Head out on the highway: Come visit the California missions

Each one is unique, with its own stories, but all were (and continue to be — 19 of the 21 are active parishes) centered on sharing the Gospel

Mission Carmel Church – Carmel, California. (Shutterstock image)

I have faint memories of the California missions from my childhood. I remember working on a replica of a mission with my dad in the 4th grade (a requirement of California’s curriculum).

I visited the Mission Santa Cruz in elementary school on a weekend vacation with a friend. In high school in the 1980s, I don’t remember learning much about Saint Junípero Serra, the apostle of our state, even though I attended a school named in his honor. 

Things changed, however, in my late twenties, when I started teaching at my old high school — a transformation I couldn’t imagine my life without. 

Like me, it seemed that my high school had changed. The Theology Department had an entire unit on the life of our namesake, and I felt obligated to get to know him better. I was single at the time, so I visited all 21 California missions over the course of a few summers. And in these visits, I developed a deep interest in the missions, especially for the first father president (priest and administrator), Junípero Serra. 

I learned so much about the little friar from Mallorca that I considered him one of my closest friends — a holy witness I could learn from, pray to, and walk with through life. 

When I gave a presentation about the missions to his fourth grade class this year, the students asked me to share my favorite thing about the missions. 

I told them that my favorite part is sharing this story of California’s faith with my son, and we have visited 17 of the 21 missions so far. For my son’s mission project, he chose Mission Carmel, the place of our family’s annual pilgrimage, and his personal favorite mission. Someday, he hopes to visit the rest of the missions, including those connected to Serra in Mexico. 

The history of the California missions never fails to captivate. Each one is unique, with its own stories, but all were (and continue to be — 19 of the 21 are active parishes) centered on sharing the Gospel. 

Though I have visited these missions many times, I always learn something new, and I’m always in awe of how deep mission history truly goes. 

The Franciscans had an immense task in bringing Catholicism to the California Indians, but they were up for the challenge. 

From 1769 to 1834, 142 Franciscan priests toiled in the California missions, doing amazing things. Padre Estévan Tapís at Mission San Juan Bautista devised a system of music notations to teach music to the neophytes. At Mission San Antonio, Padre Buenaventura Sitjar wrote a grammar and dictionary of the Telame language, a dialect of the local Salinan people. 

Saint Junípero Serra stands out among them all. His reputation for holiness was so great that when he died, they had to post guards around his body, for fear that people would take pieces of his habit to remember him. 

At the Mass and Canonization of Blessed Junípero Serra, Pope Francis shared in the homily, “Today we remember one of those witnesses who testified to the joy of the Gospel with these lands, Father Junípero Serra. He was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.” 

So load up your car, get the motor running, and head out on the highway — destination, the California missions! May visiting them and learning about the early Catholic Christians inspire you in your journey as Christ’s disciple in “a Church which goes forth.” 

Saint Junípero Serra, pray for us!

Full story at Angelus.

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  1. I was baptized in the Mission San Luis Rey in Jan 1940….went to school there a couple of yrs with the Precious Blood sisters….and frequently went to mass there, from Cardiff-By-The-Sea, where I lived….I went back for the first time in 2008…did not care for the modern church there…but sure love the Old Mission Church….so very beautiful…have lived in Alaska 51+ yrs…nothing like that beautiful mission Church in Alaska…

  2. Clinton R. says:

    I have visited 9 of the 21 so far. It is a very edifying experience to see the missions and appreciate the beauty and history of what St. Junipero Serra founded.

  3. Visiting the twenty one Missions is a good way to see the southern two thirds of California. Unfortunately, the northernmost Misson is just northeast of San Francisco. One can generally see two missions in a day. We divided our visits into five separate trips.

  4. Mission San Miguel is worth stopping at if you are on the 101 just north of Paso Robles. It has easy access immediately off the highway, the church has a lot of original features, and the optional (for a small fee) self-guided tour of the mission buildings is interesting. Makes for a nice rest stop to stretch your legs on a long drive between Northern and Southern California.

  5. The Carmel Mission is a rip-off. I refuse to pay their outrageous admission fee to be permitted to go inside the church.

  6. helen wheels says:

    Why did the padres build
    Mission San Miguel so close
    to the 101 ??

    • Mission San Miguel predates US-101. Many parts of the 101 follow the route of the old El Camino Real (you can see the historical marker signs and mission bells on posts every mile or so on the side of the road), which was the main road for travel by horseback or walking from the south to the north in the former Spanish territory in what is now California. Missions were built near the El Camino Real for ease of access in traveling from one to another, but not all missions are as near as San Miguel is to the 101. You could literally throw a baseball from the 101 onto mission grounds; it’s that close.

    • Anne TE says:

      Helen, you have me rolling on the floor laughing. Could it be that 101 was not there
      when they built the Mission? I know. You were just complaining that 101 was built so close to the mission.

      The El Camino Real (the King’s Highway) was the original “highway” going by each mission. Some of it still has the same name as the first place my husband and I lived in is still on the El Camino. That was over fifty years ago. My, how times flies.

    • Anne TE says:

      Actually, that part of the El Camino has a different name, but was part of the original highway.

      • Anne TE says:

        Helen, I was just teasing you, so I hope you are not offended. I, too, have said things unthinkingly like that when I have read an article in haste and have not fully understood it, so I understand.

  7. Mission San Miguel dates from the 1790s. Highway 101 dates from the 1920s. So the question is why build the highway so close to the mission.

    • The 101 was built where there was already an existing public road that the state could pave. Topography in that area also would have made it impractical to build anywhere else. The bigger problem at Mission San Miguel is the railroad track that is even closer than the 101, on the opposite side, directly across the street from the mission, only about 100 feet away from the front of the mission church. Decades of rumbling trains on those tracks have caused vibrations that damaged the mission’s adobe walls.

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