Thursday, February 13, 2014

Of Missions, Meat & Movies: Mission San Luis Obispo

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was named after Saint Louis (no, not the city) who was the Bishop of Toulouse in France and was founded in 1769. Let’s stop there. “Founded” merely meant a prayer was said, a cross stuck into the ground and that was pretty much it. The Spanish who controlled California used the chain of missions to not only bring religion to the New World, but the missions acted as trading posts in the once rugged and desolate California landscape.

But hang on. Why here exactly? On September 7 and 8, 1769 Gaspar de Portola and his expedition traveled through San Luis Obispo on their way to the Monterey Bay. The expedition’s diarist, Padre Juan Crespi, recorded the name given to this area by the soldiers as “llano de los Osos” or the “bear plain,” as there used to be a whole hell of a lotta bears here. In fact, Los Osos, just west of San Luis Obispo, still holds that name.
Father Serra and the SLO Mission
Skip forward to 1770 and Father Serra founded Mission San Carlos Borremeo in Monterey (it was moved to Carmel the following year.) As the Monterey mission’s supplies dwindled in 1772 soldiers, padres and Native Indians faced starvation. Remembering the bear plain where they had stuck a cross into the dry earth years before, a hunting expedition was sent to San Luis Obispo to bring back food in the summer of 1772. Over 25 mule loads of bear meat was sent up coast to the Carmel Mission. It was after this that Father Serra decided that San Luis Obispo would be the ideal place for a fifth mission. The region had abundant supplies of food and water, the climate was mild, and the local Chumash were very friendly, until, you know, they were enslaved. Given these conditions, Father Serra set out on a journey to reach the bear plain and on September 1, 1772, he celebrated the first mass near San Luis Creek.

After Father Serra left, the task of building the mission remained which was accomplished primarily by the hard work of the local Chumash Indians – as in cheap labor. The church and priest's residence were built by 1794, and other structures made up the primitive mission in the early days, namely storerooms, residences for single women called a “monjerio,” barracks and a few
A photo of a photo, but historically cool
mills. The mission also used the land for farming and raising livestock since all missions depended upon whatever they produced for their survival. Expansion proceeded for a few years due to the prosperity of the mission, but those days were numbered and Mission San Luis, like all the other missions, gradually fell into disrepair in part because Spain stopped sending money to fund the California missions. When Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 the missions were “secularized,” decommissioned as it were, and often mission lands were sold off. Governor Pio Pico sold the San Luis Obispo Mission to Captain John Wilson for a mere $510 in 1845, about $15,500 in today’s dollars, still a seal (though the actual church was not included in the deal). The building served multiple functions, even as a jail and the first county courthouse. It was returned to the Catholic Church in 1859.
Still an active church the mission is open daily

Today the mission fronts Mission Square (where parts of the Sandra Bullock film, Murder by Numbers was shot – no pun intended) facing the creek, and Higuera St. The courtyard is a popular place for small gatherings and festivals. The interior of the mission is minimally decorated, mainly hand painted. The whitewashed interior walls of the church are enlivened by a brilliantly hued “vine of life,” a reproduction of the original decor. The original floors were packed earth back in the day, colored red with cinnabar. Now of course it’s colored concrete. Still an active church, mass is held each day at 7 a.m.

A visit to the mission museum will set you back $3, and it’s worth the cost. The original mission doors are located, ironically, inside the museum on display and were used up until 1948. The museum is surprisingly large but it’s not all mission era stuff on display here. There is a good number of Indian artifacts; bowls and baskets, jewelry, pottery arrowheads and abalone shell pottery. There are mission-era vestments the padres wore, church artifacts and early 19th century clothes and personal belongings once the Westerners moved in to this region There are quite a few adobe cut-outs so you can see the exposed brick. The outside gardens are intimate with a water-well located center overlooked by Madonna Mountain. Clearly modernized landscaping with little green lawns does not reflect what it actually would have looked like and the mission itself is surrounded by Australian Eucalyptus trees.
A lonely portion of one of the original walls

For you true history buffs, walk across the street to the historical society building and there, barely seen or known about is part of the original mission wall – just a small chunk of authentic history waiting for someone to notice it. (MISSION SAN LUIS OBISPO, 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo, 805/781-8220)