Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa


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San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission Interior Front
Madonna and Child
Mission Corridor
Mission Corridor
Mission Courtyard Bell
Mission Fountain
Mission Side Exterior

Fifth Mission
Date Founded: September 1, 1772
Founder: Father Junipero Serra
Named for: Saint Luis, Bishop of Toulouse
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
782 Monterey Street (P.O. Box 1461)
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

Contact Information:
Old Mission Parish
751 Palm Street
San Luis Obispo CA, 93401

Mission Phone: (805) 543-6850
Parish Phone: (805) 781-8220
Parish Fax: (805) 781-8214

Coming from the North:
Take the Broad St. exit, then turn right on Lincoln and then right on Chorro.

Coming from the South:
Take the Broad St. exit, go two blocks and turn left on Palm.



The Valley of the Bears was so named by Don Gaspar de Portolá and his men on their first expedition from San Diego north in search of Monterey Bay in 1769.

In August of 1772, Father Serra received word at his mission in Monterey that the San Carlos and the San Antonio had arrived in San Diego with supplies. The two ship captains shared a dark view of their previous journeys to the north, and had mutually decided that San Diego would be as far north as they would venture. They forwarded this opinion to Fr. Serra with the suggestion that supplies be taken overland from the southern port. Fr. Serra immediately set off for San Diego, determined to persuade at least one captain to sail to Monterey.

Progressing slowly on their march northward, Portolá and his soldiers encountered many ferocious bears between the mouth of the Santa Maria River and the present site of San Luis Obispo, and killed some of them for food. In their graphic diaries of the journey, Fathers Juan Crespi and Francisco Gomez expressed astonishment at the large number of bears. When starvation threatened the early settlements, they wrote, a hunting party sent out by Portolá returned with more than 9,000 pounds of bear meat. It was at the scene of this hunt, a few months later, that Mission San Luis Obispo was founded.

In order to capitalize further on his journey, he took another Franciscan and gave him the responsibility of establishing the mission at San Luis Obispo. He was reluctant to leave only one father at the mission, as he feared that the military might seek to make a rule out of this exception, in order to reduce the stature of the missions. But Fr. Junípero was a man of impulse and his decisions usually turned out very well. The mission grew. In early contact with the Indians, it reaped a harvest of goodwill that Spanish generosity had sown by sharing the meat with the hungry natives after the bear kill some months before.

Establishment of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded on September 1, 1772 by Father Junipero Serra, Presidente of the California Missions Chain. It was the 5th mission in the 21 mission chain in Alta California. It was named for Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse. It is the only mission with an L-shaped church. The mission site was selected as it is midway between San Diego and Monterey. Father Serra left one priest to begin the buildings, Father Jose Cavalier.

Mission Life

When Father Serra left the mission, there was little in the way of food. There were however, many bear. The local Chumash Indians were grateful for the Spaniards guns that killed the bear as they were giving the Indians a terrible time. The Indians brought food to the soldiers who were helping out with the bear problem.

Since there were so many friendly Native Americans in the area, Fr. Serra chose this location for his next mission. Although not all the natives were friendly. Just south of the mission were tribes that were determined to drive the white men out of the area. They would shoot burning arrows into the dry tinder buildings that would quickly spread to other buildings causing considerable damage and setbacks for the missionaries. San Luis Obispo was attacked by hostile Indians on three separate occasions prior to 1774, and the thatched roofs of the mission buildings were set afire by blazing arrows.

Finally, recalling the fire resistant Spanish tile roofs of their homeland, the missionaries began to manufacture similar clay tiles. The red clay was made in pits, then spread over wooden models to be dried in the sun. They were then baked in a kiln. These were the first roof tiles made in California. Not only were they a protection against the fire raids, they were waterproof, thereby keeping the interiors dry and protecting the adobe walls from the rain. These were eventually used in all future mission buildings built in California. Similar red tile roofs are seen today throughout California.

An interesting sidelight is the fact that this mission, though one of the smallest, contributed its share of an assessment levied against the California Franciscans in 1782 by the King of Spain to help him carry on his war against England. It sent $107 to Spain.

From 1794 to 1809, building operations at San Luis Obispo were quite extensive. In 1804, the number of neophytes reached a peak of 832 and, by the end of that year, the records showed a total of 2,074 baptisms and 2,091 deaths. In May, 1807, the mission was designated as one of six in which the California padres could make their annual retreats for spiritual exercises. Beginning in 1811 and continuing through 1820, the missionary fathers erected numerous dwellings for their Indians, made many improvements and additions to the mission, and, in 1819, finished construction of the quadrangle. Arrival of two mission bells from Lima, Peru, a year later was a particularly glorious occasion.

Following Mexico's revolt against Spain in 1810, all the California missions were forced to contribute food and clothing to the army, which the government ceased to support. At San Luis Obispo, Fr. Luis Martinez often found himself and his Indian wards suffering privation because of the constant demands of the military.

Fr. Martinez was a jovial soul and his wit and good humor won him widespread fame in those early days. His sarcastic comments on the idleness of the soldiers stirred up trouble in 1816, but two years later he was restored to the good graces of the army, when he valiantly led a company of his Indians to Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano many leagues distant to help defend the missions against two shiploads of South American privateers.

Legend has it that Fr. Martinez, on the occasion of a visit from a distinguished general and his bride, arranged to have the entire barnyard population march in a solemn review before his celebrated visitor. Unfortunately, the doughty padre's quick temper and outspoken criticism led to difficulty with the governor. Eventually, his enemies grew strong enough to drive him from the country. In 1830, after 34 years of service, he was forced to leave his beloved San Luis Obispo. The account tells of his sorrow at the parting. but as the mission fell victim to land reformers only five years later, it was perhaps a happier termination than the later day would have brought him.

This mission marks the halfway point in the California mission chain. It is located near the Valley of the Bears where the Spanish had found such a large population of bears they were able to keep other missions from near starvation by hunting the bears and sending the meat to the missions.

The Chumash Indians at the mission helped build several of the California Missions. The Chumash were able to make baskets that hold water. They lived around the Missions.

The economy at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa 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. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa supplied many of the other missions with bear meat which was very plentiful.


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. In 1845, Governor Pio Pico declares Mission buildings for sale and he sold everything except the church for a total of $510. 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.

Secularization, in 1834, had devastating effects on the mission and its inhabitants. The livestock was driven off and the buildings were allowed to deteriorate to such a state that when it was finally sold in 1845 it brought only $510 - a fraction of its earlier value.

Decline and Rebirth

The mission fell into ruins during the period of secularization and the priest that were left would rent out rooms to help support the mission. The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa became the first courthouse and jail in the San Luis Obispo County. In 1872, during the 100th anniversary of the mission that improvements began. It wasn't until Father John Harnett came to the mission in 1933 that real restoration began. Harry Downie was in charge of the restoration and it was he who created the L-shaped church to accommodate more people at services.

The story of the ruin of San Luis Obispo under successive Mexican governors is similar to that of the other missions of California, all of which has been fully recorded. It is interesting here to note that the Spanish occupation of California was one of the best documented colonizing efforts ever made by a civilized nation. Considering the primitive nature of their environment, the number of records, accounts, census figures and personal diaries produced by the early Californians is truly amazing. From the very first years, a constant stream of exports flowed back to Mexico City, the viceroy, the Franciscan College of San Fernando, and to friends and former companions. The volume was so great that one of the chief points of conflict between the civil and religious leaders was over the question of postage payment. Some of this undoubtedly resulted from the eagerness of the governors and the mission leaders to acquaint their superiors with their own interpretations of the issues in dispute. In any event, not even the slightest incident seems to have escaped the record books.

Today, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is an important factor in the life of the city of San Luis Obispo, which proudly calls itself "The City with a Mission." The mission continues to serve as a modern parish church for the many Catholics in the area. The original padres' residence has been turned into an extraordinary mission museum which contains an extensive collection of early photographs and other items, which present a vivid picture of the way of life in California before the turn of the century.

The San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Mission is still the center of the busy downtown area. The creek by the mission which once supplied water to mission still runs by the main streets in the town and children can be seen playing in the water. The Mission functions as a parish church for the city of San Luis Obispo and although many changes have come to the mission, it remains the center of town.

There was little left of the mission when it was returned to the church in 1859. Then, in 1868, the buildings were remodeled with white painted siding and used as a parish church for the flourishing town in the area. At one time there was even a New England steeple added to the church.

Eventually, in 1934, the steeple and siding were removed, and the church's earlier appearance was restored.