I have strolled through the beautiful Carmel Mission many times but when I visited it recently I felt as if I’d stepped through a portal and arrived in Europe. Maybe the sense of familiarity and the past was so profound because I’ve wandered the cloisters of so many ancient churches and cathedrals in Europe, particularly in France and England. But in this historic building, on a sun-drenched, spring morning with the sky wearing her best cornflower blue bonnet, the lavender blooming and the air perfumed with flowers it felt that I was no longer in Carmel, California but 5000 miles away, basking in the peaceful serenity of a place of worship, somewhere in a small European village, maybe even in Provence.

The Carmel Mission

My time at the mission inspired to discover its’ story. All ten year old children in California study Mission history but neither of our children attended 4th grade and I’m embarrassed to admit that until now all I knew was that the missions were established as part the colonization of California by Spanish priests and one in particular, Father Junípero Serra. I also have a personal reason to learn more. As many of you know, we’re building a house in Carmel, it’s located on Serra Avenue and steps away is a memorial and statue of this esteemed man, but who was he? Junípero Serra Memorial, Serra Avenue, Carmel

Junípero Serra Memorial, Serra Avenue, Carmel

Father Junípero Serra

Junípero Serra was born Miguel José Serra Ferrer on November 24, 1713 in Petra, on the Spanish Balearic island of Mallorca. He was the son of peasant farmers, the 3rd of 5 children. At the age of 16, as a close follower of St. Francis of Assisi, Miguel entered the Franciscan friary and took the name Junípero. Before his ordination he spent 17 years an academic, earning his a doctorate in 1744 as a Professor of Philosophy and was regarded as a bright, articulate scholar, speaker and writer.

Father Junípero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan priest

The statue of Father Junípero Serra in the Carmel Mission garden

In 1749, Father Junípero Serra, aged 36, responded to a call for Franciscan missionaries to the New World, he left Mallorca and after a long and difficult voyage, on December 8, 1749 he arrived at the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico. From there he walked to Mexico City, a grueling 24 day journey during which he injured his leg, an affliction that made walking difficult for him for the rest of his life. He spent the next 17 years preaching to the indigenous people of Mexico, for nine years in the rugged, mountainous Sierra Gorda region of North-Central Mexico and the following 8 years in coastal villages and mining camps.

In 1767, when King Charles III of Spain banished the Jesuits from all Spanish territories, the 14 Jesuit missions in Baja California were suddenly left unstaffed. The Franciscans were asked to take them over and Father Junípero Serra was appointed the new Superior of the region. In 1768, Jose de Gálvez, the Spanish inspector-general decided to establish presidios (military garrisons) and missions in Alta California, (present day California) as a deterrent against Russian and British rivals. The following year Father Serra asked to join an expedition to establish missions in San Diego, the Monterey Bay area, and the Santa Barbara Channel area. After another fraught journey, on June 27, 1769 Father Serra reached San Diego where he founded the first mission. In April 1770 he founded the Presidio  (military base) and 2nd mission in Monterey moving it in 1771 to its current location beside the Carmel River where it became known as The Carmel Mission (also known as San Carlos Borromeo) and became the headquarters of all mission operations in Alta California.

The Carmel Mission Cross set in place by Junípero Serra on August 24 1771

The location of the Carmel Mission Cross, put here by Father Junípero Serra in August 1771

There is evidence of human habitation in California dating back to over 15,000 years. When Father Serra arrived in Carmel he found only 500 people living there, the Rumsen people, spread out across 5 villages, some year round some seasonal. Showing nothing but kindness and respect, Father Serra reached out to these people to teach them about his Christian faith.

The Carmel Mission church walls and Bell tower founded by Junípero Serra

Original stone church walls and bell tower, at the Carmel Mission quarried from the Santa Lucia Mountains

From the Carmel Mission Father Serra oversaw the planning, construction, and staffing of a total of nine missions: San Diego de Alcalá (1769), San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel) (1770), San Antonio de Padua (1771), San Gabriel Arcángel (1771), San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772), San Francisco de Asis (1776), San Juan Capistrano (1776), Santa Clara de Asis (1777), and San Buenaventura (1782). He was also present at the founding of the Presidio of Santa Barbara (1782). It is estimated he travelled about 6000 miles on foot to supervise mission work and to confer the sacrament of Confirmation.

Founding of the Missions

The missions were all established near Native American settlements next to fertile agricultural land and a reliable water source. There were careful negotiations with the local Indians whose support was crucial, without it a newly built mission could be destroyed. These people were enticed to join the missions by the promise of a stable food supply and the offer of protection. If they joined, they were then expected to abide by Spanish law.

Cloisters at The Carmel Mission

Cloisters at The Carmel Mission

Initially the Indians lived in traditional conical-shaped houses made of tree branches. They then built permanent houses made of adobe bricks close to the mission church. They were allowed to travel outside the mission to visit kin, to hunt or for trade and military purposes. Each mission was staffed by 1 or 2 Franciscan priests with Native American supervisors and with 5-7 soldiers who acted as guards and a police force. At the height of the mission period, as many as 1,500 native people lived under the jurisdiction of a mission. Over 80 different languages were spoken many of which were not understood by each tribe. To overcome the difficulties this created the missionaries composed short books about the Christian faith in native languages, younger people were taught Spanish and others learned it through their dealings with soldiers and settlers. To prevent conflict between rival Indian tribes the Padres encouraged marriage between the tribes.

Daily life in the Missions

The missions were all working farms. Cattle were raised for food and to trade hides and a variety of agricultural goods were produced, wheat, fruits, vegetables, grapes for wine and olives for oil.

Traditionally the local Indians wore little clothing. Women wore just skirts made of animal skin or woven plants and apart from ceremonial dances or special occasions men were normally naked. To the Padres, nakedness was a sign of poverty, so all who entered the mission were given a long sleeved shirt called a cotón, and a blanket, both were made of wool. Women received a woolen petticoat and men a breechclout to cover their groin area. A new set of garments was handed out annually.

Everyone had a role to play at the mission working about five hours a day during autumn and winter and up to seven hours a day during spring and summer. Sundays were for rest and religious services, in addition to special Catholic feast days which could be as many as 92 a year.

Inside the Carmel Mission Basilica

Inside the Carmel Mission Basilica

Each day began with prayers and mass, followed by breakfast, normally a corn soup called atole, still popular in Mexico today. At midday everyone would gather for prayers and lunch, normally boiled wheat, corn, peas, beans, vegetables and fruit.

In the Carmel Mission kitchenThis was followed by a nap or siesta, as was the Spanish tradition. Work then resumed until sunset when everyone gathered again for prayers and supper which would be similar to breakfast but often with beef which was widely eaten. Meals would be taken communally or in families’ homes.

The Mission Kitchen at the Carmel Mission

The Mission Kitchen at the Carmel Mission

In addition to traditional farming, specialized workers made soap, tanned leather, wove or were blacksmiths. Men were often vaquers (cowboys), or shepherds, cobblers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners and farmhands. Women attended to washing, sewing or grinding wheat. Most work was done on a quota system, once their quota was met, the people were allowed free time.

Farm equipment from the Mission period at Carmel Mission

Farm equipment used at the Carmel Mission

Indian men also often served on military expeditions and helped protect the missions. The Catholic Fathers kept records about the number of people they administered the sacraments to which sadly reveal a high mortality rate. This was often because of exposure to diseases carried by Spanish and Mexican soldiers and settlers who visited the missions in addition to the primitive nature of local medicine and lack of doctors.

The Grand Sala at the Carmel Mission where guests were entertained, the terra cotta flooring and furnishings are original

Father Serra fought the Spanish authorities for control over the missions urging them to establish an overland route to Alta California, which led to Juan Bautista de Anza establishing settlements at San Francisco in 1776 and at Los Angeles in 1781. As the number of missions grew so did Father Serra’s own political power because in addition to their religious role the missions also served political and economic purposes. The number of civilian colonists with their Indian populations kept the region within Spain’s political orbit and economically they produced all the colony’s cattle and grain.

A Padre's bedroom at the Carmel Mission

A Padre’s bedroom at the Carmel Mission

During the remaining 3 years of his life, Father Junípero Serra visited the missions from San Diego to San Francisco, travelling more than 600 miles where he confirmed all who had been baptized. During his 14 years at the California Missions Father Junípero Serra confirmed 5,309 people, he founded 9 of the total 21 missions which were eventually established along the 700 mile route from San Diego to Sonoma along the El Camino Real, (The Royal Road) named in honor of the Spanish monarchy which financed the expeditions into California in their quest for empire.

Father Junípero Serra’s cell at the Carmel Mission where he died

On August 28, 1784, at the age of 70 Father Junípero Serra died at The Carmel Mission. He was buried there the next day under the sanctuary floor. It was 35 years to the day that he left Cadiz, Spain for the missions of the New World.

The remaining 12 California missions were founded after Father Serra’s death. Gradually some of the Indians abandoned the missions especially after 1810 when the Spanish government stopped supplying the presidios and ordered the missions to do so instead. This greatly increased the Indians’ work load which created great resentment. The missions however were never meant to be permanent institutions. The Spanish authorities felt the Indians should leave after ten years although the missionaries believed this was not enough time for indigenous people to adapt to Hispanic ways. Nevertheless, once Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, by the mid-1830s the Franciscans had been replaced with civilian administrators and the process of secularization begun. The new administrators were unpopular with the Indians, most of the mission land was sold or distributed to the families of local ranchers or to the administrators themselves. Most Indians did not receive a land grant, and were forced to earn a living elsewhere.

The Avan Maria Bell at The Carmel Mission, Carmel-by-the Sea California

The Ava Maria bell

The Ava Maria bell at the Carmel Mission was cast in Mexico in 1807 & installed in the Mission in 1820. It was removed for safe keeping by local Indians when the Mission was secularized in 1834 & was not restored to the Mission until 1925. It eventually cracked but an exact duplicate was cast in Holland in 2010. Today it hangs in its original setting on the south side of the bell tower. The wall visible here was erected in 2011 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Father Junípero Serra’s birth in 1713, it was part of a campaign to preserve the historical buildings of the Carmel Mission.

Father Junípero Serra was canonized as a Saint of the Catholic Church by His Holiness Pope Francis during his official visit to the United States on September 23, 2015. In His address His Holiness Pope Francis said:

“ Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life. He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

On September 17 2017, His Holiness Pope John Paul II visited The Carmel Mission. The plaque commemorating his visit lays in the Bethlehem Chapel at the Mission where his Holiness spent time during his visit in personal prayer.

In His address about Father Junípero Serra, His Holiness Pope Francis said:

“and much to be envied are those who can give their lives for something greater than themselves in loving service to others….”

Whatever one’s faith or beliefs, these profound words about Father Junípero Serrano beautifully and distinctly describe this humble man who gave his all for what he believed in.


Today the Carmel Mission is an active parish. You can learn more here.

If you’d like to visit, both the Basilica and Museum are open to the public:

Monday & Tuesday, CLOSED
Wednesday & Thursday 10:00 – 4:00 pm
Friday & Saturday 10:00 – 5:00 pm
Sunday 11:30 – 5:00 pm

Admission Rates
Adults: $13      Seniors (62+): $10      Youths (7-17): $7      Child (6 and under): FREE