California's first church-the original brushwood San Diego Mission-was born on July 16, 1769 under the most grim and desperate circumstances and was saved only by the "miraculous" appearance of a relief ship from Mexico. First located where a huge cross now stands in Presidio Park, it was moved because of critical problems five years later to a site six miles to the northeast, only to be destroyed shortly afterwards by a massive Indian attack.
Reestablished by founder Junipero Serra in July, 1776 (while the Declaration of Independence was being signed in Philadelphia), the new adobe church was so badly damaged by an earthquake in 1803 that it was replaced ten years later by a more stolid building with essentially the same specifications as the structure now restored and actively serving the Old Mission Parish of San Diego. At the same time, the first irrigation system in the West was being built, with great difficulty, in Mission Gorge to the north east of the mission.
Heroic determination and fierce dedication were obviously the hallmarks of early Mission San Diego de Alcala. Padre Luis Jaime, brutally murdered in the 1775 Indian attack, became California's first martyr and a cross in his memory now stands in a circular plot beside the restored mission where he is buried. In front of the church today an impressive statue of Padre Junipero Serra is a reminder that this saintly but gutty Franciscan refused to give up the San Diego settlement when almost all others had decided to abandon it.
Architecturally best known for its handsome bell tower surmounted by a cross, this "Mother Mission" is otherwise a surprisingly modest edifice. Its plain-looking facade, with adjoining walls reaching forward, has been described as extending "welcoming arms." The interior of the formerly pale and somewhat austere church has been transformed into a sanctuary of strikingly colorful contrasts by the refurbishing project of Pastor Monsignor I. Brent Eagan. These recent improvements are in good taste and have been rated as authentic by University of San Diego researchers.
Since 1966, archaeological excavations by supervised students of the University of San Diego have marked the mission grounds as a "professional historic site." Their painstaking diggings for monastery and workshop foundations can be seen from the well-stocked visitors' center where tour-tapes are available in both English and Spanish. One of the features of the mission's outstanding museum is a collection of artifacts recovered by U.S.D. students.
Although certainly not one of the wealthiest missions, San Diego had 50,000 acres under cultivation by the 1820s and had built its imported Baja Cafifornia cattle into a herd of 10,000. But when the government's Secularization Act of 1833 took all the mission properties from the missionaries, the Indians showed neither the desire nor the ability to work the grants given them, the mission buildings fell rapidly into unattended decay and the mission lands were callously exploited by politicians and their ranchero, favorites.
With the arrival of the U.S cavalry in 1847, the Mormon Battalion and other famous units occupied the San Diego Mission grounds for more than a decade, and while using the church as barracks and stable, they at least kept it somewhat in repair. However, when Abraham Lincoln restored the property to the Catholic Church in 1862, the bell tower had collapsed and the partially ruined buildings had been leveled. By 1892 half the church had caved in.
It was Padre Antonio Ubach in the 1890s who started a campaign for restoration while conducting an Indian school on the site. The Hearst Foundation, as well as San Diego contributors, later furnished funds for mission repair. Mission San Diego was not rededicated until 1931 and not until ten years later was it reinstated as a parish church.
The mission is named in honor of St. Didacus (San Diego) of Alcala, a young Franciscan who converted the natives of the Canary Islands, performed several miracles and died in Alcala, Spain in 1463. Fortunately, the shorter form of his name "San Diego" was chosen instead of the tongue-twister "St. Didacus."