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MISSION STATEMENTS Royal Road: California's Spanish heritage comes to life in the religious centers created two centuries ago by Franciscan priests.

They call it "El Camino Real" -- the Royal Road. Road signs urge visitors off the highway to enjoy the sights, and bells mark the 200-year-old mission buildings that gave the route its name.

From San Diego all the way north past San Francisco, California's famed Royal Road, also called the King's Highway, winds its way through the state's Spanish heritage. Hugging the coastline, it connects the 21 missions established by 18th-century Franciscan priests to convert the pagan natives and solidify their faraway king's holdings in the New World.

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El Camino Real is now more a state of mind than a road. No single line connects all 21 dots. The easiest way to visit all the missions is to follow state Route 101; none of the buildings is too far off that path, and signs clearly mark the way.

Although the missions were secularized by the Mexican government when it wrested control of the territory from Spain, many have been returned to religious uses. Some include ruins that look as if they haven't been touched in over a century. All have retained an aura of piety that commands the devotion of their congregations and the respect of their visitors.

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Of course, the legacy of the California missions is a mixed bag, and those responsible for their upkeep know it. The Herculean efforts of the priests and friars are spoken of glowingly, but the disastrous effect they had on the native populations likewise is acknowledged.

Military men, who were never far away from the missions, were far more interested in conquering the natives than converting them. And whatever subjugation could not be brought about by force was accomplished even more devastatingly -- by heretofore unknown diseases the white men brought with them.

Still, Californians remain justifiably proud of their missions. The buildings themselves are beautiful, with towering spires holding bells cast generations ago, intricately carved wooden altars, quiet courtyard gardens and tiny cemeteries that hold the state's ancestors. For many cities, the missions remain centers of both religious worship and civic pride. And they can still inspire awe in visitors.

If you've got time, visit all 21. They were originally built one day's journey apart, and visiting one a day remains a good pace to set for yourself (even if cars can now take you from one mission to the next in one to two hours).

If time is limited, here are a few you might want to check out, working north from San Diego. But first, a few suggestions:

Keep in mind that many of the missions remain places of worship. Exercise some decorum. The folks in charge of the missions are unerringly polite, and they love having you around (especially because admission fees help pay for the buildings' upkeep).

Also, take some time to explore the surrounding countryside. By the time you're done, there won't be a segment of the central and southern California coastline left unvisited.

Except for major holidays, the missions are open daily. Most charge a modest admission fee.

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Mission San Luis Rey de Francia (San Luis Rey, [619] 757-3651): Until the mid-1800s, this massive adobe structure was the tallest building in California. It still casts quite a shadow, with its scrubbed-white exterior and blue wooden dome, and may be the most visually imposing of the 21 missions.

Founded in 1798 and named for a 13th-century French king (which seems big of the Spanish), San Luis Rey de Francia sits on 6 1/2 acres, making it the largest of all the missions and earning its nickname, "King of the Missions." Visitors enter through TC converted barracks to the left of the church and pass through exhibit rooms tracing the mission's history and showing how the friars lived (note the rack suspended from the kitchen ceiling, which was the friars' way of protecting their food from rats).

The mission church, built in 1811, includes original adobe walls up to 6 feet thick. And while the altar appears more modern than some of its mission counterparts, the overall flavor is decidedly Old World. The original wooden pulpit and marble baptismal font are still used.

Mission San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano, [714] 248-2048): Founded in 1775, this is probably the most famous of all the missions, largely because of the thousands of cliff swallows that return to it every St. Joseph's Day, March 19.

San Juan Capistrano may have the most beautiful garden of all the missions, filled with climbing red roses that seem ready to take over the grounds. But the mission's most dominant feature is the ruins of the Great Stone Church, a massive structure that was begun in 1806 and destroyed by an earthquake six years later.

When you stand in the courtyard and look up at the hollowed-out remains, including a domed roof that looks like a broken eggshell, it's not hard to imagine the horror of that fateful day, when the earthquake struck while Mass was being celebrated. Forty bodies were eventually pulled from the rubble.

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The mission church, known as the Serra Chapel, is the only surviving structure in which Padre Junipero Serra, the founder of many of the California missions, is known to have said Mass. It includes an ornate wooden altar built some 300 years ago that was so huge it had to be trimmed to fit inside the building.

Mission San Buenaventura (Ventura, [805] 643-4318): The last mission founded by Serra (in 1782), and the ninth in the chain, San Buenaventura sits directly adjacent to Ventura's Main Street, putting it in the middle of town and making it seem more a part of the community than many of its counterparts. Much of the church has been restored in the past 30 years or so, as the priests there have struggled to undo two centuries' worth of modernizations that left the structure looking little like what Serra envisioned. Fortunately, the stained-glass windows, false ceilings, wood paneling and canopied wooden pulpit are long gone, replaced with furnishings and other accouterments more in keeping with the church's 18th-century origins.

As with most of the missions, visitors walk through a small museum (and a fairly large gift shop) before entering the church. The museum exhibits have a homespun quality to them; most of the accompanying signs are on cardboard, including one beneath an ancient wooden bell that notes this was the only mission to have wooden bells.

Mission Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, [805] 682-4713): The first mission founded (in 1784) by Serra's successor, Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, Santa Barbara is probably the best-preserved of all of them. It certainly seems to have the biggest budget, judging by the size and condition of its museum, as well as the effort put into preserving its outbuildings (including a huge outdoor fountain built in 1808, plus ruins of a gristmill and jail house constructed by the native Indian population).

As magnificent as the mission itself is, the real treasures here are the museum exhibits. They range from the original mission altar and music books to artifacts belonging to Garcia Diego, first bishop of California; from huge 18th-century canvases depicting the assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary to brightly painted stone figures of Hope, Charity and Santa Barbara, the only extant statues carved by native California Indians.

While touring the church cemetery, with its gnarled old trees, seek out the plaque commemorating the burial place of Juana Maria, a native woman who was brought to Santa Barbara as the last living resident of nearby San Nicolas Island. No one remained who spoke her language when she was brought here, and she died after only a few weeks -- a sad footnote to the sad history of Native Americans displaced in the name of civilization.

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Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (San Luis Obispo, [805] 543-6850): When Serra founded the mission in 1772, legend has it he rang a bell on the banks of San Luis Creek to attract the nearby Chumash Indians to religious services. Apparently he succeeded, and the plaza surrounding the old mission church still serves as a meeting place for residents of San Luis Obispo.

The church here is another one that had to be saved from modernization; at one point, a steeple was added to make it look like a New England chapel.

As you walk through the mission grounds, a pair of fountains will catch your eye. A three-tiered, brightly colored tile fountain dominates the center of the courtyard, while a more winsome creation -- depicting a young girl and a bear sitting side by side -- sits near the entrance off Chorro Street.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo (Carmel, [408] 624-3600): From the sun-baked wooden cross to the statue of St. Francis of Assisi that dominates the courtyard to the ornate casket built in the 1920s (and never used) to hold Junipero Serra's remains, San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo is the mission that most dramatically calls to mind the spiritual side of the missions. Which is as it should be: This was the second mission Serra founded (in 1770), the one where he established his office and the one in which he chose to be buried.

Despite the ornate sarcophagus that was later created for him, Serra remains under the church's altar, his grave marked by a simple marble tablet, set in the floor, that reads, "Fr. Junipero Serra/Apostol de California/1713-1784."

Mission San Francisco de Asis (San Francisco, [415] 621-8203): Also known as Mission Dolores, the church here was dedicated in 1791 and stands as the oldest building in San Francisco. Much of the city's history is linked to Mission Dolores; the first Mass was celebrated on this spot June 29, 1776, a date now celebrated as San Francisco's birthday.

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While the church itself is a beauty, particularly the ornate bell towers and gold-encrusted crosses that top the roof, the real treat here is the mission graveyard, a quiet oasis not far removed from the hustle of the city and the final resting place for a host of California's early settlers.

Among those interred in the cemetery are Don Antonio Arguello, the first Mexican governor of California, who lies buried in the earliest identifiable grave (from 1830); William A. Liedesdorff, who started the first public school in San Francisco; Don Francisco de Haro, the first alcalde (essentially a mayor) of San Francisco; and numerous victims of vigilante committees that strove to enforce order in the city's early days (graves of many of their victims are marked with the initials "V.C.").

Also buried in the cemetery are some 5,000 native Americans in unmarked graves, commemorated by a statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the first American Indian candidate for sainthood.

Pub Date: 4/07/96


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