Monday, October 18, 2010

Visiting the "New" Old Mission San Miguel: A Work in Progress

Recently, I had the chance to drive up the Coast from southern California toward the Bay Area for a workshop. Right off Highway 101, I made a pit stop at Old Mission San Miguel to visit the friars and spend the night. I hadn’t been to San Miguel in quite a while (I lived there once for a year as a novice) and was curious to see how the restoration of this historic mission (founded in 1797 by Fray Fermin Francisco de Lasuén ) was progressing. The church and adjacent convento area had been heavily damaged by the San Simeon earthquake of December 22, 2003 (6.5 on the Richter scale). Since then, the Mission had been closed to the public until sufficient repairs could completed. Finally, the sanctuary was reopened for worship on the Mission’s patronal feast day, September 29, 2009. But there is still much to be done.

Approaching the site, I was taken aback by the clean, severe outline of the old Mission church itself. The visual effect is arresting. With extraneous vegetation around the church building cleared from the site, the rectangular structure now has a stark, dynamic and surprisingly contemporary appearance. The newly applied white plaster is brilliant in direct sunlight against the clear, deep blue skies of central California. The entire white lime plaster façade covering the sun-dried adobe brick walls has now been completely refinished. Skilled craftsmen, some of them from Oaxaca, Mexico, had been recruited to realize the surface treatment done by means of the traditional rejuelar technique. It is a method in which fired clay tile pieces are set tightly into lime plaster in grooves cut into the wall. The grooves with a rectangular cross section provide a mechanical interlock into the adobe masonry. Ingeniously, a chemical bond formed between the lime plaster and the fired clay, secure the plaster quite securely to the wall surface and structure. (Boletin, 23).

In terms of the church’s interior, visitors already familiar with the sanctuary will be struck by how little appears to have changed over the decades. The effect is, in part, intentional. New replacement windows frames, for example, were given the same chipped and weather beaten appearance as the materials they had replaced. This is, in part, a reflection of a perspective on restoration which holds that a refurbished environment ought not be returned to its original state, but rather, like a piece of antique furniture, should be permitted to reflect in its lived history, knicks, sratches and all.

Other significant changes are easily overlooked. For one thing, most of the 29 vigas, or roof timbers that stretch across the 26-foot width of the room have been either replaced or reinforced. The damaged lintel over the main entrance has been entirely replaced and the area around it reinforced so that one can safely pass through without concern that the whole shebang might come tumbling down.

But what about the magnificent frescoed interior walls, the wooden pulpit, and the wood and plaster reredos that give San Miguel the distinction of being the only one of the Alta California missions with completely intact interior decoration dating from the time church’s construction (c.1821)? The good news is that these remarkable frescoes and church furniture survived the multiple (and major) earthquakes (1857, 1952, 2003) virtually unscathed. The bad news is that they are, nevertheless, quite fragile and still in dire need of attention.

The origin of the interior decoration is a fascinating tale. Spaniard
Esteban Munrás (1789-1850) traveled from his native Barcelona to California via Lima, Peru. Together with a team of trained native Salinan Indians at the Mission, Munras was able to realize an interior decorative scheme with stenciled neo-classical colonnades and Greek key patterning reflective of then-contemporary Continental taste. The overall effect of the interior design is one of airy lightness, freshness, simplicity, and glowing warmth—seemingly in defiance of the structure’s otherwise ponderous five-foot thick adobe walls. Presently, there are just three window openings along the west side of the sanctuary instead of the six in the original construction. One can only imagine the dazzling effect of entering into such a light-filled environment—a startling moment of early 19th century European urbanity in what was then the California wilderness. When one realizes that these seemingly pencilled frescoes have been achieved only with a thin white lime-wash layer over a ½- inch thick earthen plaster surface, one begins to comprehend their fragility—and to marvel at their survival.

Like all of the other California missions, San Miguel was secularized (1834) and the resident friars subsequently sent into exile following the independence of Mexico from Spain. In 1846, the site was acquired by Petronillo Rios and William Reed. Tragically, shortly afterwards, all eleven members of the Reed household who had taken up residence in the Mission, were murdered by a band of wandering thieves. It was not until 1859 that Catholic Church successfully regained title to the Mission buildings (but not adjacent lands) from US President Buchanan. In 1878, the Mission church began to function as a place of worship again.

In 1928, the Franciscans returned to San Miguel after a hiatus of nearly a century. The friars began restoration efforts in earnest and expanded the facility to provide room for a novitiate, or training facility for new members of the order. In more recent decades, a full-service retreat center as well has offered hospitality to church and community groups on an ongoing basis. The friars have served the people of the area in terms of ministry, but limited financial resources precluded any major restoration effort. Until the 2003 earthquake, that is. Following the disaster, a major capital campaign was initiated and to date, about $9.7m of the $15 million goal has been achieved.

Today, once again, the Mission serves as a center of hospitality and evangelization for thousands of visitors who, like myself, drive the length of the El Camino Real, or the King’s Highway from the Bay Area to southern California. And it continues to house a vibrant parish community. In fact, while experts were struggling over the restoration of the historic church and adjacent convento, parishioners embarked upon an heroic project to realize a long-held dream: the construction of a handsome $1.0 million parish center close by. The friars are still and active and vital presence at the Mission as well, staffing both parish and novitiate. At present, in fact, we have six men completing their year-and-a-day formation process in preparation for their first vows next July.

For more than two centuries, Old Mission San Miguel has been well-served by its patron and protector, St. Michael the Archangel. It has not only survived, but overcome a number of disasters, including fires (early on), bloodshed, confiscation, abandonment, and neglect. Not to mention again three recorded earthquakes, all in excess of 6.0 on the Richter scale. The Mission remains, but so do its tremendous and pressing financial needs. If restoration is to be completed, a few more terrestrial “angels” will have to join Archangel Michael to secure the “mission of the Mission” for future generations.// Old Mission San Miguel website:

Reference: “Repair and Conservation of Mission San Miguel, 2004-2009”, Brother Bill Short et al. Boletín, Journal of the California Mission Studies Association, (vol.26: 1 & 2, 2009).

1 comment:

Mario said...

hey fr chuck... love reading ur blog, especially about your life and the life of the friars in the province... hope to see u again at mission san miguel, or somewhere else!
Mario Espitia