Mission San Diego de Alcala

San Diego de Alcala ~ San Luis Rey ~ Pala ~ Santa Ysabel ~ Las Flores

Mission San Diego de Alcala

Mission San Diego de Alcala has been called affectionately the "mother" of the other California establishments of the Franciscans. She was rather their elder sister. Two days after Governor Portola forded San Diego river and thus began his northward journey Mission San Diego sprang into existence.

Late afternoon of July 14th and all of the 15th were consumed in bringing order into camp after the departure of men and animals. Deaths were terribly frequent, and the sick therefore required constant attention. The Spanish chroniclers say that about sixty men were buried in that cemetery, "El Jardin del Rey," above the palm. Most of them had died before the first year of Spanish settlement ended.

Who were these men at San Diego, living and dead? Fr. Serra and his associates Frs. Parron and Vizcaino, Captain Vila and his mate Canizares, Surgeon Prat, blacksmith Maximo Felipe Garcia Romero, a carpenter, a guard of eight Leather jackets, five volunteers of the Catalan company of Fages (too ill to march), some sick "sailors and seamen," and about a dozen Indian neophytes. Engelhardt calls the whole camp "a greta hospital or pesthouse."

With Portola gone, Fr. Serra was free to accomplish his great purpose, to begin his missionary work in earnest. He dedicated the original California mission building at a site below where the "Serra Cross" stands. That church has been described as built of "stakes which they roofed with tules." Portola writing on April 17, 1700 says that the mission had been "moved to the satisfaction of the Fr. Presidente," a little nearer the cross site, but west and south of it several hundred feet.

Many San Diegans remember late ruins of that Presidio chapel which stood very close to the site of the first mission building, which was described as facing the bay, its door (a piece of cloth) invitingly left open so that neighboring Indians might enter, perhaps, and receive a welcome to godliness and civilized living. Other buildings inside the presidio stockade could be entered only by the guarded gate.

The morning of July 16, the "Feast of the Triumph of the Cross," a tall roughly constructed cross was planted. The ceremony of blessing, offering Mass, ringing bells and rededicating themselves to the work of reclaiming Californian savages was necessarily hurried, because already sick men were demanding care.

In 1774 the mission was moved about six miles inland to Nipaguay in the Valle del Rio San Diego. Then the present recently restored church is not the "mother" mission? Well, we need to remember that a mission is not exactly a building from which religious work is carried on, but rather that work itself, of trying to help those "in need, sickness, poverty, ignorance, etc." All California missions were designed especially for "the conversion and spiritual improvement" of the Indians. Usually, but not always at first, a building which was called a church or chapel was nothing but a tent, a bower of branches, a hut of the very crudest sort. The Indian congregation at San Diego as at many other California missions many times outgrew the chapel's capacity.


In August, 1774, the mother mission at Nipaguay was a church of "poles roofed with tules ... six by nineteen varas" (17' by 53'). This and all nearby buildings (none of them adobe) were burnt, together with priceless pioneer records during an uprising of Indians during the first week of November, 1775. The next morning Mission San Diego was re-established on Presidio Hill in a jacal of tule, poorly constructed, formerly a warehouse. No description has been found of the church built at Nipaguay in 1776 under direction of Fr. Serra. Dec. 31, 1777 is the date of the report describing a new (fifth temporary) mission church, "adobe with thatched roof," 25 by 20 varas (70' x 56'); and three years later a "more spacious and substantial church" (84' x 15') was erected, its walls being three feet thick, its beams of pine and poplar. This sixth structure stood until the present building had been built and dedicated close to the same site twentythree years later.


The night when the first white men arrived at San Diego, Indians shot "at them with arrows and wounded three men." Cabrillo permitted his soldiers no retaliation.

The second bloody encounter in the land took place August 15, 1769 at Mission San Diego on Presidio Hill. Four Leather jackets, the blacksmith, a carpenter and some sick soldiers aided by converted Indians drove off armed savages, who "fell upon the mission and began to rob everything they could carry away." The Indians discharged arrows, the newcomers fired muskets.

" A regular battle ensued, in which the Indians learned to their cost for the first time the effects of a gunshot . . ."

Several savages and Fr. Serra's servant, Jose Maria Vegerano, were killed. Garcia Romero, Fr. Vizcaino and a soldier were wounded.

The third California battle took place at Mission San Diego at Nipaguay Nov. 5, 1775, when a corporal, three soldiers, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a priest and two boys defended their lives, though by daybreak all the mission shacks had vanished. An adobe shed, still in an unfinished state, sheltered these men during the night while Juan Rocha constantly fired weapons which were loaded by the others, Fr. Vicente Fuster heroically protecting the ammunition supply by sitting on it.


When Portola arrived back. at San Diego in January, 1770, he found presidio and mission functioning. Several brush huts had been built. The San Antonio was daily expected with a much needed load of supplies. After making a careful check of food, powder, and other necessities Portola ruled that if the ship had not arrived by March 20, all must retreat to VelicatA, whither Rivera had already been sent to bring up cattle, grain, implements and the like.

Fr. Serra and Fr. Crespi reponded to this order which threatened death to their hopes, by storming heaven for nine days, praying for the return of the ship. On the eve of the 20th sails were actually seen passing Point Loma, and the priests knew that Mission San Diego was to live. Permanent plans for improvement on Presidio Hill began immediately; to be put into effect shortly after Captain Perez appeared two days later.

Years of ups and downs ensued. About 1800 prosperity had definitely set in at this mission. Indian conversions were many; the yield of field and orchard, the increase of flock and herd superabundant. Olives, the "mother trees" of California, some alive today, brought fame. The whole story of this mission is well told by Fr. Engelhardt.

The irrigation project, first on the Pacific Coast of the United States, was probably begun before 1800. A scholarly treatise, The San Diego Old Mission Dam and Irrigation System by F. E. Green is on file at the San Diego Public Library and at [the San Diego Historical Society Research Archives].

The mission was secularized in 1835. The buildings were used for quartering U.S. troops during and after the close of the Mexican war. May 23, 1862, President Lincoln signed a document returning church buildings and some mission lands to Bishop Joseph E. Alemany, in trust "for religious purposes and uses." In 1882 was filed in San Diego County the famous complaint for partition of the Ex-Mission ranch lands. Other divisions and sub-divisions have since been made, the beginning of many San Diego County towns, school districts and farms on the wide acres that constituted the first royal grant in Alta California.

[From an article by Winifred Davidson in Carl Heilbron's History of San Diego, 1936]

Take the San Diego County Mission Quiz.

San Diego County Historical Landmarks:

Mission Dam & Flume ~ Historical Landmark #52
Mission San Luis Rey ~ Historical Landmark #239
Mission San Diego de Alcala ~ Historical Landmark #242
Pala Mission ~ Historical Landmark #243
Santa Ysabel Mission Site ~ Historical Landmark #369
La Flores Asistencia ~ Historical Landmark #616
From our Journal of San Diego History:
The Restoration of Mission San Diego de Alcala
The Changing Face of Mission San Diego
1775 Revolt at Mission San Diego de Alcala