Carmel Mission – A Peek into California’s Past

Founded as California’s second mission by Fr. Junípero Serra in 1770, the Basilica of San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission first had its roots in Monterey. It relocated to Carmel in 1771 after the city became the seat of the mission chain from 1770 to 1803.

The Mission’s name is in honor of St. Charles Borroméo, the nephew of Pope Pius IV. Borroméo became the bishop and cardinal of Milan in the 16th century and further played an active role in charity during the Black Plague of 1576.  The Catholic church declared Borroméo a saint 30 years after his death in 1584. Moreover, he’s the the protector of seminaries and patron saint of learning.


The Carmel Mission comprises a basilica, four museum galleries, a wedding chapel and cemetery, and masses regularly take place.  The present stone church was not the first to be on this site. Today’s place of worship was initially planned by Father Junípero Serra, but he never had the chance to see it built during his lifetime. Its construction and completion started under the supervision of Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, the successor of Father Serra, between 1795 and 1797. One of the two unequal stone tower supports a massive bell, and it’s one of the main attractions. These towers, however, weren’t completed until the mid-19th century during a period of renovation.

IMG_0840The Mission is also the location of the Junípero Serra School, a private Catholic school from kindergarten to 8th grade.


There are several cemeteries that hold the remains of influential people, such as Marbel and Harry Downie who helped restore and secure the Mission in the past. A plaque placed at the grave of Native American Indian Old Gabriél indicates that he was baptized by Fr. Serra in 1780 and was present during the first Mass in 1770. Though Old Gabriél’s age isn’t factually know, they say he died in 1890 at the ripe old age of 151.


A small house on the grounds is the Munrás Family Heritage Museum, which presents the five generations of history of one of the most important families in the Monterey area. The main exhibit, which includes several unusual tools and utensil from that 19th century, illustrates everyday life in California after the family’s arrival in 1806.


The Downie Museum, located in a small building next to the basilica, was dedicated to Sir Harry Downie in 1980 to commemorate his work as a renowned restorer of this California Mission.


The basilica, with high catenary arches that add depth to the structure, is the centerpiece and one the most beautiful of the Carmel Mission complex. To enter is to step back in time more than two centuries ago. The alter is decorated beautifully with statues of various notables alongside Jesus. This is also a functioning parish and Mass is celebrated here almost every day. Pope John Paul II visited the basilica in 1987 and laid a wreath on the grave of Fr. Serra. The Pope later beatified the Mission’s founder in 1989.

Historical records also indicate that up to seven large altarpieces had once lined the walls of the basilica and had nearly 20 statues. Unfortunately, all of these were lost in a fire while being housed at the Sacred Heart Church in Salinas in the mid-19th century.


Adjacent to the basilica is the Jo Mora Chapel Gallery, which houses the elaborate Serra Memorial Cenotaph that was sculpted by Jo Mora in 1924. This museum is also home to an art exhibit which changes periodically.

The Convoto Wing is where Fr. Serra and Fr. Lasuén chose to live. The rooms have been for the most part restored to their original standings and contain the kitchen, living room, guest dining room, sleeping area and refectory, while the reception room holds the Serra Sarcophagus. Also notable here is California’s first library, which Fr. Serra founded in 1770.

fountainThe courtyard is also the location of the Serra Memorial Wall, a focal point that reflects the restoration and preservation efforts of the Mission by the Carmel Mission Foundation’s Tricentennial Capital Campaign. It also honors Fr. Serra’s birth in 1713 and the 300 donors who assisted in the restoration of the historical buildings. Two plaques on the memorial explain who Junípero Serra was, what he did during his life and the goals he had for the New World.

The bell, named Ave Maria, was made in Mexico City in 1807 and placed at the Mission in 1820. It was removed due to the secularization of the Mission in 1834, but local Native Americans held onto it for safekeeping. Over the years, however, it was lost but later found and re-installed at the Mission in 1925.


A tall, weathered  wooden cross  stands 10 feet from the Serra Memorial Wall and marks where Fr. Serra first erected the Mission Cross in 1771. Near it is a monument titled “Españoles en América,” which commemorates Spanish missionaries in California. The plaque across it lists the first four in California.

IMG_0832California’s missions, 21 in all, extend from San Francisco Solano in the north to San Diego de Alcalá in the south, each reflecting their unique heritage and history from their founding centuries ago.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Nice work on this post, a lot of great images and history. I wasn’t able to see the courtyard as it was under maintenance when I was there but its just another reason to go back!

  • During my visit I noticed a writing on one of the original walls (by the cemetery grounds) that says in Spanish -” Unknown word lo que estan y seran lo que somos”.
    Any idea is that was added by residents of the mission or vandalism?

    Obviously Spanish version of a famous expression “We are with the ones that are here and become ourselves”.

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