In California, 'This Old Mission'

A private foundation launches $50 million effort to restore landmarks of the state's Spanish past.

Long before there was Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or the Golden Gate Bridge, a graceful adobe arch and tile roof were the prevailing symbols of a unique place way out West called California.

They came courtesy of a determined Roman Catholic, Fr. Junipero Serra, who trudged northward up a territory then known as Alta California and established a string of missions that today are the state's most popular historic tourist attractions.

But for all their fame and historic significance, the missions have largely been left to fend for themselves without state help or resources.

From earthquake-rattled foundations to beetle-infested statues, time has taken its toll.

Now, the first major mission renovation effort in nearly a century is under way.

The fledgling California Missions Foundation plans $50 million worth of repairs and renovations to the sites in the next few years. Given the appeal of its cause and the stature of the foundation's backers, including the family of William Randolph Hearst, himself an early mission benefactor, the effort is expected to succeed.

Already, the foundation has dispensed $100,000 in a few months of operation.

The missions are not without controversy. For many, they have become symbols of the conquest of native Americans rather than the more benign instruments of education and "civilization" they were often portrayed to be.

Of course, history is complicated, and the missions were in fact both things - and more, says Kristina Foss, a teacher of native American studies at Santa Barbara City College.

Worried about Russia's intent to lay claim to California, Spain began establishing the missions in the late 1760s to secure rights to the territory and its citizens.

By the early 1800s, 21 missions had been established, stretching from San Diego north to Sonoma. While the missions were more open villages than captive communities, the enforced introduction of Spanish culture took a severe toll.

The main culprit was the introduction of European diseases. The missions and European settlement wiped out nearly half of the Indian population along the coast of California, estimates Ms. Foss, herself a native American.

After Mexico became independent, it auctioned off the missions to private landowners, many of whom used the aging structures as barns. When California became part of the United States in 1848, most of the missions were returned to the Catholic Church on the grounds they had been illegally confiscated by the Mexican government.

Today, the missions are hugely popular, and their history remains a staple of fourth-grade education in state public schools. That's because they were, in many respects, the first multicultural institutions in what has become a truly multicultural state.

Beyond that, the missions brought a host of innovations to the American West.

A land of cattle and horse ranches was introduced to agriculture through the missions. Olive groves grace many missions' grounds, based on a species no longer found in their native Spain. Growing grapes, now a multimillion-dollar industry in California, began in the missions.

The missions also became home to art by now-famous Mexican painters like Jose de Paez and Andres Lopez.

And the soft-shouldered adobe architecture and tile roofs themselves became icons of western living.

Meanwhile, the hand-crafted iron door handles, wooden ceiling beams, and sculpted wash basins are all considered examples of some of the finest native American craftsmanship.

For most visitors, though, the missions are more than rich museums. They are retreats. Their four-foot-thick mud walls, cool, breathless interiors, and musty smell of history are a reminder that even the relentlessly modern California has a past.

As Foss puts it, "they're old and beautiful in the middle of raw, modern California. We're always looking forward, but when you walk into a mission, you feel the flow of time."

Richard Ameil, president of the new California Missions Foundation, says that for him, missions have been a lifelong place of inspiration. In fact, it was on a visit to a mission where he got the idea for the massive restoration project.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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