Father Paul Murphy, pastor at Carmel Mission, stands in the renovated Quadrangle Courtyard of the Mission known as Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, a campus of 22 acres, 11 historic structures, the first headquarters of the Alta California mission system, founded almost 250 years ago in 1771 by Fr. Junípero Serra. The Carmel Mission is the repository of exquisite religious art and more than 1,500 artifacts, including California’s first library with volumes dating to the 1500s, and what is believed to be California’s oldest adobe residence, the Orchard House—much of it in dire need of restoration.
“I come out here in the evenings, and enjoy the serenity,” says Father Paul with a smile. “Visitors connect with the beauty of this place. There is a sense of something sacred, which I think predates the coming of the friars and before Christianity appeared here.”
A large fountain in the center of the Quadrangle is surrounded by adobe buildings whose foundations Harry Downie painstakingly excavated during the 50 years he dedicated to the restoration of the Mission, from 1930 to the time of his death in 1980.
The Mission we enjoy today is a jewel, the second of nine missions founded by Fr. Junípero Serra, and a total of 21 in all along the Camino Real stretching from San Diego to just north of San Francisco. The mission system constituted a complex venture by Spain to maintain its claim to the vast lands called Alta California, in what is today part of the western U.S., that might slip through its fingers with British ships sailing the Pacific coast and the beginnings of Russian fur trade in the north.
If indigenous peoples could convert to Christianity and thereby become subjects of the Spanish crown, Spain’s foothold would be secure. At least that was the plan. Spain employed a strategy used in Mexico, pairing evangelists with military garrisons to advance and protect its interests. Indigenous peoples who lived in the region for thousands of years became unwitting subjects of the venture, with monumental changes to their life ways, some quite devastating, as many built and settled in the missions and encountered 18th century European trades and agriculture.
Little did the Spanish know that revolution in Mexico (1810-1821) would put an end to its Alta California designs. Mexico would abandon the mission system altogether in what became known as secularization in the 1830s. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) ceded the region to the United States, followed by the formation of the modern State of California at Colton Hall in Monterey in 1850. In the wake of it all, the missions fell to complete destruction.
It wasn’t until 1859, just nine years after California became the 31st state in the union, that our nation’s 15th President, James Buchanan, gave the California Mission properties to the Catholic Church, but by then the Carmel Mission was in ruins. The church roof had collapsed.
The allure of the Carmel Mission attracted restorers, writers, benefactors, and caring citizens. During the next 60 years, some of our country’s greatest historical figures visited Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach, and Monterey. With a dirt road leading from Monterey through 17 Mile Drive and connecting to Carmel Mission, this historic structure was seen by many and dialogued in history. Fr. Casanova started a campaign to put a roof on the stone church, and with the support of notables such as Leland and Jane Stanford, they raised enough funds to cover the church and salvage what was left. Robert Louis Stevenson visited the Mission on San Carlos Day in November of 1879. He described it in his essay The Old Pacific Capital:
“When I think of how as time goes on visitors will flock to such curiosities as they flock to similar curiosities in Europe by the hundreds and the thousands, and how the managers of our hotels, or their successors, may have cause to bless the man who put a roof on the Carmel Church, I see that not only sentiment but mere business prudence should lead you, and me, and all who take an interest in Monterey, to do our little best to that good end.”
By 1884, a pitched roof was placed on the Mission to save what was left, and it wasn’t until 1910 when Fr. Mestres started The Mission Restoration League that the great strides in restoration began.
Following Fr. Casanova and Fr. Mestres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the inimitable Harry Downie, who stopped by the Mission to repair statuary on his way to Santa Barbara in 1931 at the young age of 28, and stayed for 50 years as craftsman, restorer, historian, art historian, and fundraiser. His tenacity is evidenced everywhere in the Mission complex. Visitors owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Casanova, Mestres, and Downie, because they saw beauty and did what they could to preserve and restore it and pass it on to future generations.
In concert with the Carmel Mission Parish and Diocese of Monterey, the Carmel Mission Foundation (CMF) works to raise funds for large-scale restoration projects, such as the seismic strengthening of the Basilica, that would otherwise not be possible. The Foundation’s reach is local, national, international – to engage with generous donors who wish to play a vital role in the Carmel Mission’s 21st century restoration effort.
Basilica restoration work earned recognition of the 2015 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. The Basilica is now much stronger and more beautiful than ever. Both the Basilica and the Quadrangle are cherished venues for the Parish and community; however, there is much more to be done in the Mission complex.
“The Foundation focuses on the historical structures, grounds, and artifacts of this National Landmark. Our goal is to restore and preserve these historic elements and share the Mission’s story, art, and architecture. Over the past 10 years, the Foundation has awarded the Carmel Mission over $10 million in grants for structural upgrades and restoration.” says Stephanie Zelei, Executive Director of CMF.
“With the passage of time costs increase, but we are committed to putting donors’ dollars to work in tangible ways. We are currently working on Phase II, the Northeast Quadrant, estimated at $20 million. We have broken out Phase II into smaller projects and will campaign them one at a time until we reach completion. Having completed the $2 million Quadrangle Courtyard renovation in 2016, the current campaign is focused on the Downie Museum and Basilica Forecourt Garden. This $4 million project will restore the 100-year-old adobe built in 1919 as well as the Basilica Forecourt completed in 1936. Originally the adobe was used as the visiting priest quarters, but today it is the welcome center for the Mission that houses Harry Downie’s workshop, and artifacts of early mission life found during the construction years from 1919-1951. The garden pathways will be graded and resurfaced to be ADA-compliant, increasing accessibility to all visitors.”
Serra’s beatification by Pope John Paul II in 1988 and his canonization into sainthood by Pope Francis in 2015 attracts visitors from around the world to this beautiful place. The Carmel Mission held a special place in Serra’s heart, and indeed he chose the Carmel Mission to be his burial place.
“It is a place of welcome for all people,” Fr. Paul says. “We are all children of God and can experience a love that we can never really describe. It is the historical and spiritual heart of the Monterey Peninsula.”
For more information about the Carmel Mission Foundation or to donate to the restoration project, go to www.carmelmissionfoundation.org.