Mission Santa Cruz


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Santa Cruz

Mission Santa Cruz exterior
Mission Santa Cruz Interior
Santa Cruz original adobe building
Santa Cruz Altar
Santa Cruz interior rear
Santa Cruz original adobe building
Twelfth Mission
Date Founded: September 25, 1791
Founder: Father Fermin Lasuen
Named for: Holy Cross
Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park
140 School Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Mission Santa Cruz
126 High Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Contact Info: (408) 425-5849


The park is located at 144 School Street, just up the hill from the clock tower in downtown Santa Cruz. From where Highway 17 and Highway 1 meet, take Highway 1 North. Turn left (south) onto Mission Street. Turn left onto Emmett Street and park on this one-way street that runs alongside the Plaza Park. Walk down School Street to reach the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park on the right side of the street.


This "hard luck" mission with a promising beginning encountered difficulties with unsavory neighbors.


The area along Monterey Bay's northern shore got its name years ago before a mission was built there. In 1769, Captain Gaspar de Portola rode through the area and gave it the name Santa Cruz (which is Spanish for Holy Cross). When Father Francisco Palou had crossed the San Lorenzo River in 1774, he was impressed by the character of the country about him. He noted the lush vegetation and forest of tall trees, and concluded the place would support a large and successful community.

Establishment of Mission Santa Cruz

Mission Santa Cruz was founded September 25, 1791, although Father Fermín Lasuén, who selected the actual site, was not able to be present at the dedication. The event, of considerable importance to Northern Californians, was attended by the Franciscan Fathers from Santa Clara and the commandante of the San Francisco Presidio. His presence was a reflection of the vast improvement in relations between the friars and the military. Father Lasuen, who led the missionary system following Father Serra's death, raised the cross on August 28, 1791 on where Mission Santa Cruz, or "Holy Cross," was to be built. On September 25, 1791, the Mission Santa Cruz was formally founded as the 12th California Mission.

"Santa Cruz" means "Holy Cross" in Spanish. The full Spanish name of the mission is "Misión la exaltación de la Santa Cruz," named after a feast day in the Church calendar which occurs on September 14: The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrating the Christian symbol of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

When the mission was finally founded on September 25, 1791, relations between the missionaries and the Spanish authorities were at their best. Older missions, already prosperous, sent to Santa Cruz a great variety and quantity of gifts. Permanent buildings were quickly erected. The neophyte population grew. Yet progress was made for a short six years.

On The founding of mission Santa Cruz Father Lasuen wrote:

"I found the sight to be most excellent as had been reported to me. I found besides, a stream of water very near, copious and important. on August 28, 1791, The day of St. Augustine, I said, Mass and raised the cross on the spot where the mission is to be. Many gentiles came, old and young of both sexes and showed they would gladly enroll under the Sacred Standard."

Mission Life

In the beginning, the new Mission Santa Cruz was successful, and experienced only a few problems. Although the first rainy season in 1791 caused the San Lorenzo River to flood, the padres (priest or "fathers") ended this problem by moving the mission buildings higher up the hill. On February 17, 1793, work began on a new church that had a stone foundation and five-feet-thick adobe brick walls. It was 112 feet long and 29 feet wide, and took a year to build. This was to be the main church at the mission for about 65 years. The other buildings in the quadrangle were built later, including a gristmill, weaving room, and a two-story granary.

The natives who lived and labored at the mission were the local Ohlone and Yokut people, and during these first few years the numbers of natives at the mission grew to about 500 people by 1796. They came to Mission Santa Cruz for a variet of reasons. Some feared the priest, thinking they could cause illness or death. Many joined because they were curious about the Catholic religion that the priest taught. Once a tribelet chief decided to join for one or more of these reasons, his or her villagers almost certainly followed. Native Californian newly baptized to the Roman Catholic religion were called neophytes, a Greek word that means "new converted". These first neophytes were allowed to live in their own nearby villages, and were called to work and church by mission bells.

The industry of the mission began successfully. Crops and orchards soon were thriving in the fertile soil along the San Lorenzo River. For example, 1796 records show that the mission produced 1,200 bushels of grain, 600 bushels of corn, and 60 bushels of beans that year. Cattle, oxen, and sheep grazed along the coastal property of the mission, which extended from Ano Nuevo in the north to the Pajaro River to the south. The natives worked at spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, leather tanning, and adobe brick and roof tile making. Extra vegetables and fruits were sometimes sent to help feed the people at Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo to the south.

The new viceroy in Mexico City was sympathetic to the Franciscan cause and best of all, in the eyes of the padres, Governor Fages had departed in April of 1791. His successor, José Antonio Roméu, was very ill when he arrived in California. He had only a year to live and during this brief rule was inclined to allow the padres to follow their own counsel. The next governor, José Joaquín de Arrillaga, was of similar disposition, and the Franciscans did not have further conflict with the military until the arrival of Diego Borica in October, 1794.

After six years, the mission began to encounter much difficulty. In 1797, the governor of Alta California decided that a pueblo (town) should be built directly across the San Lorenzo River from the mission. The priest protested, believing that the town would attract non-religious people whose wild ways might attract the mission's natives. They also worried that the townspeople's cattle and sheep might invade the mission's properties.

Nevertheless, a pueblo was established on the east side of the river, named Villa de Branciforte. Many of the priest's worst fears came true. The settlers of Villa de Branciforte, called Californios, wanted the missions's natives to work on their buildings or in their fields. Therefore, they used money to tempt hundreds of natives away from the mission. The Californios at Branciforte also stole cattle, sheep, and crops, from the mission. Many convicted criminals settled in the town, and it soon became the center of gambling, drinking, smuggling, an other crime. The priests were very frustrated with the situation, as some of the neophytes were leaving the mission to join in this non-religious activity.

Branciforte, the new civilian community, was California's first real estate development. It was beautifully laid out on paper, and launched with such grandiose enthusiasm and empty promises that it may well have been the pattern for many present day promotions. Borica began by asking the viceroy to send him healthy, hard-working colonists, promising them neat, white houses, $116 annually for two years, and $66 annually for the following three. In addition, each settler would receive clothes, farm tools and furniture.

The community was plotted in the manner of an ancient Roman frontier colony, with all the houses arranged in a neat square. The farming area formed one huge field which was subdivided into smaller units, each assigned to an individual settler. When the settlers arrived, they found that the houses had not been built. Borica, on the other hand, discovered that the newcomers were not quite what he expected. His subordinate commanding the Branciforte military was constrained to make the following report: ..."to take a charitable view of the subject, their absence for a couple of centuries at a distance of a million leagues would prove most beneficial to the province." Indicative of the nature of the new community was one of its earliest public works: a race track. Perhaps the new settlers were more suited to the country than the unhappy commander realized, for, like the original natives, they much preferred to relax and spend their time in gambling rather than pursue any demanding industry.

Branciforte was conceived as a sort of 18th Century welfare state, with the Spanish idea of mixing the races which had proved so effective in colonizing other provinces in Latin America. Each alternate house was earmarked as a residence of an Indian "chief." It was believed that such an arrangement would hasten the development of the natives into ideal Spanish citizens. While the plan had worked admirably in some parts of Mexico, there were no real chiefs in California. What leaders there were presented a dismal contrast to the resplendent kings of the Indian civilizations to the south. Indians did come to Branciforte but not as fellow citizens. Usually they were runaway neophytes from across the river who were soon ensnared by the pleasures of the aguardiente bottle and pressed into service by the indolent whites.

Of the 500 neophytes at the mission in 1796, some 200 melted away in less than two years. In vain, Fr. Lasuén complained that the new town was encroaching upon mission lands. The Governor, with remarkable logic, pointed out to the father presidente that the mission lands belonged to the neophytes and, therefore, the fewer neophytes in the mission, the less land the mission would require. Unable to retaliate against the detested pueblo, the fathers did not hesitate in applying swift justice to Indian backsliders they were able to regather in the fold. The severity of these punishments probably accelerated the mission's decline.

One specific incident shows how the town of Branciforte contributed to the downfall of Mission Santa Cruz. In 1818, a feared pirate named Hippolyte de Bouchard raided the Monterey Presidio, burning buildings and stealing. Mission Santa Cruz heard of the attack, and that Bouchard was heading towards them. so the priests decided to immediately move the people at the mission to Mission Santa Clara for safety. Father Ramon Olbes asked the Branciforte officials if they would pack up all the valuables at the mission while he and the mission inhabitants fled. The Branciforte townspeople agreed, but when they arrived at the mission they did not do this. Instead they looted the mission themselves!They burned some of the buildings, ruined the food and wine supply, and stole the very valuables they were suppose to save from the pirates. In fact, Bouchard never arrived, but the townspeople damaged the mission just as as much as he might have done. Father Olbes was so upset and discouraged that he wanted to abandon the mission, but Father Lasuen ordered that he continue to operate it.

Because of the unruly settlers in Branceforte the padres found it necessary to keep a very tight rein on the Native Americans, severly restricting their movements. This contributed to the fact that Mission Santa Cruz had the lowest population of all the California missions. Some of the neophytes behaved badly under such strict confinement, and many believed that they were treated too cruelly. This eventually led to the murder of one of the padres that was later to be the cause for the first autopsy performed in California.

The mission priest had many problems with the native population. For instance, many of the Ohlone and Yokut who arrived at the mission suffered from deadly European diseases which their bodies could not fight. These new diseases included measles, scarlet fever, and the flu. The priest read medical books in an attempt to cure the sick natives, but the European treatments didn't work very well. Not even the shaman's medicines could cure the people of these fatal illnesses. Therefore, thousands of natives died. Many neophytes ran away to try to escape these illnesses, and those who had already caught the highly-contagious diseases spread them to their people living in the hills away from the mission.

The natives not only ran away to avoid the terrifying diseases but also to escape the strict rules and harsh punishment that often occurred at the mission. Some priest would order the soldiers stationed at the missions to carry out beatings for many "offenses," including working too slowly, going near Branciforte, or bringing dirty blankets to church. Punishment also included wearing leg irons, or being thrown into prison. Soon the priest ordered that once the natives were baptized, they could not return to their villages in the hills. However, many natives tried to leave, perhaps not fully understanding this change. Captured runaways received the worst punishment. Even so, in 1798 alone, nearly one-fourth of the native population ran away.

Some priests were known for their cruelty. In 1812, Father Andres Quintana ordered that two natives be beat with a wire-tipped whip. In revenge, several beatings, even on children as young as eight years-old. Some neophytes protested this treatment by throwing rocks and roof tiles at him. Although these and other rebellions occurred at the mission, most natives did not resist violently when they were mistreated. Instead, they would steal, do poor work, refuse to speak Spanish, or secretly practice their own traditional religious ceremonies

Because so many of the natives died or fled, by the early 1800's the native population in and around the mission had dropped dramatically. So, the priest went inland to what is today known as Central Valley in order to recruit more natives. However, most of these natives, known as Yokuts, did not want to go to the mission, or perhaps could not understand what was being asked of them. Although Spanish laws did not allow the priest from forcing natives to come to a mission, Father Manual Fernandez did it anyway. He ordered the military to capture many of the Yokuts and bring them to Mission Santa Cruz. of course, the Yokuts continued to run away just as the Ohlone had, in any attempt to escape the poor treatment, diseases, and the confining mission lifestyle which was forced upon them..

Mission Santa Cruz never completely recovered from these early tragedies. The native population remained small, one of the lowest of any of the missions, as the Yokuts continued to run away or die from foreign diseases. Although 1831 records show that thousands of cattle and sheep were owned by the mission and that hides and tallow were produced for trade, the mission never returned to the successful days it experienced immediately after being founded.


In 1821, New Spain won its eleven-year war for independence against Spain and became the Republic of Mexico. Although Alta California was part of this new country, Mexico did not have enough money to support the twenty-one missions there. Also, some Mexicans believed that the missions were too connected to Spain, and that the treatment of the neophytes was harsh and outdated. So, beginning in 1834, Mexico passed new laws that ended the Franciscan priests' control over the Alta California missions. The Mexican government wanted the churches to be run by different priests who would not try to convert any more natives to Catholicism. Also, all of the land and animals that the missions had owned was to be divided up between the natives who had lived there and the nearby Californios. This process was called secularization.

Mission Santa Cruz was one of the first missions to be secularized. In 1834, the mission owned many thousands of animals and much land. There were also thirty-two buildings on mission property. Father Antonio Real gave some money and gifts to the natives before the Mexican government officials came to count it all, perhaps because he suspected that the natives would be cheated out of their rightful property. This, in fact, is what occurred. After the officials arrived, much of what was supposed to go to the natives at Mission Santa Cruz went to the local ranchers instead. One official who arrived a few years later not only continued to keep the land away from the natives, but even abused and beat them. Jose Bolcoff, a more lawful official, replaced him, and Bolcoff did divide the remaining land, animals, and living space among the natives. About this time, however, smallpox spread through the mission, which is an illness that travels quickly and easily through the air. The native population dropped from about 300 to 71 people. Within a few years, many natives had sold their property to ranchers, and any natives who tried to remain nearby the mission were soon driven out by settlers.

Decline and Rebirth

Soon afterwards, the United States took over California and made it their territory. In 1850, they made it the thirty-first state. In 1859, President Buchanan returned Mission Santa Cruz and about seventeen surrounding acres to the Catholic Church.

Several strong earthquakes hit the area after secularization. In 1840 the population of 400 included only about a hundred Indians. An earthquake and tidal waves in that year partially destroyed the mission buildings. The Church's bell tower fell down. A devastating earthquake in 1857 finished off the Mission Church. Roof beams and tiles, as well as foundation stones, were carried away for other uses and no trace of the original mission remained. In 1858 a wood frame church was built on the old mission property. In 1889, the tall, white Holy Cross Church with high steeples was built near the site ofthe original mission church. The 35 adobe structures on Mission Hill, which had been the core of the mission settlement, became the nucleus of the early pueblo (town) of Santa Cruz and were gradually converted to commercial uses.

Since 1859 the mission site has been owned and operated by the Diocese of Monterey, now under the direction of Bishop Sylvester Ryan. Holy Cross Church is a parish within the Diocese of Monterey.


Holy Cross Church is still standing today, on what is now called "Mission Hill," and it can be seen from Highway 17 when entering Santa Cruz. It faces the Plaza Park, which was the original plaza, or central area, of the mission quadrangle.

There is another much smaller church nearby this large one, and it was built in 1931 as a memorial to the original mission church. This church was built about 200 feet southeast of the site of the original church. Funded by a wealthy Santa Cruz citizen named Gladys S. Doyle, this church resembles the original mission church but is one-half its size. An attached wing holds some artifacts of Mission Santa Cruz.

Only one of the original thirty-two mission buildings still stands today. It is an adobe building that was used as native family housing, called "The Home for New Citizens." This building is the only remaining Native Californian mission housing of any type in all of California. Furthermore, it is the oldest building in Santa Cruz County. It was built in 1824 by the Yokut natives, and its original seventeen rooms were homes for only the natives that had high status due to the quality work they produced. A local family named Rodriguez bought part of this adobe building in 1838, and began covering the adobe walls with wood which, although is wasn't their intention, helped to preserve the original adobe structure. A descendant of the Rodriguez family lived there until 1983, when she died at the age of 104.

This nearly 175-year-old building then became the headquarters of the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park. It took eight years to research, excavate, and restore the remaining seven rooms. The museum was opened in 1991, exactly 200 years after the founding of Mission Santa Cruz.








Special Thanks to M.Tran and S.Nakajis