Mission San Miguel Arcangel


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San Miguel Arcangel

Mission San Miguel Arcangel
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San Miguel Arcangel

Sixteenth Mission
Date Founded: July 25, 1797
Founder: Father President Fermin de Lasuén
Named for: The Most Glorious Prince of the Celestial Militia, Archangel Saint Michael
775 Mission Street
P.O. Box 69
San Miguel, CA 93451-0069

Contact Information:
Phone: (805) 467-2131
Fax: (805) 467-3256



For some months during the summer of 1795 Padre Sitjar from Mission San Antonio explored the region between San Luis Obispo and San Antonio. Finally, on July 25, 1797, two years later, Presidente Fermin Francisco de Lasuen took formal possession of the land for Viceroy Branciforte and founded the 16th of the California missions. One of the chief purposes of the new mission was to facilitate travel between Mission San Luis Obispo and San Antonio. The mission system was so devised that each mission was a day's travel from its neighbor.

Establishment of Mission San Miguel Arcangel

Mission San Miguel Arcángel was founded on July 25, 1797 by Father Fermin de Lasuén, Presidente of the California Missions Chain. Named for Saint Michael the Arcangel, it was the sixteenth mission founded in the 21 mission chain in Alta California, and the third mission founded during the summer of 1797. Situated along the El Camino Real between Missions San Antonio and Mission San Luis Obispo, the mission site was established next to a large Salinan Village known as Cholam or Cholami. Almost two years earlier, the site was selected for the mission to be named for the "Most Glorious Prince of the Celestial Militia, Archangel Saint Michael."

The church is 144 feet long ,27 feet wide and 40 feet tall. The walls are 6 feet thick. The inside of the mission has never been repainted. This means the the colors you see were created and painted by the Indians.

On July 25, 1797, at the founding ceremony of Mission San Miguel Arcangel, 15 Indian children were baptized. This was the beginning of a long and friendly relationship with the Spanish Padres and the Salinan Indians. They eagerly awaited the arrival of the padres and the establishment of this mission. The Indians had heard good things about the missions and wanted to be part of the system. Several Indian families from other missions even came to help in the beginning of this mission. The number of Indians at the mission grew to over 1,000.

Mission Life

The northern half of the mission chain, from San Luis Obispo to Dolores in San Francisco, was now complete. San Miguel had most excellent prospects, for it was located in a flat and fertile area near the juncture of two rivers, the Nacimiento and the Salinas. On the day of their arrival, the guardian fathers found a host of friendly prospective neophytes on hand to welcome them and help with the work of setting up the mission. The padres took this attitude on the part of the Indians as a good omen and events proved they were justified, for San Miguel quickly became a thriving community.

Fr. Buenaventura Sitjar, the first administrator at Mission San Miguel had ministered to the Salinan people for 25 years at Mission San Antonio prior to his arrival at Mission San Miguel. Fr. Sitjar was fluent in the Salinan language and baptized 25 youth the first day Mission San Miguel was established.

A temporary church was built in 1797 but was lost to fire in 1806 and preparation for a new adobe church began soon after. Tiles and adobe blocks were made and stored for 10 years before the stone foundation of the church was completed in 1816. By 1821 the entire church was completed along with the interior frescos designed by Esteban Munras.

In six years time, the mission could account for over 1,000 Indian converts. The industrious settlement consisted of many buildings and, as in the other missions, the neophytes carried on a great number of simple trades. Some had become blacksmiths, others masons or carpenters, and the growth of herds of livestock led to the training of soap makers, weavers and leather workers. Hundreds of others worked in the fields, the vineyards or in producing charcoal for use in the tile ovens. In the kitchens and the other workrooms, the women performed the routine duties of providing for the daily needs of all who lived there. The fathers made steady progress among the Indians and the mission prospered without mishap for several years. The success of the mission was largely due to Padre Juan Martin (1770-1824).

From the church building, the property extended 18 miles to the north and 18 miles to the south; the property extended 66 miles to the east, and as far as the Pacific Ocean, 35 miles to the west.

In 1806, a serious fire destroyed most of the buildings. In addition, its stores of wool, cloth and leather goods were lost and over 6,000 bushels of grain rendered useless. With the help of other missions, San Miguel soon recovered, and new adobe and tile-roofed buildings replaced those consumed by the fire.

In 1816 stone foundations were laid for the church which survives today. Under the direction of Padre Juan Martin, the Indians had been preparing adobe for several years. The construction proceeded rapidly. However, the beams that were needed to carry the roof structure could be obtained only in the mountains, the nearest of which lay 40 miles away across a rough and trackless terrain. In 1818, the Church was ready for roofing. Three years later in 1821, artisan-builder Estévan Munras arrived from San Carlos to supervise the interior decorations for which the Church is now famous.

The credit for taking advantage of the hot sulfur springs, nine miles to the south, goes to Padre Juan Cabot , who served San Miguel from October 1, 1807 until March 12, 1819; during his second period of service (November 7, 1824 to November 25, 1834) he had a shelter constructed at the hot springs. The Salinas Valley was just coming out of a 500-year epoch of cold, very moist climate. Rheumatoid arthritis was a common complaint of the natives. Padre Cabot saw that bathing in the hot sulfur springs was necessary to alleviate their suffering.

Like other inland missions to the north, San Miguel very early developed an interest in the Indians of the valleys of central California. Fr. Juan Cabot, who ruled over the destinies of the mission after 1800, sent a umber of expeditions into the central valley with the idea of establishing a mission there. His efforts met with the same hostility that the padres of the other missions encountered, and the project was eventually discarded. After 1820, the increasing conflict between the missions and the civil authorities further discouraged any plans for expansion. Instead of gaining new areas of influence, the Franciscans lost all their material gains to the settlers.

Today the missions, surrounded for the most part by modern brick and stone structures, present a far different picture than they did 125 years ago. Indians of the San Joaquin Valley were actually next door neighbors then, living along the periphery of lands under use by the fathers. An example of the extent of mission holdings is given in a report made by Fr. Cabot in 1827 which states that lands of Mission San Miguel were recognized as extending to Rancho de la Asunción, a distance of seven leagues to the south where they joined the boundary of Mission San Luis Obispo. Fr. Cabot's account says:

"From the mission to the beach the land consists almost entirely of mountain ridges... for this reason it is not occupied until it reaches the coast where the mission has a house of adobe ... eight hundred cattle, some tame horses and breeding mares are kept at said rancho, which is called San Simeon. In the direction toward the south all land is occupied, for the mission there maintains all its sheep, besides horses for the guards. There it has Rancho de Santa Isabel, where there is a small vineyard. Other ranchos of the mission in that direction are San Antonio, where barley is planted; Rancho del Paso de Robles, where wheat is sown; and the Rancho de la Asunción."

A Spanish league represents a distance of three and one-third miles, which means that San Miguel stood 18 miles distant from its rancho at San Simeon and that its north and south boundaries were nearly 50 miles apart. The fertile fields in this fast area were kept in production by two Franciscan padres, assisted by a handful of soldiers. And San Miguel was far from the largest of the mission holdings; San Luis Rey, for instance, had a rancho at San Jacinto almost 40 air miles away from it.

To keep this extended program in operation, the fathers were dependent upon their converts, not as slaves locked up at night and working out the days under the muzzles of Spanish guns, as some writers seem to believe, but as a community of workmen with a system of authority of their own. Harsh justice was visited only upon those who threatened the general peace and security. It can be admitted, however, that when the husbands were sent out to one of the ranchos for an extended period, the married women under a certain age were housed in the same dormitory where the unmarried girls were locked for the night. The padres could find no other way of dealing with the pagan understanding of most of their charges, who found it difficult to accept monogamy as a principle of the Christian religion they had embraced.

Mission San Miguel Arcangel was a busy and active mission. The economy at Mission San Miguel Arcangel 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. The Indians at the mission were excellent at making roof tiles. Between 1808 and 1809, they made 36,000 tiles. They would sell or trade the tiles to other missions. Mission San Miguel Arcangel was one of the most prosperous of all of the missions.


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.

On July 14, 1836, Ignacio Coronel assumed jurisdiction over San Miguel's mission property and lands for the civil government. Three years after the secularizing of the mission, many of thc Indians had run away; Padre Moreno found the mission so despoiled that he had to retire elsewhere to support himself. Padre Abella, the last Franciscan at San Miguel, died in July, 1841. By 1841, there were only 30 Indians at the mission. With the exile of the Spanish Franciscans, the Salinan people left Mission San Miguel for their ancestral homelands throughout the Central Coast.

Decline and Rebirth

In 1846 the last Mexican Governor, Pio Pico, sold the mission for $600 to Petronillo Rios and William Reed. Reed used the mission as a family residence and a store. In 1848, Reed left to find gold as a participant in the California Gold Rush. Upon his return, 5 runaway sailors robbed and killed everyone at the mission. They were eventually captured but they left 11 people dead. The mission was then converted to commercial uses. The mission was a stopping place for miners coming from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The mission was used as a saloon, dance hall, storeroom and living quarters.

In 1859, after nearly 30 years, the church proper of Mission San Miguel was returned to the Catholic Church by President Buchanan. 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.

During the 1860's and 1870's, the long monastery building was turned into a series of stores, one of which was the most popular saloon along El Camino Real. In 1878, after 38 years without a resident padre, Father Philip Farrelly became the First Pastor of Mission San Miguel Arcangel. The structures were gradually redeemed from the results of their long neglect. Through all the years the priests kept the church in condition and it is called the best-preserved church in the mission chain today.

In 1928 Mission San Miguel, along with Mission San Antonio de Padua, was returned to thc Franciscan Padres, the same group who had founded the mission in 1797. The Franciscans began an extensive renovation and preservation effort which continues to the present day. Today, completely privately funded, the Mission functions as a parish church, novitiate, and retreat house.

Many of its original decorations are still intact. The mission's appearance today is much the same as when it was first founded, and it stands as one of California's best-preserved and authentic reminders of the past. Today the mission is similar to the old mission days. It is located in the town of San Miguel just 7 miles north of Paso Robles. It continues to serve the town as an active parish church. It has one of the best preserved interior and gives one of the best examples of old mission life.


Mission San Miguel has the only church in which the paintings and decorations have never been retouched by subsequent artists. The view presented to the visitor, except for the modern luxury of bench pews, is exactly the same as that seen by the Indian converts. In its museum, a great deal of effort has been made to present the tools used in mission industries: a spinning wheel and loom, a beehive oven, fishtraps, branding irons, forging tools, and a tile kiln which is still in operation. One of the most interesting of the exhibits is a "mission window" of the type used before the padres obtained glass. It is a wooden frame, over which cowhide is stretched very thinly, then shaved and greased to increase its translucence. These frames were pegged into the window openings during periods of cold or inclement weather.

The long and leisurely road that formed El Camino Real is today a roaring highway and many of its travelers speed past Mission San Miguel without pause. But often a traveler, captivated by the beauty of the adobe mission and its lovely garden, is moved to stop and discover for himself the wonderful achievements of California's true pioneers.