Mission San Francisco Asis


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Sixth Mission
Date Founded: June 26, 1776
Officially Dedicated: October 9, 1776
Founder: Father Francisco Palóu
Named for: Saint Francis of Assisi
3321 16th Street,
San Francisco, CA 94114

The Mission, located at Dolores and 16th Streets, is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Good Friday. It is included in the Barbary Coast Trail self-guided walking tour and is accessible by auto, bus, and BART.

Contact Information:
Telephone: 415-621-8203
Fax: 415-621-2294


Better known as Mission Dolores, Mission San Francisco Asis is located in the San Francisco Bay that was discovered by accident when Gaspar de Portal's 1769 expedition was looking for Monterey Bay. It was immediately seen as an important naval base for the Spaniards to protect their colony from outside invaders.

In March, 1776, a scouting party under the direction of Lt. Don Jose Joaquin Moraga visited the area and named the small stream and lake after the Saint of the day, Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Lake of Our Lady of Sorrows). He returned to Monterey to convey the news and received his commission to establish a presidio and mission in the name of Carlos III of Spain.

Establishment of Mission San Francisco Asis

Lieut. Jose Joaquin Moraga with a small expeditionary band of 16 soldiers left Monterey Presidio June 17, 1776, for San Francisco bay to establish both a presidio and a mission here. Father Francisco Palou and Father Pedro Cambon accompanied the expedition as founders of the mission. There were some wives and children of soldiers in the party, as well as the families of Spanish-American settlers, whom de Anza had induced to try their fortunes in a new colony. Bringing up the rear were about 200 weary cattle, herded along by domesticated Indians. Moraga's expedition arrived on June 27, 1776, to pitch their camp near the Lake.

On June 29, Fras Francisco Palou and Benito Cambon celebrated Mass in honor of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul on the shores of the small lake. The first church in San Francisco was the little tule arbor built by the Spanish soldiers on the site where later the Mission Dolores was constructed. The date of June 29th would become the official birthday of the City of San Francisco. Of the 21 California Missions, this is the third most northerly, and the sixth to be established under the direction of Father Junipero Serra.

Of this expedition and its arrival on the shores of San Francisco bay Father Engelhardt [Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt O.S.F., 1851-1934] of the Mission Santa Barbara writes in his book on the Mission Dolores:

“Four days' journey from the port of San Francisco, in the great plain named for San Bernardino, Fr. Palou writes, the expedition observed in the distance a herd of 15 elk. The soldiers gave chase, but succeeded in killing only three of the beasts.

“On June 27th, Fr. Palou relates, the expedition arrived near its destination. The commander, therefore, ordered the camp to be pitched on the bank of a lagoon which Señor Anza had named Nuestra Senora de los Dolores, and which is in sight of the Ensenada de los Llorones, and of the bay or arm of the sea that extends to the southeast. Here all were to await the transport ship to mark out the site on which to locate the fort and presidio while the country was being explored.”

In his vida, Fr. Palou is a little more explicit. There he notes:

“On June 27 we reached the vicinity of the port and pitched camp, which was composed of 15 tents, on the bank of a large lagoon which empties its waters into the arm of the sea or the port that extends inland 15 leagues to the southeast. The object was to wait for the ship to mark out the site for the presidio near a favorable anchorage. No sooner had the expedition gone into camp than many pagan Indians appeared in a friendly manner and with expressions of joy at our coming. Their satisfaction increased when the experienced the kindness with which we treated them and when they received the little trinkets we would give them in order to attract them, such as beads and estables. They would repeat their visits and bring little things in keeping with their poverty, such as shellfish and wild seeds.

“On the day of our arrival, the commander ordered an enramada (arbor) to be constructed which was to serve as a chapel for celebrating the holy sacrifice of the mass. On an alter erected with I celebrated the first holy mass on June 29, the feast of the great holy Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. My companion missionary celebrated holy mass there every day for an entire month until the camp of the soldiers was transferred to the site near the landing place.”

Hence, June 29, 1776, five days before the Declaration of Independence, was really the date of the founding of the Mission Dolores, or San Francisco de Asis, although officially other dates are reported.

Most of the supplies for the expedition had been sent by sea. The packet ship San Carlos had left Monterey at the same time but, as usual, the overland marchers arrived well in advance. Without waiting for the vessel's arrival, Fr. Palou and Lt. Moraga started their followers on the work of laying out the new settlement. The site selected for Mission San Francisco de Asis bordered a little laguna, or inlet, which de Anza had discovered when he explored the area earlier in the year. The explorer named the inlet laguna de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, a contraction of which became so identified with Fr. Palou's mission that, even today, it is far better known as Mission Dolores than San Francisco de Asis.

On August 18th, the San Carlos arrived, and construction moved swiftly ahead. Permanent mission buildings were completed by September 1st, but in the absence of word from Captain Rivera, it was decided to postpone the dedication. Fr. Palou and Lt. Moraga were aware that Rivera opposed the founding of another mission, but they also knew that his view was not shared by the viceroy in Mexico City. They had seen a letter to Fr. Serra in which the viceroy had expressed the hope that two more missions might be established, one in the name of San Francisco, and one dedicated to Santa Clara. They were confident that Rivera, once sufficiently impressed that these were his superior's wishes, would hasten to approve their project.

After some weeks of fruitless waiting for word from the captain, they decided in October to proceed with the formal dedication of San Francisco de Asis. Within a year, Fr. Palou sent another padre to establish the mission at Santa Clara while he remained at Dolores. After the death of Fr. Serra, he served briefly at Carmel as presidente of the California missions, before retiring to Mexico City to write the history from which much of this story is taken.

Mission Life

Unfortunately, the often cold and damp weather kept the Native Americans way from this place, and it took almost a whole year before the first Native Americans were baptized there. The climate at the mission site was severe, often with chilly sea winds and damp fogs. This did not help the many natives stricken with the diseases brought by the foreigners. More than 5,000 Native Americans eventually died here from the measles epidemic. The problem of sick natives was so great that eventually, in 1817, a hospital mission was opened in San Rafeal where the Mission Dolores inhabitants could recuperate in the sunshine. Later this became the Mission San Rafael Archangel.

In 1782 Father Palóu decided to move the mission to a more favorable site. In 1791 a beautiful new adobe church was dedicated. The Neophytes (Christianized Native Americans) built this church so well that it withstood the famous 1906 earthquake. Spared the earlier destruction of so many other California mission churches, it has been carefully preserved and today is the oldest intact building in San Francisco.

The mission on laguna de los Dolores soon became popular with the Indians of the area. The natives of the San Francisco district were the least gifted of all the coastal aborigines and the mission system offered them food and protection from their enemies. As converts, however, they left much to be desired. The complex social and religious concepts of the Spaniards seemed beyond their understanding or real concern. The "runaway neophyte" as a mission phenomenon, as well as the fathers' method of handling the problem, is treated elsewhere, for it is the basis of many of the charges of cruelty leveled against the Franciscans.

At Dolores, the desertions of the "Chritianized" Indians threatened the very existence of the mission. The padres never knew whether their Indian workmen would perform their assignments or flee, and neither, apparently, did the Indians. Torn between the attractions of the nearby presidio, and the self-indulgent life of his unenlightened brothers across the bay, the neophyte worker at Dolores was as a reed in the wind. There were many reasons. The narrow peninsula and the recurrent fog placed a drastic limitation on the size and nature of crops. Moreover, the steady growth of the nearby pueblo cut off the opportunity for expansion northward, while to the south were mud flats and the missions of Santa Clara and San José. Dolores never reached the degree of agricultural prosperity enjoyed by other missions and exhausting epidemics, especially measles, took a tremendous toll of the domestic Indians and left the survivors somewhat doubtful of the blessings they received.

After a time, the military officers grew weary of sending soldiers out after runaways and the subject caused bitterness between the padres and the presidio. Both sides realized the behavior of the neophytes demanded some action. An asistencia, or mission rancho, was set up on the north side of the bay where the climate and soil promised benefit to the Indian population, and a Franciscan father with a knowledge of medicine was placed in charge.

Later, an impetuous Franciscan mission father proposed to abandon both Dolores and the San Rafael asistencia in favor of a third location at Sonoma. The idea received the immediate approval of the governor, and resettlement was under way before the father presidente of the California missions discovered what was happening. The astonished presidente, now Fr. Vincente Sarría, pointed out that such an action was beyond the authority of even the governor. After some discussion, it was agreed that all three sites would be maintained as missions, with the Indians given the choice of settling in any one of them. In this way, San Rafael Arcángel and San Francisco de Solano came into being as the last of the California mission chain.


Soon after secularization, the mission began to decline. When the California Gold Rush hit the remote community around the mission became a bustling site. The mission area became a center for people to go to enjoy horse racing, gambling and drinking in taverns. Over time, the area was incorporated into a more respectable town area.

Decline and Rebirth

After the Mission San Francisco Solano compromise, the fortunes of Dolores rapidly declined. In 1834, it finally succumbed to the weight of misfortune which had been accumulating over the years. By the time the land reforms were put into effect, there was little left save the buildings. When California became a part of the United States, Dolores was restored to the Catholic Church although most of its possessions had long since disappeared. Before long, the once remote settlement of Yerba Buena, now called San Francisco, would sweep around the mission and gather it into its midst. Only then would Dolores achieve a measure of revenge against this lusty city. For the day came when the mission stood untouched by the force of the tremendous earthquake, which shook the surrounding buildings into ruins.

Today, all the wounds have healed. In the quiet garden of the mission, the history of the subsequent years is written on the markers of the graves. Early Indian neophytes have been joined by victims of the vigilantes. Spanish captains and Irish-American fire chiefs have been brought together in this final resting place, even though the church building still belongs to its founders. Inside, it differs little from its earliest appearance. The unusually effective ceiling is just as it was created by the Indian workmen and the wooden altars, built in the manner of Roman public buildings, have many recessed niches in which stand the sculptured figures of almost all the mission patron saints. Some are long and lean in figure, like Spanish art, and others reveal the shorter and stockier ideal that developed in Mexico. Some of the latter, definitely not Indian in style, must have been made at Dolores, for they are unquestionably of redwood, a tree unknown in Mexico.

Mission history has paid little heed to the artists and artisans who came into the new colony, where they performed the countless number of technical and professional services necessary for its success. Blacksmiths, carpenters, artists even engineers gave the mission system its functional design and taught the Indian neophytes to carry on. They did their work and this is virtually all we know of them, except in rare instances where the records yield a name or two as Estéban Ruíz, builder of Carmel Mission, and Romero and Urselino, blacksmith and carpenter who died with Fr. Jáyme in defending San Diego.

Outside of Dolores, on the busy streets of San Francisco, the steady interleaf of nights and days marks the swift passage of our own era. Within the silent walls of the old mission, time has truly found a stop. Here is yesterday waiting for the traveler where, from the altar heights, the flight of wooden angels guards its rest.

Misión San Francisco de Asís is situated in the very heart of a bustling international seaport city on a tree-lined boulevard, overshadowed by a majestic Basilica on the north and quaint Victorian row houses and apartments on the south.


Just outside the rough-hewn redwood doors and sitting in the middle of a grassy median strip is the Mission Bell heralding the renowned El Camino Real or King's Highway. The Old Mission is designated as Registered Landmark Number One and is very near the geographical center of the City of San Francisco. The building, 22 feet wide, is constructed of thousands of adobe bricks arranged in a block 10 feet thick set on a foundation of rock four feet below the surface. The facade of whitewashed adobe bricks is extraordinary in that it appears to have four huge columns supporting a second story balcony housing six more smaller columns and three bells. The roof is constructed of red ceramic tiles.

The rough hewn redwood roof timbers still are lashed together with rawhide. The altar was one of the most ornate among the missions. The original books and decorations were brought from Spain and Mexico. A small museum displays old manuscripts and mission relics. The basilica next door, in a combination of Moorish, Mission and Corinthian styles, stands in contrast to the mission's appearance.





The Bulletin
Diamond Jubilee Edition
September 1925