June 13 – Founding of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

Posted on June 13, 2015

Back in the 1700s, Spaniards explored what they called “Alto California” (and what we now call California), and every once in a while they founded a mission. These religious (and, honestly, military) outposts of the Spanish empire were meant to spread Christianity to local Native Americans and to colonize the region for Spain.

At the missions, priests and other Spanish settlers trained Indians to grow European fruits and vegetables, to raise cattle and horses, to tan hides and to make candles—basically to become Spanish colonial citizens.

It sounds kind of nice and peaceful, if you don't think too hard about it – but of course the destruction done to Native American populations and cultures was immense. Many peoples lost their languages, their belief systems, and their traditions; many people became sick with viruses that they had no immunity against; and of course some Native Americans who resisted adopting Spanish ways were forced to do so, anyway, or were killed.

Catholic priests called Jesuits had founded 15 missions in Baja California (which is now part of Mexico) in the mid-1700s, but in 1767 King Charles III ordered the Jesuits to be expelled from the missions and returned to Spain, and Catholic priests of a different order, Franciscans, took charge of the outposts and were also in charge of continuing to found new missions. They ended up starting 21 missions in Alta California.

(I wondered why the King ousted the Jesuits in favor of the Franciscans. It turned out it was about power and politics rather than about religious beliefs.)

The treatment of the Native Americans by the Spaniards varied over time and also from settlement to settlement and mission to mission. The mission that was founded on this date in 1798, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, was largely run by Fray Peyri, and he treated Indians much better than did most of the padres.

Because of that, way fewer Indians ran away, and the mission was more successful.

Fast facts

Mission San Luis Rey is located in the present-day city of Oceanside, California.

It was #18 to be founded (out of 21 in Alta California).

The current church was built in 1811. In the 14 years between founding and the building of the current church, there were two other churches built on the site. The first was small, simple – just an adobe building. The second church was a larger adobe building with a tiled roof. This 1811 building was constructed during the peak of the mission's success, and it is one of the largest of the missions.

Walt Disney filmed the first seasons of the Zorro TV series at this mission.
The first Peruvian Pepper Tree ever planted in California was planted at Mission San Luis Rey – and it still stands (you can see it behind the ruins of this arch).

San Luis Rey de Francia” means "Saint Louis the King of France." It refers to the French King Louis IX. You might wonder why a Spanish mission was named after a French king, but:

(1) Louis IX had some Spanish ancestors, 
(2) he was taught by early Franciscans, and the Franciscans were the ones founding and naming the missions, and 
(3) he died fighting in the Crusades and was made a saint in 1297.

The mission has four bells that hang in a three-story domed bell tower.

The mission is the only surviving mission church laid out in a cross shape (which is called a “cruciform plan”).

The mission has a sunken garden and lavanderia (laundry) that can be reached by going down 46 steps. Two springs provided the water, which was piped to come out of the mouths of sculpted gargoyles.

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