Living in California, I am no stranger to mission arcitecture, or misions, for that matter. The state has 21 missions dotting its lengthy coastline.
San Gabriel Mission is about 18 miles from my home in Glendora. Built in 1771 by Franciscan Fr. Junipero Serra, it stands as a testament to the early Spanish efforts to Christianize the local Shoshone Indians. It was secularized in 1841.
A tour of the mission grounds today takes the visitor immediately into ancient and peaceful gardens. Facing the entrance is the mission fountain, which was added by the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West in 1940. Along the border of the garden, where long green grasses wash against the butresses of the ancient church, a number of the early fathers lie buried along with thousands of their Indian disciples. The Camposanto, or cemetery, was first consecrated in 1778 and is still used as a burial ground by the Claretian Fathers who now administer the mission.
Here and there in the gardens is mute evidence of the bygone wonders of San Gabriel's busier days. The long tannery tanks that turned thousands upon thousands of hides into useful leather, and the four huge tallow vats that produced candles and soap for all the missions, are today only crumbling piles of neglected brickwork. They were once a part of the vast mission industry that made the barren California lands fruitful and habitable.
San Gabriel's church was closed to the public for a time because of relatively recent earthquake damage, but mission treasures are intact and the grounds remain open. The old baptistery, with its hammered copper font brought to the mission from Spain in 1771, as a present from King Carlos III, has been the scene of well over 25,000 baptisms. The interior of the long and narrow structure, except for the questionable addition of an oak-paneled ceiling and the enlarged windows, remains very much as it was in its earliest days.
The exterior of the ancient missions, with its huge butresses and its heavy stone walls measuring more than five feet in thickness, offers one striking departure from its original appearance: it has no bell tower. This was the accidental result of the earthquake of 1812 when the tower was destroyed. In the reconstruction, the builders turned their back on the traditional mission bell tower in favor of the strikingly effective Campanario which presently houses the ancient and massive bells.
In the courtyard stands a small caliber cannon on an oxcart carriage, a symbol of the mission's military history. I have to admit that, when visiting the place---which I do at least once yearly--- I try to envision how it might've stood up as a mission fortress. Yes, the Alamo-buff in me seems to surface most every time.
The restored San Diego Mission. U.S. Army Major Babbit, who designed the Alamo's famous hump, had been stationed at this mission in 1848, when he was reassigned to San Antonio, Texas. The hump on the San Diego church just may've inspired him, when working on restoration of the Alamo church.