Between the years 1769 and 1833, Franciscan priests founded 21 missions throughout Alta California—a province of New Spain that encompasses what we now know as California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico—to bring Christianity to the Native Americans living in that region. Theses missions were also a part of the Spanish government’s attempts to expand their rule over their claims in New Spain.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
The Carmel Mission’s official name is Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Named for Carlo Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, it was originally founded in what is now called Monterey, California, the capital of Alta California at the time. Founded by St. Junìpero Serra, from 1770 to 1778, it was the site of the first confirmation of a Native American in California.
St. Serra moved the mission to Carmel-by-the-Sea after a conflict with the governor of Alta California, Pedro Fages, over how the governor treated his soldiers and the Native Americans.
They used adobe, a combination of mud and organic material, to build the first chapel at the Carmel mission, but St. Serra dreamed of having a permanent stone structure for worship. He drew up the plans for the chapel, but he was unable to build it during his lifetime.
Building the Chapel
St. Serra’s successor, Father Fray Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, convinced the government of New Spain to send qualified architects and skilled stonemasons to carry out St. Junìpero Serra’s plan for the chapel. The government licensed Manuel, an architect, and Santiago Ruiz, a master stonemason, to head up construction. The centerpiece of Manuel’s design was a series of vaulted parabolic arches across the ceiling.
Construction lasted between 1795 and 1797 when it was dedicated for worship on Christmas Day. A major earthquake in 1812 moved the Franciscans to remodel the Basilica. They were terrified by the news that the parabolic ceilings of another church collapsed on worshipers during mass, killing many. They tore down the vaulted ceiling, leaving the stone arches that had supported it, and filled the rest in with wooden planks to prevent a similar disaster from happening at Carmel.
They remodeled the exterior of the basilica between 1817-1822. Among many other improvements, they built true towers to house the bells. The original bell towers weren’t towers at all. They were just walls with arches cut out to house the bells.
The interior of the basilica was much more opulent than it is today. There were seven major side altars with more than twenty statues of saints. The most beautiful side chapel held a massive crucifix with statues of St. John the Evangelist and Our Lady. Another beautiful statue of La Conquistadora, or Our Lady of Bethlehem, was the center of the large reredos decorated with crystal and fine gilded wood.
Disrepair and Collapse
In 1833, the newly independent government of Mexico secularized the Carmel mission. The roof collapsed in 1851, and many of the statues and altarpieces were destroyed. When the Catholic Church regained control in 1864, the mission was in complete ruins.
Father Angel Casanova began the long process of restoring the mission in 1884. Monsignor Philip Scher chose Harry Downie to oversee and to complete the restoration process in 1931. Shortly after that, the Franciscans transferred the mission to the local diocese and the chapel became a parish church. Downie worked tirelessly for the rest of his life to bring all the buildings of the mission back to their former glory.
Because of Downie, the Carmel Mission is one of the most faithfully restored of all the missions in California. It most completely represents the style and design of the original building. Some of the original decorations remain, having been rescued by Fr. Sadoc Villaras when the ceiling showed signs of collapse.
In the 1960s the Diocesan Bishop, Aloyisus Willinger petitioned the Holy See to have the church declared a minor Basilica. There are four major Basilicas in the world: St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major, and they are all in Rome.
The Holy See designates a church a minor Basilica because they have history, dignity, architectural value, and have significance as a worship site. Pope John Paul XXIII honored the Carmel Mission with this title in recognition of St. Serra’s work establishing Christianity on the west coast of North America and for the work done at the Carmel Mission. It is one of only 69 basilicas in the United States.
One of the most important historical California missions, The Basilica Church at the Carmel Mission is not just a relic from the past. Its faithfully restored nave is also a parish church, where priests still celebrate mass. The Carmel Mission, like many historical worship sites, connects the faithful to the living history of the church, helping us to see our place in the long tradition that is our faith.