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Unique, living mission

NCR Staff
Pala, Calif.

An exploration of California’s mission churches can be a contradictory experience. The recreations of Spanish colonial architecture and the surrounding grounds are both charming and prayerful, and invite the visitor to stroll through the past. But that past is one marked by tragedy -- the genocide of a people carried out, however unwittingly, by men of faith.

On California’s coast from San Diego to Sonoma, mission churches bear witness to the Spanish conquest of Alta California in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Founded by Spanish Franciscans to convert the California natives to Christianity and to teach them the ways of European civilization, today most missions serve as parishes for the local community. A few are museums only.

But most guidebooks miss or give scant attention to a unique mission tucked inland near Mount Pauma, the one that claims the closest connection to its founding purpose. On the Pala Indian Reservation, Mission San Antonio de Pala has served a Native American population uninterrupted since its founding in 1816.

Pala Mission “is not the biggest, not the largest,” its pastor, Barnabite Fr. Paul Marconi, told NCR. “There are very few tourists in comparison with large places. But it’s the most alive mission there is.”

Past and present meet in this mission, amid a community that continues to struggle to regain the identity that was decimated during the mission period -- all the while coexisting with modern-day U.S. society, whether represented by proposed plans to build a casino to bring dollars into the reservation or, currently, by the whites and Hispanics drawn to the parish of San Antonio de Pala.

The bells of San Antonio de Pala still ring today as a summons to Mass, to notify people of a death in the community or of an emergency, as well as for weddings and funerals. The parish serves about 700 Indians, as well as Mexican and white families, Marconi said. Its territory covers a sparsely populated area 35 miles long and 20 miles wide. An elementary school -- once Catholic but now part of the public school district -- is part of the mission grounds.

Religious customs have been carried on from mission times to the present day. In the mission’s museum hangs a photograph of a Corpus Christi procession from early in the 20th century. Today, the procession is “not exactly like that,” Marconi said, indicating the crowd of people in the photograph, “but it’s just as disorganized.”

Involvement in this mission extends beyond parish members. The Friends of San Antonio de Pala Mission, founded about three years ago, brings together Catholic and non-Catholic devotees of the mission to raise money for preservation. Representatives of Pala’s tribal groups, including the Luiseño, Cupeño, Pauma and Rincon Indians, join members from the area surrounding the reservation.

‘Small and intimate’

“I can’t really describe my attraction to this place,” board member Gordon Krum of the Friends organization told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s small and intimate and personal, and has a feeling that some of the other missions don’t have.”

Pala Mission began life as an assistencia -- or annex -- of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, 20 miles away on the coast. In its most active period, about 1,300 Indians were attached to the Pala Mission, which was dedicated to St. Anthony de Padua. Both San Luis Rey and Pala were established well into the 65-year active period of the missions (1769-1846). The first mission, San Diego de Alcala, was founded in 1769 by Franciscan Fr. Junipero Serra, who in the next 15 years established nine more. Serra was beatified by the Vatican in 1988.

Serra’s move to Alta California was directed by King Carlos III, who was concerned about Russian incursions south. Backed by a small number of soldiers, the Franciscan padres aimed, through conversion and education, to transform the native population into “civilized” Christian Spaniards.

By all accounts, the priests genuinely sought to save the souls of the natives, whom they saw as children in need of care and direction. But the story of the missions is one that saw California’s natives decimated by disease introduced by the white settlers. At the time Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded, the native population is estimated at 100,000. Within a decade, the majority had died from diseases such as measles.

Those who survived and joined mission life by conversion to Christianity were assigned to a quota of labor -- for example, farming on the missions’ land holdings, animal husbandry, candle-making, tile manufacture, weaving -- and in return received sacraments, food, clothing and education. Converts, called “neophytes” by the priests, belonged to the mission, and if they attempted to leave they could be hunted down, brought back and punished.

The theory of the missions was that the land was held in trust for the neophytes until they were able to maintain the operation of the mission on their own. Whether that actually would have happened is an unanswered question. The upheaval that followed the creation of the Mexican Republic saw the destruction of the missions. After 1834, the missions were secularized by the Mexican government, and the church was forced to give up its holdings. Lands and livestock were sold for a fraction of their worth.

Mission resources lost, the Indians were left homeless. They lacked the missions as a focal point but had also lost their tribal structures.

During the mission period, the native population “lost quite a lot,” Marconi said. “They were forbidden to speak their own language, were told their own religion was terrible, which it’s not. They had a good sense of religion, a sense of rapport with nature. [The Spanish] tried to take away their culture, force the Indians to become white. Right now they’re trying to go back, but it’s kind of late. It may not be reversible.”

Nevertheless, Marconi said he senses no hard feelings toward the Pala Mission itself. “For people born here, the mission has become the heart and soul of the culture,” he said.

The Spanish Franciscans left California in 1846. That same year, the California Indians were forced from their lands and homes. But a few still remained in the Pala area, some living in the crumbling ruins of San Antonio de Pala. Priests still sporadically came to the Pala Mission, allowing the present-day claim of uninterrupted association with the native people.

In May 1902, Congress established the Pala Reservation. In that decade, the reservation’s Indians assisted in the first partial restoration of the mission compound, led by the Landmarks Club of Southern California. A more complete restoration was undertaken in the 1950s by Fr. J.M. Carillo of the Camboni Fathers, the order that led the Pala Mission from 1948-1991. After a brief period under the San Diego diocese, Pala has since 1993 been once again under the direction of the Franciscan order.

Rebuilt in 1950s

Like most California missions, little remains of the original buildings. Pala’s chapel has a floor of 1816 vintage. The chapel was rebuilt in the 1950s with crumbling adobe bricks reformed to make new ones and cedar beams brought down from Palomar Mountain as the natives had done in 1816. The wooden crucifix was carved in Michoacan, Mexico, in the 17th century.

The first bell tower was destroyed in a 1916 flood and rebuilt that same year. Modeled after a campanile in Juarez, Mexico, Pala’s bell tower is unique in California in that it is separate from the mission quadrangle. A cactus grows on top, next to its crowning cross. Visitors can climb up for a closer look at the bells, but are asked not to attempt to ring them “out of respect for local custom.”

The bells overlook a dusty cemetery where the remains of hundreds of Native American converts and California pioneers rest. Along with newer headstones, wooden and stone crosses mark graves in various states of ruin. According to Marconi, it’s local custom to let the crosses fall where they may. “It’s part of nature,” he said.

In Southern California’s missions, at least, none of the museums is particularly polished. But Pala’s is even less so. The mission has artifacts collected throughout its history, Marconi said, “and we have to do something with them. We can’t throw them away, so we put it in the museum.” The artifacts, sporadically labeled, range from century-old locally made baskets, 19th-century statues, paintings and photographs from the mission’s past, and a sizeable rock and mineral collection donated to the mission by a benefactor.

The museum doesn’t have much traffic to enjoy its past glories, whether ecclesial, cultural or geological. Pala Mission sees a few cars come through in the summer, but the village never attracts the buses that bring sightseers to places like its mother mission, San Luis Rey. And that suits Marconi fine. “Tourists mean money, but it’s different here,” he said. “You don’t want tourists taking pictures of the children at the school. You have to respect them.”

The Pala Reservation may yet see tourists of a different kind: A proposal is on the table to build a casino next year. While “it’s not a solution to poverty,” the some 200 to 300 jobs it could create would offer residents the chance to stay home and work, Marconi said.

For now, though, the reservation’s visitors are those willing to wander a little off the customary California mission trail. In its modest, unpretentious way, San Antonio de Pala offers a thread back to California’s past more viscerally than its better-known counterparts. Stroll through the garden filled with shrines and plants the padres imported from Mexico, walk into the dark adobe chapel with its rough cobblestone floor and centuries-old crucifix, and you can feel as through you are traveling through time. But then look at the walls, whose colorful murals were painted by Indian artists not 10 years ago, and you are reminded of the vital life of the Native American community that maintains its connection with this mission today.

To reach Mission San Antonio de Pala
Mission San Antonio de Pala is a short side trip off the customary mission trail that runs up the California coast. From San Diego, take Interstate 15 north to Highway 76 east. Highway 76 will take you into the heart of Pala, where signs lead you to the mission. Pala can also be easily reached from its mother mission, San Luis Rey de Francia, which is located near the coast on Highway 76. Travel east from San Luis Rey on Highway 76 to reach Pala.

Teresa Malcolm is NCR’s opinion editor. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000