The Californian Missions

Patricia Cleveland-Peck introduces a beautiful string of Spanish religious foundations.

If you stand high on Presidio Hill, San Diego, looking out over the Pacific, you are on the very spot where California began. Now your eyes will take in the urban sprawl of America’s seventh largest city – but in 1769, when the Franciscan missionary Father Junípero Serra and Spanish soldiers under the command of Gaspar de Portolá stepped ashore, there was nothing but barren scrub to be seen.

Spain had claimed this land when it was first spotted by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, then in 1602 explorer Sebastían Vizcaíno (who in fact named San Diego, as was the custom, after the saint whose feast day fell closest to the sighting) sailed to the northern coasts and earmarked for Spain what was to be Monterey Bay. It was not until 1768 however, when the Russians under Catherine the Great, began to show an intrusive interest, that rapid plans were made to establish a string of missions up the Californian coast. In this way the land would be secured and the inhabitants would be converted to Catholicism and made useful ­citizens of Spain.

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