Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo, or the Carmel Mission, was second in the chain of Spanish missions in California. Considered to be one of the most well-restored of the chain, Carmel Mission just celebrated its 250th anniversary after being founded in 1771. Named for Saint Charles of Borroméo, a 16th-century Italian cardinal, the mission’s beautiful condition today makes it difficult to imagine the extreme disrepair it had fallen into less than a century after its founding. As California’s complex history of ownership unfolded, the church and surrounding structures experienced chapters of ruinous dilapidation and abandonment before nearly a century of restoration efforts took place. Presently, Carmel Mission is a national historic landmark, a group of museums, and an active Roman Catholic church.
California’s Second Mission
The Spanish Empire sought to colonize Alta California in the late 1700s in order to establish a Pacific port for its world trading route. After the location for the first mission was established in San Diego, an expedition sailed north and settled in the area of Monterey. One year later, Father Junípero Serra (now recognized as a saint), who founded 9 of the 21 California missions, chose the nearby Carmel River as the location for his second mission and headquarters. The northern coast combined beauty with practicality and made Carmel a natural fit to be an imports/exports hub for the mission system and the Spanish empire. An extensive plain beside the Carmel River allowed for bountiful crops, hills became pastures for domesticated animals, a river and nearby lake provided necessary water for extensive agriculture, and local woods were the source of abundant timber and firewood.
Native peoples in the Carmel area were hunter-gatherers who had been living off the land, largely undisturbed, for thousands of years. The Spanish came in on ships they had never seen and rode on horses to which they were also unaccustomed. It must have been a bewildering series of sights and culture shock that for some grew into religious conversion. Natives who were converted to the Catholic faith took up residence at the mission and provided their labor under the guidance of the Fathers. The extensive work of native people formed the backbone of the mission system and made these “large-scale agricultural enterprises” possible by the early 19th century. Men, women, and children all had their jobs, and their days were regimented by bells that called them to scheduled meals and work.
As a result, the California mission system established many agricultural firsts in California that still flourish today. The modern-day wine industry owes a debt of gratitude to the thousands of grapevines that were originally planted in the 18th century. Olive, peach, pear, apple, orange, fig, and pomegranate orchards were developed at the missions, which later expanded into California’s large fruit industry. Fields of strawberries, now an iconic feature of California agriculture, were originally native to Spain. Surrounding these crops grazed thousands of cattle, sheep, horses, mules, goats, and pigs at various missions including Carmel. According to signage in the mission’s museum, “by 1811 the missions sustained the entire military and civil government in California.”
California became part of Mexico when the nation gained independence from Spain in 1821. The missions continued to grow until 1834, when they were closed and secularized by the Mexican government. Mission lands were sold to government officials and their wealthy friends, leaving the native people, who had long lived and worked there, with little or nothing. Without a work force to maintain the missions, the church and other buildings quickly fell into disrepair and essentially became ruins over the following years and decades. After the Mexican-American War, California became property of the United States in 1850. Nine years later, the U.S. government gave full title of mission lands that had been used for religious purposes back to the Catholic church. A long process of restoration began in the late 19th century and continued into the 20th century.
Restoring the Architecture
The Carmel Mission was built in a combination of Spanish and Moorish influences. The large Basilica has two distinct bell towers, the larger of which is shaped like a Moorish-style dome and holds nine (mostly authentic) bells. Perhaps the most iconic feature to new visitors is the unique, star-shaped window on the front of the church. It is a Moorish Mudejar star of the style that can be found in Spain. Only 2 of the 21 California missions feature this intriguing star with its combination of sharp and rounded points. Like other missions, Carmel has long buildings with inner porches that surround a large courtyard called a quadrangle. The aesthetically pleasing inner courtyard and the Basilica Forecourt in front also have fountains and colorful landscaping.
Carmel Mission’s humble architectural beginnings largely did not stand the test of time. The first buildings, constructed in the 1770s, were built of wood and/or adobe. Sandstone was later quarried by native laborers and was used to build the stone church, which was completed in 1797. The stone church was an impressive structure that could hold up to 600 people. Carmel is the only mission where stone arches were prominently used, many of which did not survive when the original roof collapsed in the mid-19th century.
In 1874, on a visit to the mission, American historian H.H. Bancroft wrote: “The church is strong and well-built of irregularly hewn stone with a timbered roof on which had been laid brush or stick and covered with tiles. The building was in a state of ruins, part of the roof was off but most of the walls were standing. … Six stone arches, two feet wide, thrown overhead forming part of the ceiling still remained standing, though apparently ready to fall without much warning, threads of tottering stonework.” A black-and-white picture from six years later shows the church with trees growing adjacent to its thick interior walls.
The church remained roofless for a quarter of a century. Funds were raised to build a new roof in 1884, in tribute to the centennial anniversary of Father Serra’s death. A pitched shingle roof was added, which was much taller than the original. This replacement roof lasted until it was rebuilt once again in 1936 to authentically follow the original arched roofline. Sufficient funding from the Catholic church and other donors made large-scale renovations possible that were led by Sir Harry Downie for five decades from the early 1930s until his death in 1980.
Harry Downie, later given knighthood by Pope Pius and King Juan Carlos of Spain, was Chief Restoration Expert for Carmel Mission beginning in 1931. For nearly 50 years, Downie committed himself to the task of authentically restoring and rebuilding the mission. The project was so extensive that the old foundation needed to be excavated in order to uncover the mission’s original layout. Downie’s dedication led him beyond the mission’s walls, and all over California, in pursuit of original artifacts and furniture. Incredibly, Downie personally carved the reredos (large altarpiece placed behind the altar) and pulpit of the now immaculate church. Sir Downie is buried in the church cemetery, and a small museum was named in his honor in the Basilica Forecourt.
In recent years, Carmel Mission has been used as an active Roman Catholic church, Junípero Serra Elementary School, and a collection of museums. Throughout the church and museums are original artifacts, paintings, and sculptures of historical significance. One of the highlighted items of these collections is “Our Lady of Bethlehem,” a statue which traveled with Father Serra to the founding of the first mission in San Diego and later to Carmel. This statue of the Virgin Mary is located in the mortuary chapel not far from where Saint Junípero Serra is buried, beneath the floor, in the sanctuary of the church. The church, courtyards, and museums are all regularly open to the public for a small entrance donation.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.