The California missions are a big part of my early childhood memories. Every March 19th (Saint Joseph’s Day), my parents took our family to see the swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano. To me the missions have always been a refuge away from a complicated world. I am captivated by the Spanish, Mexican and Native American history of that period and have always adored the beautifully serene interior spaces in the churches with the impassioned statues of Christ, Mary and the saints. The missions were erected along the Pacific coast along El Camino Real (The Royal Road or The Kings Highway) on a 600-mile path from San Diego to north of San Francisco. I have visited about half of California’s 21 missions and plan one day to see them all.
Mission Basilica San Diego Alcalá, known as the mother of the missions, was the first outpost of Christianity on the west coast of the North America. It was founded by Franciscan priest Junipero Serra in 1769. Unfortunately a year after its completion, the church was attacked and burned to the ground by Native Americans. Padre Luis Jayme was killed in the attack and is buried in the mission’s sanctuary. He became the first Christian martyr in California. He was a bright and talented friar devoted to understanding the complexities of the native languages. In 1776 Father Serra returned to rebuild the mission. The resurrection was completed in 1790.
The mission’s namesake is Saint Didacus of Alcalá, the name was given to this area by captain Sebastian Viscaino upon his arrival from new Spain in 1602 In the fashion of Spanish explorers who named the bay and region out of reverence for the saint whose feast day was nearest the time of landing, Saint Didacus was patron Saint in Alcalá Spain. He was also known as Diego de San Nicolás. Hence, the city of San Diego.
After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 the mission became the property of ranchero Santiago Arguello until the Mexican-American War of 1848. The US Calvary used the mission as a military post from 1850 to 1857. In 1862 the mission lands were restored to the church by president Abraham Lincoln. In 1976 it was named by Pope Paul VI as a minor basilica. Today it is a working parish for the Catholic community and an educational center for people of all faiths and for those with an interest in history.