What is now the city of San Diego started out as Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s San Miguel, named when he sailed into San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. The Portuguese explorer claimed the land for Spain, but Spain ignored the area for sixty years and all proof of Cabrillo’s claim had weathered away. Sebastián Vizcaíno made landfall in San Diego Bay as well, and he renamed the area after San Diego de Alcalá on November 10, 1602.
The current church at Mission San Diego de Alcalá is the 5th church to stand in this location since San Diego was first settled in 1542.
It would be another 167 years before the Spanish returned to San Diego. During the entire Spanish conquistador period, Spain had been establishing missions to convert the natives in New Spain to Catholicism in order to colonize the lands. Yet, it took the movements of Russia eyeing up the western coast of North America with Peter I the Great asking Vitus Bering to command an expedition of the Kamchatka peninsula and the subsequent discovery of additional lands east of Siberia across the now eponymously-named Bering Strait.
To secure Spain’s claim to the entire Pacific Coast by right of discovery, King Philip V felt missions were necessary in Alta California. In 1769 Junípero Serra led an expedition from Baja California to found the mission at San Diego and presidio at Monterrey. Both the Presidio and the Mission of San Diego became the first European settlement in what is now the state of California.
The site of the Presidio and the original Mission is in what is now San Diego’s Presidio Park. No historical structures remain in Presidio Park today, but a fenced-off area encloses the foundations of the chapel, walls, and other historical sites. Mission moved about five miles upriver at its current location in 1773. The Presidio was gradually abandoned since need for military protection disappeared and people settled in Old Town at the foot of the hill from the Presidio. It lay in ruins by 1835.
If San Diego is the birthplace of California, then Junípero Serra is California’s father. Father Serra was a Majorcan Franciscan friar who founded the mission chain in Alta California, including Mission San Buenaventura, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and perhaps the most famous of them all Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores). During his lifetime, he was witness to the American Revolutionary War and he notably took up a collection from his mission parishes throughout California. The total money collected amounted to roughly $137 and it was sent to General George Washington.
After realizing the Church was only open until 5:00pm, we rushed to the Mission from our visit to Old Town San Diego. Followed the signs on the Kumeyaay Freeway to the exit and after some creative navigation found ourselves in front of an unassuming building. While it had the traditional Spanish architecture, it was a smaller facade than I had anticipated.
When we entered into the Mission grounds and I saw the large patio with a fountain, I realized the scope of this property. Like many of the Missions, the plaza was surrounded by solid and massive walls that were broad and undecorated. I wondered around and found the arched corridors that lead to the school area and a statuary garden.
From the garden we moved into the church. After the historic relocation to the current location, the Mission struggled against native attacks and was destroyed in 1775 by fire. Though it was one of the poorer Missions in the system, Blessed Father Serra returned to oversee the rebuilding and brought prosperity back to the area. However, with Mexican Independence and U.S. acquisition, the Mission was neglected. Finally, in 1931, the Church was restored to its current look. Today it is an active Catholic Parish in the Diocese of San Diego.
To honor the historic role that this first Mission held in the history of California and the US, Pope Paul VI designated Mission San Diego de Alcalá as a Minor Basilica in 1976, which includes in its privileges granted, the permit to display a tintinnabulum and an umbraculum.
I appreciate when these original historic sites are able to be used for their original purpose. The USA doesn’t have the length of history that the United Kingdom, France or China have, but we do have a collective breadth of history. I’m proud when we do preserve our history for future generation to use and to value. When we partake in our over two century old history, we continue to define ourselves as Americans.