May 24, 2013

Vacation / Travel Supplement

In the footsteps of Junipero Serra: California missions pilgrimage

Pictured is La Purisima Concepcion Mission in California. (Submitted photo)

Pictured is La Purisima Concepcion Mission in California. (Submitted photo)

By Thomas J. Rillo (Special to The Criterion)

CALIFORNIA—One does not have to travel abroad to go on a pilgrimage. There are places in the United States that make a pilgrimage possible.

Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad sponsored such a pilgrimage last October to holy sites in California. Benedictine Brother Maurus Zoeller, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, hosted the trip. In all, 30 pilgrims from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio participated, myself included.

The pilgrimage began in San Diego, where the pilgrims learned the history of the founding of the state’s missions.

Blessed Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest in the 18th century, was the driving force in the Spanish colonization of what is now California. Known as the “Apostle of California,” he helped establish several missions across the state that helped bring the faith to Native Americans in the area.

Three other priests—Francisco Palou, Juan Crespi and Fermin Lasuen—were assigned to help him. The Church was responsible for the religious conversion of the indigenous people, and the Spanish government was responsible for the acquisition of land for the king of Spain. There were a total of 21 missions founded in the mission chain between 1769 and 1823.

We visited 11 of these missions on our pilgrimage, beginning the first day with a visit to Mission San Diego de Alcala, known as the “Mother of the Missions.” It was the first mission founded by Father Serra. The mission was a glistening white structure situated on a hillside.

It was founded on July 16, 1769, and was later destroyed by Native Americans. Father Serra returned to the mission in 1776, and began to restore the church and mission buildings.

We next traveled to Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, Calif., which was founded by Saint Meinrad Archabbey in 1957.

The abbey’s church was designed by Benedictine Father Gabriel Chavez de la Mora, a monk from Mexico City, who was also an architect. It features an impressive icon on the wall behind the altar painted by Father Gabriel.

Dedicated on Oct. 21, 1987, the church is marked by colorful stained-glass windows that span entire walls.

Leaving Prince of Peace Abbey, the group traveled to San Luis Rey Mission, the “King of the Missions.” Of all the missions, San Luis Rey was and remains the largest. Construction of the present church there began in 1811. It is one of only two missions churches built in the shape of a cross.

The next day, we journeyed along El Camino Real, “The Royal Highway” that was the road along which the 21 missions were built. Our first stop was the San Juan Capistrano Mission. It is known for the mysterious arrival and departure of swallows.

They arrive on March 19 every year. This mission was established on Oct. 30, 1775, by Father Fermin Lauren. It is the seventh mission in the chain of missions, and it is famous for its beautiful gardens. It is known as the “Jewel of the Missions.” The great stone church is the largest of the mission churches, and it took nine years to build it.

Continuing our journey, we made our way to Mission Buenaventura, which is called “Mission by the Sea.” On March 31, 1782—Easter Sunday—Father Serra raised a cross and celebrated Mass to found his ninth and final mission. It was named for St. Bonaventure.

The first mission church there burned and the second was abandoned during construction because the entrance door gave way. The present church was started in 1792 and finished in 1809. An earthquake in 1812 and tidal waves destroyed the church. It was rebuilt in 1815.

The next day, we traveled to the majestic Santa Barbara Mission, also known as the “Queen of the Missions.” Santa Barbara Mission was founded by Father Fermin Lasuen. He became Father Serra’s successor in leading the California missions. The early churches of this mission were frequently destroyed by earthquakes and then rebuilt. It is famous for its Romanesque architecture and magnificent views.

We enjoyed a short visit to Solvang, a jewel of a town with a Danish heritage. It is famous for its baked goods. After a Danish lunch, we traveled to Santa Inez Mission. It was the 19th mission and was named for St. Agnes. It is probably the prettiest of all the missions. It is called “Hidden Gem of the Missions.” Father Estaban Tapis founded the mission on Sept. 17, 1804, in Solvang. The original buildings were damaged by the earthquake of 1812 and rebuilt.

The next morning, we journeyed to La Purisma Conception Mission. It is today a 966-acre state historic park that has been restored to an authentic working mission complete with animals, tallow works, a weavery, and an olive crusher. The mission was founded by Father Fermin Lasuen in 1787. After the earthquake of 1812, the mission was relocated five miles to the east. The interpretative center was outstanding.

Our next destination was San Luis Obispo Mission. It was the first mission to make fire resistant red clay roof tiles that we observed throughout California on modern buildings. It was the fifth mission and was founded on Sept. 1, 1772, by Father Serra. It is located in the “Valley of the Bears,” which got its name from the many bears that inhabited the area. The bears were hunted and the meat shared with other missions and with the Native Americans, who appreciated the work of Father Serra and the mission.

Pilgrims from Bloomington were curious about the next mission visited—San Carlos Borromeo—since a parish in the southern Indiana city shares its patron saint, St. Charles Borromeo.

It is located in Carmel, Calif., the hometown of actor Clint Eastwood. Because Carmel is an upscale community and buses are not allowed, the pilgrim group had to have a police car escort into and out of the town to eat breakfast at a well-known café.

The mission itself is situated outside the perimeter of the town proper. It is a beautiful mission, and has been restored to its former elegance. It was the second mission and was founded on June 3, 1770, by Father Serra at Monterey Presidio but moved to Carmel a year later.

In the cemetery alongside the church is the tombstone of “Old Gabriel,” a mission Indian. According to the inscription on the tombstone, he was baptized by Father Serra and lived to the questionable age of 151. Father Serra died at age 70 on Aug. 28, 1784, at the “Mission Carmel” as San Carlos Borromeo is also known.

Having traveled the better part of the 600-mile journey, we arrived in the San Francisco area. We visited San Francisco Solano Mission, the last and northernmost mission in California’s chain of missions. It is named for St. Francis Solano, who was a missionary to natives of Peru, and was founded by Father Jose Altimira.

The final and 11th mission visited was the mission of San Francisco De Asis. It was founded by Father Francisco Palou on June 26, 1776, in Yerba Buena and is named for St. Francis of Assisi. It is also known as “Mission Dolores.” The mission building was the first built in San Francisco. It was built so well that it was unharmed during the great earthquake and fire of 1906. The church building is the oldest in the city of San Francisco.

The 10 remaining missions are not all in as good condition or as well restored as the missions that we visited.

During the pilgrimage, we learned of and admired the tenacity and courage of Father Serra. Standing only 5-feet-tall, he had a tenacious will that exuded great power.

Despite injuries and sickness, he had a faith and determination that carried him to success as the builder of missions. He left a safe university teaching career and accepted the challenge extended to him by the Spanish government. We also learned that forces of nature can be intimidating and bring out the best characteristics in people.

Earthquakes and fires as well as Native American attacks did not dismay the friars’ commitment to ministering and preaching the Gospel to them, all of which was founded on a sincere love for them.

We also learned that one does not need to travel halfway around the world to visit a pilgrimage site. One can take a pilgrimage close to home.

(Thomas J. Rillo is a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington, a Benedictine oblate of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad and an occasional freelance writer for The Criterion.)

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