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  • Chuck Marra

The Mission at San Luis Rey

It was a day for a beautiful drive. I left the coast in Oceanside and the road heated up quickly going east. The ocean was behind me and the air was hot and dry and fragrant along highway 76. It was almost noon and the sun was overhead. I could feel my face getting sunburned. I wished I had brought something cold to drink. But the Alfa wasn't built for the driver to drink. It was built for the driver to drive not to drink. And any drinks perched on the door were usually knocked into my lap by my arm as I made any sharp turns.

I was headed out to the mission at San Luis Rey, in Oceanside. I love the missions and have been looking forward to visiting one since we got Sophia. Megan was having a spa day with her sisters, so I drove inland intrepidly into the heat to Mission San Luis Rey alone.

I love the missions. The architecture, the gardens, the whole way the grounds are laid out. They are voices from the past.

When the midday sun hits the brilliant snow-white walls of the mission San Luis Rey, it sings like a voice in the wilderness itself; "come in. It's cool and safe in here."

I parked Sophia under the shade of a Eucalyptus tree and journeyed inside.

The mission itself is simple. There is not much to see, but there is plenty to just be around. I remember going to the missions when our kids were little. I was more focused on them than the mission. But now, as the thick walls keep the California heat outside. I can drink in the experience more fully.

All the missions have 'river doors' See those squiggly lines on the doors, they signify the spiritual journey along the river of life. There are many more symbols built into the architecture. I too a second and find them and let my mind wander.

The museum is a self-guided tour most of the time, but I learned a lot.

This mission has been nearly demolished and looted since it was built over 200 years ago. It was first completed in 1815 and has been rebuilt and artfully painted. It changed hands many times before Abraham Lincoln signed it back to the ownership of the Catholic Church, and that very document is there on display, signed by President Lincoln.

There is a gorgeous, fragrant garden in the center of the mission, which you can only get into with a private tour (on Saturdays by a genuine Franciscan Friar, I'm told). Otherwise, you can just look into it, or sit by it in the cafe. Even from that respectable distance, the amount of care that goes into maintaining that garden is impressive and inspiring and really makes me feel like a gardening slouch.

The garden is also home to the "oldest Pepper Tree in California".

I was first tempted to say it was 'majestic'

but it feels more than that. It feels sacred.

Everywhere you look you can see a beautiful detail, from the way the arched walkways that I'm drawn to just amble down, to the details in the bells.

Megan really loves bells so I got some good photos for her. Now, she will want to come back!

Then, there is the spectacular ironwork in the gates that politely tell me that I've gone far enough. The ironwork is done with such artistry that it becomes a destination in itself and when I turn away from it, I still feel like I have seen something satisfying. And that is the thing about the California Missions. They are the macro-world you see when you take your kids for the now extinct " Fourth grade Mission Projects" and the micro-world that you get to see when you are by yourself. It's one of the reasons I keep coming back

It is a very worthwhile destination. It forced me, no ... encouraged me to stop rushing and stay and relax and think.

It is simple, yes, but it is also magnificent all at the same time. The care they take over the whole mission site made me feel like I was not at a museum, but in someone's home, and I was welcome there.

When you leave the church from the side door, you are in a remarkable cemetery. The cemetery at San Luis Rey Mission It is not a creepy old cemetery, it is graceful and shady and cool. It has many small paths that gently wind through the green lawn. There are places to sit and rest and think. I had lost a dear friend recently and my father last year, so I did just that. I rested and though of them. This was not the hot empty cemetery you drive by in California. It was closed and protected around by tall thick walls parasols of old trees from the harsh sun. I felt safe and peaceful there. I didn't take any pictures there, again it felt sacred. Funny thing to be writing about cemeteries but I am grateful for their thoughtful design and care which you can feel throughout the whole mission.

The 21 Missions up and down the California coast all have their own stories to tell. which is one reason Megan and I want to re-visit each of them Sure we did the mission tour with our kids in 4th grade, but it is different now. Now it is for us, and we can learn and explore them individually and peacefully. These missions are beautiful, serene, and spiritual places of history and faith, and should be cherished.

But wait, there's more: Bonus Trivia!

Yes, the Franciscan Monks came to California, to spread the word of God and the teachings of Jesus, but there is more geopolitics, worthy of a cold war spy novel involved.

Up until the mid-19th century, the Russian Empire stretched across Siberia to Alaska and down to Northern California, and it had its sights on all of California. Plus the fur trade was much too lucrative to abandon there.

But King Luis of Spain did not want that to happen. So he began a project with the Franciscan Friars to establish a presence in California through the establishment of 21 missions up and down the coast. Each mission had two friars to maintain each individual mission. Yes.. two... only two friars to run each mission.

Then in 1812, the Russian Empire built its' first fort on the west coast at what is now Bodega Bay, in order to assert control of California. So in the early part of the 19th Century, it was the Russian Imperial Army against...about 30 monks.

Game on!

Luis and the Franciscans kept building and maintaining missions up the west coast from San Diego to about 65 miles from the Russian fort. And the Franciscan Monks has woven so deeply into each local community, that

By 1841 King Luis' plan had worked; the Russian Fort was disbanded. . Luis held Califonia. With the services of about 30 Franscian friars...

(Wait that's 30 Franciscan Friars spread out through every mission in Califonia)

.. thwarted the plans of the Russian Empire....roll credits.

But here, none of that intrigue is on view. Only peace and a place to relax and let Califonia's history seep into you.


Here's some deeper reading on the subject:

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