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How a Monterey hotel saved the Carmel Mission

(and what's the deal with the roof?)

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Carmel Mission

Anybody who knows anything about California history has heard of  Father Junipero Serra, and everybody on the Monterey Peninsula knows (or ought to know) that he founded the Carmel Mission. But between his day and ours, a lot has happened to that wonderful landmark.

Our story begins in 1713 when Miguel Jose Serra was born on the Spanish island of Mallorca. In 1769, after twenty years of missionary work, he came to the Monterey Peninsula to begin the monumental task of bringing Christianity to California and establishing his famous chain of missions.

When he first established his base, it was located at the Monterey Presidio, which today is the site of the San Carlos Cathedral on Church Street. (At that time the Presidio covered different portion of the city than it does today.) After a short time, Serra decided to move his new mission six miles south to a hillside overlooking the Carmel River. This spot had the advantage of being closer to native Indian settlements and there was ample space for agricultural development. He also liked this site simply because it was a very pretty place to establish his first mission.

Contrary to popular belief, Father Serra did not build the massive stone church which we all know and love. The first buildings on the mission site were crude log huts. In 1771, Serra himself built a small adobe church. When he passed away in 1784, he was buried beneath its sanctuary alongside his close associate, Father Juan Crespi, who had died two years earlier.

Serra was succeeded by Father Francisco Palou, who came to the peninsula with Serra and Crespi. However, Palou soon retired to Mexico City and the baton was then handed to Father Fermin de Lasuen.

It was Lasuen who oversaw the building of the big stone church at the mission. He hired Manuel Estevan Ruiza of Mexico City, to do the actual construction. Ruiza had just completed the Royal Presidio Chapel (San Carlos Cathedral) in Monterey. Ruiza designed both churches using contemporary Spanish styling. He tore down the small adobe church Serra built so he could place the altar of his new edifice over Serra's grave.

By 1813, the Spanish government decided to take possession of mission properties throughout North America. The takeover in California was delayed due to the lack of secular priests available to staff them. After Mexico gained independence the Mexican government completed the secularization of the California missions and confiscated all the properties in 1834. Unfortunately, governments aren't very good at running churches. Eventually, after years of neglect, the beautiful arched stone roof of the church collapsed, and the building became a forgotten ruin.

In 1846, the Carmel mission was auctioned off and the property was purchased by a builder in Monterey named William Garner. Garner dismantled many of the mission buildings and used the materials to build many of the adobe houses in Monterey. Only the shell of the main church remained. But all was not lost. When California became a part of the United States, President James Buchanan, showing that sometimes the government can do things right, turned the mission properties back over to the Catholic Church.

In 1863, Father Angelo Delfino Casanova came to take over the parish in Monterey, and he soon took an interest in the old Carmel mission. In 1877 he managed to raise $40.00, just enough to put a new roof over one room of the church alongside the main sanctuary. He immediately began using that room to hold church services. In 1879 he hit upon the idea of charging travelers a fee of 10 cents per person for tours of the church ruins, with the intent of applying the revenue towards further restoration. After the first year he had raised a discouraging $11.75.

But the following year the Southern Pacific Railroad had completed construction of the magnificent Hotel Del Monte (now the centerpiece of the Naval Postgraduate School) in Monterey and completed a rail line to the hotel. The tourism industry on the Monterey Peninsula was born, and with it came money. Lots of it.

The hotel brought wealthy and celebrated visitors to see the mission, enabling Father Casanova to increase the admission to 15 cents. Many of these visitors offered substantial additional donations and by 1884 Casanova had enough money to build a new roof to cover the entire church. The new roof, unlike the original curved stone roof, was a tall peaked wooden covering. Soon after its construction, Casanova re-opened the church and held mass within the church walls on a regular basis.

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Mission with peaked roof

Above: The mission with Casanova's peaked roof.

For many years the revitalized mission stood by as the newly formed city of Carmel-By-The-Sea was developed and grew. In the early years of the 20th century, plans were developed for a complete restoration of the mission and its grounds. However, the first World War delayed implementation of the plan until 1933. At that time Father Michael O'Connell, working with a San Francisco cabinetmaker Harry Downie, began planning the project. Downie, through exhaustive research, made every effort to duplicate the original mission buildings with as much detail as possible. He built the museum which houses the Serra Sarcophagus and a reproduction of Serra's living quarters, which remains to this day. Downie also replaced Casanova's functional peaked roof with a simile of the original arched stone roof, this time made with wood and plaster carefully painted to look like real stone.

In 1960, the Pope John XXIII elevated the Carmel mission to Basilica status. Basilicas are considered second in importance only to Cathedrals, and there are only 12 Basilicas in the United States. In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the Carmel Mission Basilica, arriving by helicopter at the adjacent ballfield. Today the mission functions as a church, a school, and in keeping with traditions started by Father Casanova, a major tourist attraction. Admission fees are still used to help maintain the magnificent building and its beautiful grounds.


Preserving the Carmel Mission is an ongoing effort. Please visit the Carmel Mission Foundation to learn more and contribute if you can.  

Many other California missions are less well protected and are in various stages of disrepair. To make sure they are preserved please support the California Missions Foundation.