Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo


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San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo

Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo
Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo
Mission Interior
Mission Altar
Mission side Altar
Mission Courtyard
Mission Courtyard
Mission Fountain
Mission Interior
Mission Belltower
Icon of the Theotokos
Cross in Garden
Flowered Corridor
Green Corridor
Fr. Junipero Serra's Cell

Second Mission
Date Founded: June 3, 1770
Founder: Father Junipero Serra
Named for: Saint Charles Borromeo
Carmel Mission Basilica
Rio Road and Lasuen Drive
P. O. Box 2235
Carmel, CA 93921

Visiting hours:
Monday - Saturday: 9:30 - 4:30 pm
Sunday 10:15 - 4:15 pm
June 1 - August 31 9:30 - 7:15 pm

Contact Information:
Phone: (831) 624-1271
Fax: (831) 624-8050



On the first day of June, 1770, the Spanish packet San Antonio put into the pine-bordered harbor of Monterey. It had been over a month in covering the more than 400 miles from San Diego. Once ashore, the passengers, including Father Juan Crespi with Father Junípero Serra at their head, were surrounded by the men of Governor Gaspar de Portolá's land expedition. The latter group, which left the southern mission after the sailing of the San Antonio, had arrived more than a week before. During their wait, Portolá realized that he had camped on the shores of Monterey on his previous journey without recognizing the harbor.

Establishment of Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo

Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo was founded on June 3, 1770 by Father Junipero Serra, Presidente of the California Missions Chain. It was the 2nd mission in the 21 mission chain in Alta California. It was named for Saint Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan. The original location was at the Royal Presidio of Monterey, located "two gunshots from the beach" and adjacent to Lake El Estero in Monterey. The original location of the Mission and Presidio is now the site of the San Carlos Cathedral. In the summer of 1771, building was started by 40 Indians from Baja California Missions, 3 soldiers and 5 sailors. This was to be Father Serra's headquarters in California.

Early on June 3, 1770, Gaspar de Portola and the others gatherred under a mighty oak tree by a ravine running into the bay. It was thought that this tree was the same one under which the Carmelites with Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602 had said the first Mass in the area. Again it was chosen as the site for the Eucharistic Liturgy. Serra relates that after Mass Portola observed a nicety of protocol by declaring that the "primary purpose" of the king was to extend the faith, so the cross should preced the flag. For that reason, Serra first erected the cross and founded the mission; then there followed the act of taking possession.

One year after the dedication, its location was moved to a more fertile area near the Rio Carmelo. Mission San Carlos de Borromeo became the center of religious control in California, with Fr. Junipero Serra as "padre presidente." Fr. Serra dedicated nine missions before his death in 1784. The office of "padre presidente" went to his friend, Fr. Fermin Francisco de Lasuen.

Mission Life

After the joyous religious ceremony which accompanied the raising of the Spanish flag, news of the occupation was immediately dispatched overland to the authorities in Mexico. Within a few weeks, a church was erected, and the military presidio settled into a business-like routine. The heavy stands of forest that surround the settlement made adequate housing easy to construct. Rough as it was, it presented an almost luxurious contrast to the mud and brush shelters in San Diego. Fr. Serra found the climate and surroundings of Monterey so much to his liking that it became his favorite mission and the headquarters of the mission chain. In July, 1770, Portolá turned his command over to Lieutenant Fages, and departed forever from the pages of California history. The new military commander was unlike the easy-going Portolá and immediately began to inject himself into mission affairs.

Serra realized that Monterey was not a very good location for his mission. There were too few Indians and it was too close to the presidio and the soldiers (some of whom were "leather-jacket" soldiers, who were often recruited from jails).

Serra did not want his Indian neophytes exposed to their influence. Also, there was no good agricultural land around Monterey, and the mission would have to grow much of its own food. When the ship San Antonio left on July 9, 1770, just five weeks after the founding of Monterey, it carried a message asking permission to move the mission to Carmel.

Permission to relocate the mission was received in May of 1771, and by July Serra began working in the Carmel Valley on the new site for the mission. Serra directed some of the construction himself, using four neophytes (converted Indians) from Baja California, five soldiers and three sailors. The first mass was held at that location on August 24, 1771, and Serra officially moved into the newly constructed buildings on December 24, 1771.

The church at the Monterey Presidio continued in use for the soldiers of the garrison until 1794, when it was replaced by the structure which is still in use as a place of worship. The abandoned church at the presidio became the Church of the Royal Presidio and later the San Carlos Cathedral.

As at the presidio, the first buildings at the new mission site were logs stuck into the ground, with additional logs forming a framework for a thatched roof. The first buildings included one room for a chapel, a four-room dwelling, a granary, and a dwelling for the servants and its kitchen. These were surrounded by a stockade about 130 by 200 feet in size, which included a guardhouse for the soldiers.

After the new mission had been settled, life was divided between short intervals of sufficiency followed by long waits for additional supplies from Mexico. The early years were hard, with few provisions. The padres depended mostly on the Indians for supplies. Later local crops became sufficient, and the temporary buildings were replaced with adobe structures.

By the end of 1771, the population of northern California had reached at least 60, with 31 at the Presidio of Monterey, 14 at Mission San Antonio, and 15 at Mission San Carlos (Carmel). In addition, there were 22 baptized Indians at Carmel.

Farming was not very productive in the early years, and the supply ships often did not arrive. Culleton writes about the difficulties the missionaries faced:

The summer of '73 came without bringing the supply ship. Neither Carmel nor Monterey was anything like self-supporting. The presidio had some cattle and the stock belonging to the projected northern missions. No doubt there had been some planting but certainly no more than was necessary for its own personnel. In December '72 Father Crespi had sown about five bushels of wheat and a bit of barley in the field called San José. Early in '73 he planted a few pecks of beans and corn in the field called San Carlos. The land in both cases was but poorly spaded as they were not able to plow. July 5 there fell a frost which ruined the beans and half the corn. The rest yielded about fifteen bushels.

This situation continued until agricultural efforts began to flourish in the late 70's. In 1774, during the visit of de Anza, who had led the first overland party from Mexico Fr. Palou's embarrassment at the lack of provisions for his guests finds eloquent expression in his diary. Nevertheless, the mission boasted 165 Indian converts by the end of 1783.

In May, 1774, upon his return to Carmel after a journey to Mexico, which required about a year and a half, Fr. Serra found himself increasingly in the defense of his missions. He lived in a little hut adjacent to the mission where he pursued the life of an ascetic and administered the affairs of the growing mission chain. During his conferences with the viceroy in Mexico, he had succeeded in having Commandante Fages removed but Rivera y Moncada, who followed Fages was, if anything, more difficult. There were to be even darker days ahead after Rivera's removal to Loreto, and the arrival in Monterey of Governor Filipe de Neve.

The moving of the capitol from Lower California to Monterey was followed by the transfer of California affairs from the friendly viceroy, Bucareli, to the newly created office of commandant-general, occupied by Teodoro de Croix. The latter, more concerned in other fields of colonization, was inclined to rely upon de Neve, whose opposition to the Franciscans was not unlike the contentiousness, which the military commanders Fages and Rivera had displayed.

He seems to have regarded the colony simply as an outpost of Spanish empire and was not personally interested in the welfare of the Indians, whom he distrusted. He was anxious to make California's mission establishments into thriving communities, well-populated with citizens of Spanish blood. To accomplish this, he began forcing the Franciscans out of the economic and political phases of colonial life and encouraged immigration. Fr. Junípero resolutely opposed de Neve and, while he succeeded in defeating the governor's aggressive acts against the established missions, the struggle caused a long delay in mission expansion. Only one new mission was founded in the period between 1777 and December, 1786.

Already the illustrious names connected with the early days of the missions were beginning to pass. On January 1, 1782, the constant journalist of those Spartan beginnings, Padre Juan Crespi, friend and co-worker with Serra, passed to his reward. A year later, Fr. Serra, in his seventieth year, made his last journey down El Camino Real and then settled back in his beloved Carmel to await the end he knew would not be long in coming. He died August 28, 1784, attended by his old friend and life-long companion, Fr. Palou. Father Serra had devoted 54 years of his life to the cause of Saint Francis, of which the last 15 in California had been the most difficult and exacting. He often made long journeys on foot to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation on the neophytes. He did not live to witness the mission prosperity or the imposing structures we see today but they are a part of him more than any other. At his request, he was buried beside Padre Crespi before the main altar here at Carmel.

Father Junipero Serra was a man true to his vow of poverty. When Father Junipero Serra died on August 28, 1784, his only possessions were a board cot, a blanket, one table, one chair, a chest, a candlestick, and a gourd. Nothing else. He is buried in the Mission sanctuary along with Fathers Juan Crespi and Fermin Lasuen. In 1985, Pope John Paul II declared Junipero Serra venerable and in 1988 he was beatified in recognition of his heroic virtues. He is one of the most important figures in the history of California and the United States of America.

After Father Junípero's death, Carmel remained the "parent" mission. Fr. Palou became presidente until he retired to Mexico in 1785. His successor, Father Fermín Lasuén, became presidente at the age of 49. He actively guided the missions of California for almost 20 years, and it was under his administration that they reached their greatest prosperity . During most of this period he lived at Carmel, which developed considerably under his direction, although its success never approached the impressive proportions of some of the later missions.

In 1793, Padre Lasuen undertook the construction of the present stone church. It was built with native sandstone quarried from the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains and erected on the site of the original adobe chapel. The interior walls curve inward as they rise. The ceiling follows the sweep of the walls, forming a beautiful catenary arch. The tower is of Moorish design and holds nine bells, which are reached by an outside staircase. Originally the walls were covered with burnt tile. The church was four years in construction and was dedicated in 1797. Padre Lopez, a young Franciscan, died the same year and was buried within the sanctuary.

Under Padre Fermin Lasuen the Mission reached the height of its prosperity. In 1794, the Indian population reached 927, and the crops were abundant. On June 28, 1803, Padre Lasuen died and was laid to rest beside Padre Serra. Throughout the church are interred over 200 Indians and Spaniards, among them Governor Jose Romero and the Commandante Hermenegildo Sal. In 1821, a mortuary chapel was added to the church structure.

By the year 1823 the Indian population had dwindled to 381. The Indian's lack of natural immunity to European diseases caused many illnesses and deaths. In 1833 Padre Jose Real took charge of Carmel.

The Eslenes Indians who lived near the mission were friendly and willing to help the padres with the mission. The Indians were trained as plowmen, shepherds, cattle herders, blacksmiths, and carpenters. They worked at making adobe bricks, roof tiles and tools needed to build the mission. In 1794, the Indian population reached 927, but by 1823 the total had dwindled to 381. Between 1770 and 1836, over 4,000 Indians were baptized at the Mission. The Indians who joined the Mission as neophytes provided the labor for agricultural production and for most of the construction projects.

The economy at Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo was similar to the other missions in that they planted crops of wheat and corn. They also planted vineyards, and raised cattle and sheep. The agriculture was needed not only to maintain the mission community and the nearby Indians, but was used for trade and served to visitors to the mission. In the beginning, the mission relied on bear meat from Mission San Antonio de Padua and supplies brought by ship from Mission San Diego de Alcala. In 1774, supplies ran low and the mission people almost died. In 1775 the harvest was 4 times greater, and with Juan Bautista de Anza bringing supplies by land, they no longer had to rely on ship for supplies. By 1794, there was an abundance of crops and the mission was prosperous.


After Mexico won its independence from Spain, it found that it could no longer afford to keep the missions running as Spain had done. In 1834, Mexico decided to end the mission system and sell all of the lands. They offered the lands to the Indians who did not want the lands or could not come up with the purchase price. The lands were divided into smaller Ranchos and sold to Mexican citizens who were helpful during the war for independence. After nearly 30 years, the missions were returned to the Catholic Church. Although some of the missions had already been returned to the church, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed an Act declaring that all of the 21 missions in the California mission chain would become the property of the Catholic Church and have remained so since that time. The church and quadrangle fell into ruin during this time.

Seated as it was, in the shadow of the governor's office, Carmel was always the first to endure the effect of each new mood for "mission reform." As the pressure for divorcement of the missions from their rich holdings increased, the properties of Carmel diminished. When the act of secularization finally came, not even the buildings remained in her name.

Decline and Rebirth

In 1834 the Mission was secularized, that is, the church was changed in status to a conventional parish. The mission lands were dispersed. Destruction of the mission was of life was completed by 1836. Padre Real moved his residence to Monterey and only occasionally held services at the Mission. From 1836 until the property was restored to the Church by the United States, the mission lay abandoned and decaying. The church and quadrangle fell into ruin. The United States took control of California in 1846. After a decision by the U.S. Lands Commission in 1859, title to the Mission property was returned to Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany and his successors by President James Buchanan.

Father Angelo Casanova, appointed in 1863 to the parish of San Carlos Church in Monterey, had an interest in the mission. He held mass in the ruins of the Carmel Mission on the feast day of San Carlos Borromeo. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of the event in 1879:

"...the padre drives over the hill from Monterey; the little sacristy, which is the only covered portion of the church, is filled with seats and decorated for the service; the Indians troop together, their bright dresses contrasting with their dark and melancholy faces; and there, among a crowd of somewhat unsympathetic holiday makers, you may hear God served with perhaps more touching circumstances than in any other temple under heaven. An Indian, stone blind and about eighty years of age, conducts the singing; other indians compose their choir; yet they have the Gregorian music at their finger ends and pronounce the Latin so correctly that I could follow the meaning as they sang....I have never seen faces more vividly lit up with joy than the faces of these Indian singers."

The mission became a parish church in 1933 and since that time the property has been undergoing a series of restorations. Today it is one of the outstanding historical landmarks on the California coast. The work is largely the result of two men, Father Michael D. O'Connell, pastor of the church after 1933, and Harry W. Downie, one of the leading authorities on mission architecture and reconstruction.

In 1961, the Mission was honored and designated as a Minor Basilica by Pope John XXIII.


In 1882 the graves of Friars Serra, Crespi, Lasuen, and Lopez were found. With these discoveries, Fr. Casanova was able to raise interest in restoring the Mission. He organized the partial restoration, and rededication took place on August 26, 1884. This was the centennial of Friar Serra's death. A wooden roof was put on the mission which, although saving the structure, was not in keeping with the original architectural style of the Church. In 1924 Father Ramon Mastres restored the first room of the old quadrangle and placed in it a memorial to Padre Serra and his companions who are buried at the mission. This sculpture was the work of the noted artist, Jo Mora.

In 1931, Msgr. Philip Scher appointed Harry Downie, a multi-talented artisan and cabinetmaker, to be curator in charge of mission restoration. Two years later Carmel Mission became an independent parish. He went on to do extensive restoration of mission buildings. Downie spent most of his life restoring the mission, acting as bellringer and official guide. He died in 1980 and was buried alongside the mission.

At the foot of the altar of this church are buried the earthly remains of Fathers Junípero Serra, Juan Crespi, Fermín Lasuén and Julian Lopez.

Carmel has recaptured much of the stateliness of its happier days. Set apart from too much evidence of the modern world, the very atmosphere that surrounds it seems haunted with an ancient solemnity which gives emphasis to its connection with the past. A rude, wooden door leads visitors from the present into yester-year when they enter an ancient room, where historical treasures are displayed. An array of implements and garments, carefully fashioned by patient hands with unhurried hours, reveal the hardiness of early mission life. One room contains a complete reproduction of an early mission kitchen. The curio rooms are filled with crude tools and examples of the amazing basketry of the Indian neophytes. Here and there among the statuary and ceremonial articles brought to the mission from Mexico, is a native Indian carving, gaunt and arresting consequence of the welding of two alien cultures.

Outside, a walk leads through the beautifully kept gardens to the Serra Chapel, constructed in his honor. Inside the chapel is the sarcophagus created by the California artist, Jo Mora, and dedicated to Franciscan zeal. Both the chapel and this bronze and stone memorial were completed in 1924.

Just beyond stands the imposing stone church, which was built under the direction of Fr. Lasuén in 1797. The use of stone, which is shared by three other churches in the mission chain, represents a departure from the usual adobe structure. However, the rounded, catenary arch that forms the roof, and the strong Moorish influence reflected in the tower dome, are singular qualities of structural beauty that belongs to Carmel alone.





Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel)
by Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.




Johnson, Paul C. et al; _The California Missions, A Pictorial History_; Lane Books; Menlo Park, CA; 1964.

Weber, Francis J.; _The Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra_; EZ Nature Books; San Luis Obispo, CA; 1988.