for 19 years. Most of the major restoration work
visible today was completed during his stewardship.
During the 1920s and '30s, the mission was the location for several motion
pictures. Television's "Zorro" series was shot there during the late '50s.
A celebratory Mass and fiesta pageant marked its sesquicentennial in 1948.
San Luis Rey College, which is ow the mission's retreat center with 55
bedrooms, was built in the late 1940's.
The Mission San Luis Rey Parish was re-established in the original church
in 1892. Fifteen years later, the Franciscans invited the Sisters of the
Precious Blood to open a school on the grounds.
The nuns opened the Academy of the Little Flower in 1928 and enlarged it
in 1948. The academy closed in late 1977 when the parish was experiencing rapid
growth. That same year, through the Diocese of San Diego, the parish
leased the school land immediately east of the mission church and cemetery.
The parish bought the property four years later. Franciscan priests
continue to serve the parish for the diocese and still celebrate Saturday
night Mass in the original church.
The Serra Center, where the 3,400 families in the Mission San Luis Rey
Parish attend Sunday Mass, was opened in October 1996.
It is also the largest conference hall in Oceanside, making the mission
complex a center of community events as it was 200 years ago.