We visit the Carmel Mission this week or, more properly, Mission Basilica San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, the second Spanish mission established in Alta California by the Franciscan Father Junípero Serra. But you could be forgiven if you came to think of the Carmel Mission as California’s first, because Monterey, where it was initially established, quickly became both the cultural and military capital of Spain’s settlements here. It was definitely “first” for Father Serra, who primarily served here, died here, and was buried here, in the chapel.
Not without considerable controversy, Serra was canonized, or declared a Catholic saint, by Pope Francis in 2015, which is why Carmel Mission Basilica is also now Serra’s shrine. Many contemporary native Californians objected—and still object—because even when mission Indians wanted to serve God in this way, as Christian neophytes and as laborers they were disciplined by beatings—trauma never inflicted in their own cultures. There was other fairly routine violence, too, include rape by soldiers, though Serra fought openly with military leaders to gain Franciscan authority over soldiers and California’s brand new Christians. Serra’s defenders point out that he sought to protect native Californians and defend their dignity. But even Serra couldn’t protect them from the introduced diseases that amounted to slow-motion social genocide. Serra couldn’t foresee that disaster, either. Acceptance of the idea that germs—microorganizms—caused disease was more than a century in the future.
As Pope Francis put it, during Serra’s canonization, the padre embodied a “Church which goes forth.” And go forth he did, with Siempre adelante, or “Keep moving forward” as his motto, establishing eight missions during his 14 years in California, and witnessing Mission Santa Barbara’s founding also before he died.
Visiting the beautiful church that stands in for Serra’s mission-management headquarters—the very first mission buildings were built of wood and adobe—is well worth it. The basilica and mission complex are beautiful, for one thing, recipients of much restoration and appreciation following a long period of decline and decay following Mexican Independence (and Spain’s expulsion from California). The mission’s magnificent vine-draped cathedral, the basilica, catches the eye first. The Baroque stone church, one of the state's most graceful buildings, complete with a four-bell Moorish tower, arched roof, and star-shaped central window, was built by master stonemasons under the direction of Serra’s successor, Father Lasuén, and completed in 1797.
Most of the buildings here are reconstructions, however, since the Carmel Mission fell to ruins in the 1800s. But these “new” old buildings, painstakingly rebuilt and restored in the 1930s under the direction of Sir Harry Downie, fail to suggest the size and complexity of the original bustling mission complex: an odd-shaped quadrangle with a central fountain, gardens, kitchen, carpenter and blacksmith shops, soldiers’ housing, and priests’ quarters. The native Californians attached to the mission—a labor force of some 4,000 Christian converts—lived separately in a nearby village. More than 3,000 “mission Indians” are buried in the silent, simple cemetery. Most graves in these gardens are unmarked, but some are decorated with abalone shells. The gardens themselves, started by Downie, are fabulous, with old-fashioned plant varieties. And there are multiple museums. The “book museum” holds California's first unofficial library—the 600 volumes Padre Serra brought to California in 1769. The silver altar furnishings are also originals, as are the ornate vestments, Spanish and native artifacts, and other mission memorabilia. Junípero Serra’s simple priest’s cell is a lesson by contrast in modern materialism.