Mission Nuestra Señora Dolorosísima de la Soledad


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Nuestra Señora Dolorosísima de la Soledad

Mission Soledad exterior
Mission Soledad Interior
Mission Altar
Mission Exterior Front
Mission Bell
Ruins of Original Adobe Walls
Thirteenth Mission
Date Founded: October 9, 1791
Founder: Father Fermin Lasuen
Named for: Our Lady of Solitude
Mission Soledad Restoration Committee
36641 Fort Romie Road
Soledad, CA 93960

In the Salinas River valley, 3 miles south of the town of Soledad and 1 mile west of U.S. Highway 101



The friendly Costanoan Indians gave the mission its name. In 1769, Juan Crespi and Gaspar de Portola visited the area on their way to Monterey. During the encampment of his expedition, an Indian who approached the explorers responded to questions with just one word which he repeated again and again. The Indian's expression, which sounded like the Spanish word for solitude, "Soledad," seemed to them very appropriate to the location, and Portolá so marked the site on the maps of the expedition. In 1771 Father Junipero Serra passed through area, and talked to local people. When the mission was placed there by Fr. Lasuén in 1791, it was natural for the Franciscans to name it in honor of Our Lady of Solitude. There were very few Indians in the area when the mission was founded, which is why it took so long for the mission to be built. There were not enough Indians to do the work.

Establishment of Mission Nuestra Señora Dolorosísima de la Soledad

Mission Nuestra Señora Dolorosísima de la Soledad, thirteenth in the chain of Alta California missions, was established on October 9, 1791 by Fr. Fermin de Lasuén, at the site of an Esselen Indian village recorded by Pedro Font as Chuttusgelis. When Soledad Mission was founded, the "Golden Age" was beginning for the California missions, and there was anticipation for another successful venture. The lonely spot had been named by Portola, and thus logically was called Our Lady of Solitude. The loneliness, the stubborn soil, and the damp winter winds all contributed to disappointment rather than content for resident padres. One of the chief purposes of this mission was to facilitate travel between Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo and Mission San Antonio de Padua. The mission system was designed so that each mission was one day's travel from its neighbor.

Mission Life

Everything seemed to promise immediate success for the mission establishment in the Salinas Valley. The rolling hills and valley lands that surrounded the site offered the prospect of a limitless bounty. Yet, from the very beginning, the name it had received from a long forgotten Indian was to be a far more accurate appraisal of its ultimate future than the optimistic aspirations of its founders.

The name of this mission tells a lot about it. Father Lasuen dedicated the site to "the Solitude of Most Holy Mary, Our Lady". It was a dry, windy plain that was very hot in the summer and freezing cold on winter nights. It was through the missionaries irrigation of the Salinas river that the area was transformed to allow the growth of crops and livestock herding by the missionaries.

Before Soledad was founded, the royal gifts which were to equip the mission somehow went astray, and once more Fr. Lasuén was forced to appeal to the other Franciscan settlements for the needed articles. Due to the inhospitable climate and land, there were very few Native Americans living in the area. Hence building and conversions were slow. The brushwood shelter which Fr. Lasuén dedicated in 1791 was not replaced by adobe until six years later in 1797. At the time this church was enlarged in 1805, its thatched roof was replaced by tile. When permanent buildings were finally erected, they exhibited a remarkable tendency to disintegrate under the extreme climatic changes. The adobe buildings tended to disintegrate in summers which were too dry and winters too wet. Also, the desolate plain offered no protection against the floods of the Salinas river. As an instance, the church, which was reported as completely repaired in 1824 after flooding, collapsed in 1832 as a consequence of severe winter weather, flooding, and earthquake. Part of a remaining storehouse was converted to be the chapel. This catastrophe can be seen as the beginning of the end for the Mission Soledad.

It was also a very difficult assignment for the padres. All winter long the attendant padres were subject to cold and dampness that the feeble warmth of the few fireplaces could not begin to dispel. Those sent there soon complained of rheumatism and poor health. After a year, many padres asked to be reassigned to a more pleasant site. In the short span of this mission's existence, almost thirty different padres were assigned here.

The notable exception in a history of rapid administrative changes was Father Florencio Ibañez, who devoted more than 15 years of service to the lonely settlement. He is the only Franciscan buried at the site, although the next grave is that of a fellow Spaniard, José Arrillaga, the governor whom the Franciscans so much admired. Arrillaga, long beset by illness, seemed to have a premonition of his approaching death. Being unmarried and without family, he moved to Soledad in order that his last days might be spent in the presence of his old friend, Father Ibañez, who buried him on July 24, 1814. Four years later, a new grave was dug in the stubborn soil of the lonely mission and Father Ibañez was laid to rest beside his friend.

The padres of Soledad seemed to find misfortune waiting in every field of effort. The Indians, for whose conversion they labored so strenuously, were not numerous in the area and the maximum neophyte population of less than 700 was achieved at the end of 15 years. After 1805, the population at Soledad began a rapid decline. One of the causes which contributed to the Franciscans' difficulty was a serious epidemic, which visited the establishment in 1802. The plague carried off many of the faithful and drove off many more, who attributed the mysterious malady to their acceptance of the new religion.

In spite of all the difficulties, the mission did prosper. Eventually the padres performed more than 2,000 baptisms and 700 marriages. The crops were bountiful and large herds of horses, cattle and sheep grazed the plains.

The first annual report was issued in 1794. No mention of construction on ranchos or outlying lands was made in 1794, but an unusual baptism was recorded in that the recipient was a 20 year old man who was the son of Nootka parents, natives of northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The following years, to 1797, during the administration of the unpopular Padre Diego Garcia, were years of unhappiness at the mission according to Bancroft's writers. Engelhardt notes that those years coincided with a period of harsh drought conditions, contributing greatly to accusations of deprivation and abuse of the neophytes by Padre Garcia's critics. In 1802 an epidemic and a triple murder contributed to deaths which for a period of time numbered five and six per day. By 1805, however, the neophyte population had peaked at 688, then slowly dwindled to 598 by 1810.

The economy at Mission Nuestra de la Soledad 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. Broad fields supported herds of cattle, several thousand sheep, and five hundred horses.

The 1827 inventory of holdings required of all missions by Governor Echeandia described the mission boundaries, neighboring ranchos and mission outposts. Soledad's boundaries met with those of Mission San Carlos (Carmel) on the west, and stretched from La Laguna de los Palos on the south to Chualar on the north. Soledad Indians tended 2,000 sheep at La Laguna Rancho, while two leagues west of La Laguna another 1,600 sheep were kept on a rancho used with the permission of Mission San Carlos. On a second Soledad rancho to the north 1,800 sheep grazed, mixed with the sheep of Mission San Carlos as they had no fence to separate the herds. To the east of the mission 4,000 head of cattle and 800 horses were kept. The Rio de Monterey (Salinas River) ran through the cañon (canyon) at that point, but the water was too low to tap for irrigation. Croplands were irrigated from an arroyo four leagues south and east of the mission. The reporting padre was discouraged with the lack of good timber on mission lands. He noted that the only groves were of poplar, alder, and willow, with some live oak on the neighboring hills.

Robbed of any singular physical achievement by misfortune and a hostile climate, Soledad managed to win a place in California history as the scene on which one of the most sublime and two of the basest Franciscan characters played their parts. The former was Fr. Vicente Sarría, whose story is the story of Soledad's last days, and the latter were two who appeared fairly early in the mission's life and conducted themselves in such an extraordinary manner that historians have never failed to wonder at their presence in the Franciscan Order.

The story of Fr. Marino Rubi and Fr. Bartólome Gili begins in the College of San Fernando to which all California Franciscans belonged. The two friars arrived at the college in Mexico City in 1788, and proceeded to indulge in a series of escapades that are usually associated with the legendary undergraduates of some of our modern universities. The record indicates that they were a constant source of alarm and discomfort to their fellows and the charges against them range from robbing the storeroom of the community chocolate to rolling balls through the college dormitory after midnight. It was their habit to sleep during the day when they should have been at their duties, and quite often they would elect to scale the walls of the college and spend the night in town.

Just why they were tolerated at San Fernando is perhaps explained by the fact that the Franciscans were too embarrassed by their unconventional companions to make it a public matter, and that Fr. Palou who headed the College at that time was too old and ill to be aware of the actual situation. At any rate, the malcontents, who were clamoring for transfer, were finally sent to California. Fr. Rubi arrived in 1790 and Fr. Gili the following year.

A year after Fr. Rubi's arrival at Soledad, his companion padre very happily exchanged places with Fr. Gili, who had just come to San Antonio. Once together, the two soon made a reputation for outrageous behavior and their complaints were unceasing. They devoted themselves to demands that they be returned to Mexico. They wailed of the discomforts of Soledad, worst of which seemed to be the constant shortage of altar wine.

It did not take Fr. Lasuén long to agree that they would be better off in another place, but the viceroy who had just approved their transfer to California was reluctant to have them return to Mexico. The padres' claims of illness were examined by the royal surgeon and Fr. Rubi was found to have a definite disability and allowed to depart in 1793. A year later, Fr. Lasuén received permission for Fr. Gili's transfer and they gladly saw him off on a boat whose captain, whether by design or not, refused to allow the padre ashore at Loreto and carried him away to the Philippines.

At the opposite range of human behavior stands the figure of Fr. Vicente Francisco de Sarria, last Franciscan padre at Soledad. On occasions, Fr. Sarría had served both as presidente and prefect of the missions during the years before secularization. The disturbances in Mexico and growing hostility of the Californians put an end to the arrival of new friars, and when he found that it was not possible to find another padre for Soledad, he decided to take the post himself.

The fortunes of Soledad ebbed even lower and Fr. Sarría, alone at the mission, carried on his work among the Indians until May, 1835, when his worn and emaciated body was found at the foot of the altar. With his death, Soledad died also, and a few days later the last of his loyal Indian followers carried his body over the hills to Mission San Antonio de Padua, leaving behind a lonely group of structures which slowly melted away.


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. 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. The Mission Nuestra de la Soledad was sold in 1841 for $800.

The secularization decrees in 1834 removed Soledad's name from the mission rolls and such records and materials as remained were transferred to San Antonio. The secularization inventory in 1836 reported mission property consisting of a vineyard of 5,000 vines, ranchos at San Lorenzo, San Vicente, and San Fernando, and livestock of 3,246 cattle, 2,400 sheep, and 32 horses. Mission liquid assets consisted of $556, while debits amounted to $677.

Decline and Rebirth

The last Franciscan at Soledad was Father Vicente Francisco de Sarria. He struggled alone to keep the buildings habitable, and minister to the few remaining Indians. One morning in 1835 his body was found at the foot of the altar. The little band of loyal followers carried his remains over the hills to Mission San Antonio. Soledad died that day, too. Pio Pico received just $800 for what was left. Although the site of the mission buildings eventually was returned to the Church by the United States, nothing remained but stubs of adobe walls. The lonely place was not reoccupied. After secularization the mission site was soon abandoned and left to decay for over one hundred years.

The neophyte population in 1837 was reported at 172, including 45 able-bodied males. In 1839, inspector William Hartnell found 78 neophytes, with 45 cattle, 685 sheep, 25 horses, 2 mules, and 260 bushels of barley remaining of the 1836 inventory. The neophytes complained to Hartnell of grievous wrongdoings by administrator Espinosa and Mayordomo Rosa. In 1841, soon after Hartnell's visit, the mission was reported to be in ruins with its vineyards, orchards, and gardens gone wild. The mission buildings, furniture, gardens, and 21 fruit trees, together with one league of land on which resided 20 Indians, were sold to Feliciano Soberanes in 1845.

In 1846, the site was sold by Governor Pio Pico for $800. Roof tiles and other items were sold to pay debt to the Mexican government. The buildings were used as a ranch house for a few years, than abandoned.

By the time the mission and 42 surrounding acres was returned to the Church by the United States in 1859, the property was in such complete ruin that it was never reoccupied. All semblance of human habitation disappeared and adobe walls melted into stubs of earth. Talk of one day rebuilding finally culminated in completion of the chapel, with other restoration in progress.

Finally, in 1954, the Native Daughters of the Golden West began restoring what little was left of the Mission Soledad. When restoration was begun, only piles of adobe dirt were remaining. All that was left was the front part of the chapel. Today a small wing of seven rooms and a small chapel can be visited. The small chapel rebuilt using adobe bricks that were handmade from the dust of the old bricks. Original possessions were located and returned to their places. The original bell was hung near the chapel entrance. Although the original quadrangle is gone, the lines of it can be traced in the mounds of the adobe ruins. The ruins of the quadrangle, cemetery and some of the rooms can still be seen at the mission. In 1963, the residence wing of the original quadrangle was rebuilt.

Presently the mission is part of the Catholic Parish of Soledad but since 1835, there has not been a priest served at the mission on a regular basis. Services are held four times a year on designated days. The gardens and a small museum is open to the public. Further restoration is being conducted as funds become available. The continued restoration and maintenance of Soledad Mission is made possible by donations of those who cherish California's rich heritage. Soleday Mission is sustained through donations from individuals, proceeds from the gift shop, and money raised at the two annual fund-raisers, the June Barbcue and the Fall Fiesta.


In its beautiful but lonely location many miles from any town this mission more than any other looks just as it did in early Spanish times. Entirely of adobe construction, Soledad Mission fell completely into ruin after its forced abandonment.

Recent rebuilding projects have recreated one side of the quadrangle, as well as the old chapel. Location of the mission church which washed away in a flood has been found, the tile floor intact under layers of silt from flood waters. It is still there, being preserved under the same silt. A storeroom had been used as a chapel for the tiny congregation after the loss of the church. An interesting museum is housed in the rebuilt rooms. The stubs of adobe walls still mark the exact locations of the remainder of the old quadrangle. Irrigation water and loving care have turned the area into a beautiful garden.

When the reconstruction finally began at the Soledad Mission only stubs of adobe walls marked the location of the old quadrangle. Today, the chapel and the monastery wing have been rebuilt.