This is Part 4 (the last part) of a series of posts on the history of North San Diego County, with a focus on the Mission San Luis Rey. Earlier posts, discussing the time frame from the founding of the mission to 1865, include : Part 1 North San Diego County, Its Mission and Its Mission Days; Part 2 When Spanish San Diego Became American; and Part 3 San Diego County's Pioneers and the Fiesta of San Luis Rey de Francia.
On May 10, 1869, came the event that would finally Americanize San Diego County, for good and for bad: Two railroads were joined with a final spike, connecting the east coast with the west coast of the United States. In 1911, historian John S. McCroarty, in California - Its History, Its Romance called this “the greatest achievement of the nineteenth century, or of any century that preceded it. . . . At that hour the attention of the civilized world was concentrated on the sagebrush plains of Nevada where California was joined by rail with the Atlantic seaboard.”
San Diego was finally accessible to more than just the adventuresome and the bold. Settlements were planned. Land developers expected to profit. The developers and the courts set to work to secure titles to lands that were soon to be settled. Unless they had legally enforceable titles under state laws, the Indians’ claims to their lands were not recognized as against the title held by the Americans with legal land claims. While this may have had little impact on Indians who had long ago abandoned tribal lands in the areas of San Diego, the Mission San Luis Rey and Rancho Agua Hedionda, it meant hardship to some of those living in the Indian communities that still existed further inland.
By 1870, a census showed only 25 people in the San Luis Rey area who still claimed Indian ethnicity, all of them employed on the ranches. In contrast, late nineteenth century Indian rights advocate Helen Hunt Jackson described the plight of 200 Luisenos in the Temecula Valley who were forced out of their homes in 1869 and 1870 when they could not prove good title to their land, despite the bishop's effort to help them:
"A Mexican woman is now living in that Temecula valley who told me the story of this moving. The facts I had learned before from records of one sort and another. But standing on the spot, looking at the ruins of the little adobe houses, and the walled graveyard full of graves, and hearing this woman tell how she kept her doors and windows shut, and could not bear to look out while the deed was being done, I realized forcibly how different a thing is history seen from history written and read.
"It took three days to move them. Procession after procession, with cries and tears, walked slowly behind the wagons carrying their household goods. . . . They took the tule roofs off the little houses, and carried them along. They could be used again. Some of these Indians, wishing to stay as near as possible to their old home, settled in a small valley, only three miles and a half away to the south. It was a dreary, hot little valley, bare, with low, rocky buttes cropping out on either side, and with scanty growths of bushes; there was not a drop of water in it. Here the exiles went to work again; built their huts of reeds and straw; set up a booth of boughs for the priest, when he came, to say mass in; and a rude wooden cross to consecrate their new graveyard on a stony hill-side. They put their huts on barren knolls here and there, where nothing could grow. On the tillable land they planted wheat or barley or orchards, --some patches not ten feet square, the largest not over three or four acres. They hollowed out the base of one of the rocky buttes, sunk a well there, and found water."
On January 2, 1882, the California Southern Railroad first ran between
National City and Fallbrook. The drought of only a few years earlier had been forgotten. Old Town San Diego had
been replaced by the new American city of 2,500 people. Along the train line, a community formed near the old Mission of San
Luis Rey. By the mid-1880’s, the newly formed town had a
population of about 600 people downhill from the abandoned
On November 15, 1885, the California Southern at last extended the entire way into San Diego, with the first train departing from San Diego on November 15, and the first train arriving from the east on November 21. A land boom overtook the county. During the first two years of the train line’s existence, the population of San Diego grew from 5,000 to 40,000 people. The population was also growing in the village of San Luis Rey, and in another town called Oceanside. Posters advertised the land in England. An English community settled near the old mission and began to build a small English country church with funds donated by a Church of England parish near London.
However, in 1888, the real estate boom ended, as many new residents found land elsewhere with irrigation. Lots were advertised for fast sale, cheap. Then, in 1893, a nationwide Wall Street panic led to a depression. Of San Diego’s eight banks, five closed in the wake of the panic.
Amid the hardship, in 1892, Franciscans from Mexico wanted to start a school in California. The bishop offered them the abandoned Mission San Luis Rey. They accepted, agreeing to a stipulation that an English speaking priest always be in residence to serve the local English-speaking population.
Restoring the mission's buildings was to be a long process,
replacing a roof and portions of
walls, rebuilding a dome, pouring a new concrete floor. The end result
was to be a building nearly identical to the mission compound that had
been completed in 1815.
The restoration was led by Father Joseph Jeremias O'Keefe, O.F.M., described as an "Irishborn, Spanish-speaking member of a German Franciscan province" by Father Valentine John Healy, O.F.M., writing for the Journal of San Diego History in 1965. One might add that he was rebuilding an Indian mission in the United States named for a king of France. When he arrived at the mission, he wrote his own description of what he found:
"The houses were unroofed for the tiles and rafters; the beautiful arches were blown down with powder to get down the brick; doors and windows were appropriated; and finally, the bare walls were left standing exposed to all changes of the weather and erosions of storm and rains.... there were no roofs on any part of San Luis Rey except the church and even that was gone in large part."
Father O'Keefe specifically chose to hire the Luisenos to help rebuild the mission, both because of their superior understanding of the construction of adobe structures and also to compensate for his inability to spend enough time teaching the Catholic Luisenos who, by then, lived far from the mission. He wanted to offer them employment that they needed, and to offer instruction in the evening, which he could accomplish by seeking them out as construction workers to rebuild the mission compound.
The Franciscans began to move back in 1904 or 1906, including 5 priests, 5 brothers, 1 student cleric, 1 novice cleric, and one candidate for the brotherhood. By 1906, the unfinished mission was described by Charles Frederick Holder as a gracious place in Life in the Open: Sport with Rod, Gun, Horse, And Hound in Southern California:
"We pass the San Luis Rey River, Fallbrook, and finally the coach rolls into San Luis Rey de Francia, and is again on the King's Highway, as in all probability it once ran up and down the coast, having made the inland tour as described. San Luis Rey, while a ruin, is a sumptuous pile, and originally was one of the finest Missions in Southern California. . . .
The splendid pile was one hundred and fifty feet long, fifty feet wide, and sixty feet high, its walls, like those of San Gabriel, being four feet thick. A fine tower graces the south side, and is pierced for eight bells. The corridor has two hundred and fifty-six arches. Its fine dome, its groined arches, the Byzantine pulpit, the long corridors, appeal to the imagination, and make the old Mission one of the really beautiful pictures of Southern California, whether seen against the green slopes of winter or on the barren mesa in summer, when its tints and shades seem to blend with the soil.
"The Mission has been repaired by the Franciscans who now occupy it and tender visitors a courteous reception. They relate fascinating stories of the days of Zalvidea, of the Indians saved; and one is glad that the old Mission is rehabilitated and not allowed to go to decay. . . .
"We exchange opinions with the passers-by and the owners of the ranches who come out as we pull up at the slightest excuse. Then there is the fund of wisdom drawn from the country store, and its habitués, all adding to the charm of coaching or automobiling in the land of the setting sun."
The rebuilding, as it stood a few years later, is described by John S. McCroarty in his book first published in 1911. By then, the interior had been redecorated and a new main altar had been set in place, and McCroarty told the story idealistically, describing the rebuilding as part of California's romance:
"After long years of loneliness and isolation, the brown-robed Franciscans came back to San Luis Rey, repaired its fallen roofs, set up anew its wavering walls and once again rang the music of the ancient Mission bells across the dreaming valley and up into the silent hills. In answer to that melodious call, the remnant of the once happy community of neophytes, tottering old Indian men and women with their children and their children’s children, came flocking back to San Luis Rey to hear again the Padres’ voices and the well-loved music of the Mass, their hearts filled with gladness beyond the power of words to tell. Here also at San Luis Rey was planted the original California pepper tree in the patio of the Mission where Father Antonio Peyri placed it in the loving soil with his own gentle hands."
The Mission continued to be rebuilt, the arches completed only in 1914, and a second story completed in 1924. Some work was still ongoing when Father Healey wrote about the work for the Journal of San Diego History in 1965. Its grounds, much like the original mission compound, and its museum, serve as reminders of the early history of the Franciscan mission and also serve as a place of retreat and prayer for the present day.
The present day Mission San Luis Rey Parish, a large congregation, describes itself as "diverse and multi-cultural," with Mass in both Spanish and English at the large, modern Serra Center,
which is in the mission's historic district. The separate mission
church, which is part of the mission compound, holds Mass on Saturday
Mission San Luis Rey celebrates the 208th anniversary of its founding today with a museum tour and wine tasting in the rose garden.