Mission San Diego Alcala


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San Diego Alcalá

Mission San Alcala
Mission Interior Front
Mission Altar
Mission Altar Detail
Mission Altar Detail
Mission Altar Detail
Mission Altar Detail
Confession Door
Mission Exterior
Mission Interior Rear
St. Francis
Alternate Altar
Choir Stalls
Casa de Serra
Mission Exterior
Mission Garden
Mission Exterior
Courtyard Cacti
Mission Exterior
Garden Gate
Mission Exterior
Mission Garden
Garden Gate
Junipero Serra

First Mission
Date Founded: July 16, 1769
Founder: Father Junipero Serra
Named for: Saint Didacus of Alcalá
Mission San Diego de Alcala Gift Shop
10818 San Diego Mission Road
San Diego, CA 92108-2429

Open 9:00 a.m. - 4:45 p.m. daily

6 miles from the city of San Diego on Presidio Hill overlooking Mission Valley

Contact Information:
Phone: (619) 281-4889
Fax: (619) 283-7762


Driving Directions From Los Angeles:
I-5 south to
I-805 south to
I-52 east to
I-15 south. Exit Friars Road east.
Right at first signal onto Rancho Mission Road.
Left at first signal onto San Diego Mission Road.
The Mission is one half block on the left.

From Downtown San Diego:
I-8 east to
Mission Gorge Road exit.
Left at signal. Proceed on Mission Gorge.
Left onto Twain Avenue.
Twain Avenue becomes San Diego Mission Road.
The Mission is on the right.

From the East:
I-8 west to
Mission Gorge Road exit.
Right at signal. Proceed on Mission Gorge.
Left onto Twain Avenue.
Twain Avenue becomes San Diego Mission Road.
The Mission is on the right.

San Diego Trolley:
Take the trolley to the Mission San Diego stop.
Exit trolley and walk to the left on Rancho Mission Road for one half block.
Turn right onto San Diego Mission Road.
The Mission is one half block on the left or north side of San Diego Mission Road.

San Diego de Alcala, the first of the great California Missions, marks the birthplace of Christianity in the far West. It is California's first church. This remarkable and significant historical shrine provides an understanding and appreciation of the beginning of Christianity in this corner of the world, so remote from the Mother Country of Spain and yet so similar.


For thousands of years, the American Indians lived in this area that we now know as the great state of California. Since all of the maps before the 18th century depicted California as an island, the Spanish explorers saw no reason to make settlements. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, an explorer commissioned by the monarch of Spain, arrived in San Diego bay and named it San Miguel after the saint whose feast day was closest to the landing according to the Spanish tradition. In 1602 Sebastian Viscaino, leading another Spanish expedition, entered the harbor and renamed it San Diego after Saint Didacus of Alcala, Spain whose feast day was closest to the landing. San Diego was also the name of the flagship for this expedition.

Spain had the "right of discovery" to Alta or Upper California but it was not until 1768 when the Russians were seal hunting off the coast of California that King Carlos III of Spain became concerned and made the decision to build settlements. He sent orders to New Spain (Mexico) that expeditions must be sent to Alta California in order to establish Spain's Dominion.

The Franciscan Friars who were assigned to the Baja missions were chosen to lead the expeditions to Alta California accompanied by the military who would protect them. Father Junipero Serra was chosen Superior of the Franciscans and Gaspar de Portola was the military leader.

Five expeditions were dispatched from New Spain (Mexico) - three expeditions by sea (the San Carlos, the San Antonio and the San Jose) and two land expeditions. The San Carlos and the San Antonio set sail in January and February of 1769. After rough seas and many hardships, they anchored in San Diego bay in April. The supply ship, the San Jose, which left New Spain in June, was lost at sea. The land expeditions were slightly more successful in terms of casualties but just as difficult, leading mules and horses and carrying food, farming tools and seeds. Father Junipero Serra led the last land expedition, which arrived on June 29th. Father Serra, a native Majorcan, was nearly 56 years of age. He was a small man, 5' 2" and 120 pounds and was plagued by a chronic leg infection that caused him to limp.

The total casualties of the expeditions were high. According to a letter written by Father Serra and dated July 3, 1769 "the San Carlos is without sailors, for all have died of scurvy, save one and a cook." Scurvy was raging through the contingent. Of the 219 who comprised the first four expeditions slightly more than half survived.

To Governor Portolá, San Diego was only a way-stop. After two weeks rest he gathered the sound men about him, and marched northward to find the long sought bay of Monterey. He took Fathers Crespi and Gomez with him, and left the task of founding a mission at the new settlement to Father Serra. The ship, San Antonio, was sent back to Mexico for additional supplies.

Establishment of Mission San Diego Alcala

Two days after Portolá's departure, Father Serra called upon those who were able to move about, and they erected a crude brushwood shelter which, on July 16, 1769, became the first church of Christ in California. The Indians, for whose salvation he had embarked upon the long and dangerous journey, were slow in coming. They watched the development of the new settlement with wonder and approached the strangers with caution. In time, they grew boldly indifferent to the gestures of friendship made by Fr. Serra and his Franciscan, followers and came only to steal whatever was not resolutely defended. Fr. Junípero, anxious to win the natives to him, forbade the use of arms until an Indian attack in force left no alternative. A few volleys put an end to all harassment, but the early missionary efforts bore little fruit.

The mission was named for St. Didacus of Alcalá, Spain. Vizcaíno had originally named the bay for him in 1602 St. Didacus was a Franciscan who dedicated his life to teaching religion and taking care of sick people. He was beatified into sainthood in the year 1588.

Mission Life

Six months passed before Portolá returned to San Diego. He had failed to locate the harbor of Monterey. In his absence, little had been done beyond the marking of 19 new graves. Food and supplies were dangerously low. While the fathers prayed for the arrival of the supply ship from San Antonio, Portolá sent some of his men overland to Loreto for aid. His calculations set the middle of March as the last possible date the feeble settlement of Christianity could be held.

The little ship, San Carlos, unable to sail because of the death of most of her crew, lay in the harbor. After hearing of Portolá's determination to return if aid did not arrive, Fathers Serra and Crespi talked long and earnestly with the captain of the San Carlos. It was agreed that no matter what Portolá might do, they, and whoever else might be persuaded to join them, would sail northward on the small vessel to find Monterey.

The San Antonio was sighted far out at sea just one day before the fateful date of decision. The ship passed over the horizon but the vision of the sail had been enough to convince even Portolá that a delay of a few more days might be rewarding. Three days later, the San Antonio put into the harbor, and plans and counter plans were soon forgotten in the tumult of cheers that greeted its arrival.

Within three weeks time, Portolá and his expedition set off again for the north. He was determined this time to find the elusive harbor of Monterey and he took the hardy Fr. Crespi with him. Fr. Serra sailed aboard the San Antonio because the leg, which he had infected at Vera Cruz, had become ulcerous as a result of the overland trip from Loreto. During his subsequent journeys along El Camino Real, this affliction was to bring him near death on several occasions.

Fr. Serra left two priests at San Diego and they, with three workmen and eight guards, attempted to carry on the missionary work. A year of bitter struggle against illness and the hostility of the Indians left the two fathers exhausted, and they retired to Mexico, their places being taken by two newcomers, Fathers Jáyme and Dumetz. The situation was obviously critical. Fr. Dumetz immediately set off to Baja California for vitally needed supplies. When he returned some months later, bringing foodstuffs and a small flock of sheep, the mission had already received assistance from the new establishment at Monterey.

From this time on, the question of supplies was no longer critical. Other problems began to press upon the mission fathers. Portolá returned to Mexico and his post as military commandante was assumed by the energetic Pedro Fages. Lieut. Fages soon began demanding that the Franciscans subject themselves to the control of his office. Fr. Serra took the controversy to Mexico and, with the aid of his Franciscan college in the capital, he was able to have Fages removed. This did not solve the problem because a fundamental difference in viewpoint was to cause friction and misunderstanding between the missionaries and the civil authorities throughout the mission era.

While Fr. Serra was in Mexico on the Fages matter, significant changes were taking place in San Diego. The missions of Lower California were transferred to the Dominicans and 10 new Franciscans, including Palou and Lasuén, arrived in Alta California. During his stay at San Diego, Father Palou, who had been made acting presidente in the absence of Father Serra, had caused the mission site to be moved six miles inland in order to relieve the difficulties the padres were having with the soldiers. Water and soil quality were other major considerations for choosing the new site. When Fr. Serra returned early in 1774, he was greeted by Fathers Jáyme and Fuster. Many priests had been in charge since the founding of the mission but these were to be remembered for a special reason.

Father Jayme had great rapport with the American Indians but two of the mission Indians became discontented with the rules and regulations necessary for an orderly unit and they incited hundreds of Indians in remote villages to riot. According to Father Palou's report of the incidence, eight hundred American Indians stormed onto the grounds in the middle of the night on November 4th, 1775. They pillaged the mission, burned it to the ground and massacred Father Jayme who became California's first Christian Martyr and who is buried under the altar in the present church. Removed as it was from the presidio, the conflict went unnoticed by the soldiers, who otherwise could have routed the invaders easily.

The incident impeded further development of the missions. Not only were the fathers forced to return to the military establishment on the bay, but Mission San Juan Capistrano, then in the process of being founded, was abandoned, and its padres brought back to San Diego. As a further result of the revolt, Fr. Serra came into conflict with the new military commander, Rivera y Moncada, who was determined to make a bloody example of the Indian ringleaders, and saw no immediate reason to rebuild the mission. Since the attitude of Rivera threatened to intensify the difficulties in winning over the Indians, Fr. Serra opposed him with considerable energy and won out after months of delay.

Father Serra returned to Mission San Diego de Alcala to oversee the rebuilding of the mission. Fearing that would be another raid, the padres rebuilt the mission according to the specifications of an army fort. Reestablishing the mission was a long, difficult process. This mission was always one of the poorest. The land was difficult to till, the water not always plentiful. Slowly, Mission San Diego de Alcala became more productive. 1797 was the most successful year: 565 baptisms were performed, 1405 converted to Christianity; the land area encompassed 50,000 acres, harvesting corn, wheat, barley, kidney beans and chick peas; vineyards produced enough grapes for wine and gardens yielded vegetables. The mission owned 20,000 sheep, 10,000 cattle, and 1250 horses. These are amazing statistics considering that the area was arid chaparral with no livestock when the Spanish arrived.

The missionaries did not return to the valley site until July, 1776, and a temporary church was finished in October. The church building, constructed in the fashion we recognize today as mission style, was not completed until November 12, 1813. This was 29 years after the death of Fr. Serra, who did not live to see the large tile roofed buildings, which stand today as monuments to his zeal and energy.

After the early eighties, the years that passed were peaceful. At the height of its prosperity, Mission San Diego possessed 20,000 sheep, 10,000 cattle and 1,250 horses. It covered an area of 50,000 acres and had a great reputation for its wine.

The local Indians are commonly referred to as Kumeyaay, although at various times they are called Mission Indians or Diegueno (taking the name from the mission). The Kumeyaay were hunters and gatherers, had no strong sense of ownership and were fairly nomadic moving from mountains to coast as the seasons changed. The Kumeyaay had never seen cloth before the Spanish arrived; their garments were made from plant products.

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain and the Mexican government did not have the same allegiance to the missions.


The Decree of Secularization in 1834 removed the administration of the mission from the Franciscans and gave it to Santiago Arguello.

Decline and Rebirth

The decline of the mission began about 1824, with the encroachment of civilian settlements. Following the Mexican revolution of 1830, the ambitions of the civilian authorities resulted in the expropriation of the mission's properties under the secularization laws. In 1846, the mission was sold to Santiago Arguello for "services to the government."

After the United States acquired this area from Mexico, two companies of the artillery occupied the mission beginning in November, 1853. For the next several years, various companies of artillery and cavalry were at the mission until 1858 or early 1859. They made some repairs and added a second floor to the church. Subsequently, the mission was abandoned for several years. It was not until 1862, when a little more than 22 acres were restored to the Church by the United States Congress, that Mission San Diego resumed its spiritual function. For the 15 years prior to restoration, it served as a military garrison for the United States Army. In 1892, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet moved onto the mission compound and conducted an American Indian childrens' school for seventeen years.

When restoration was begun in 1931 only the facade of the church and the base of the belfry remained. Incorporating these, the church building and the bell tower were rebuilt in exact duplication of the original. Recently, a long portico was added, which, from sufficient distance, indicates the size and appearance of the original structure. The mission's relics, while interesting, are not extensive for most of them are now in the Sera Museum, a public repository of mission history which stands on the opposite side of the valley, some miles to the west. It is an active Catholic parish and is visited by thousands of fourth graders from throughout the state studying California history.

This is the fifth church on this site. The church was enlarged over the years to accommodate the growing population of neophytes (baptized American Indians). In 1812, as the fourth church was being built, a devastating earthquake damaged and destroyed several other missions and although we were spared, a decision was made to add buttress wings to secure the facade. In 1976, Mission San Diego de Alcala was named a basilica. A basilica is a church of very important historical significance. It is an honor bestowed upon a church by the Pope. Only four of the California missions are basilicas: Mission San Francisco de Asis (Dolores), Mission San Carlos Borromeo, Mission San Diego and most recently, Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Mission San Diego is part of the Diocese of San Diego and is staffed by secular priests. Four of the missions are still run by Franciscans: Santa Barbara, San Miguel, San Antonio de Padua and San Luis Rey. Santa Inez is run by Franciscan Capuchins. Two missions are now part of state run museums: Purisima Conception and Sonoma.

One of the bells is original - it is one of the larger bells and it is distinguishable because it has a conan or crown on top of it and is dated 1802. When the King of Spain wanted bells forged for the missions, he required that they have a crown. The other large bell is made up of remnants from the original bells. The middle two bells are crown bells and all five bells are rung in unison only once a year and that is on the birthday of the mission. The large bell on the bottom (non-crown) is rung twice a day (at noon and at six) and before every Mass on Sunday. Bells were extremely important in mission days; they were used as clocks signifying when it was time to eat, pray, work or play. Different tones and sequencing were also significant.

First of the 21 missions and known as the Mother of the Missions, Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded on July 16, 1769 by Blessed Junipero Serra. It was designated as a Minor Basilica in 1976 by Pope Paul VI. The Mission today is an active Catholic Parish in the Diocese of San Diego.


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