California: Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá

This Franciscan mission in San Diego, founded by Father Junípero Serra, was relocated from Presidio Hill above Old Town to its present site, burned in an Indian attack, rebuilt, destroyed by earthquake, restored and enlarged, secularized, and sold. The mission was then returned to the Catholic Church, rebuilt, and named a minor basilica by Pope Paul VI.

Site Office

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá

10818 San Diego Mission Road

San Diego, CA 92108-2498

ph.: (619) 281-8449

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, a simple, white adobe church with a five-bell tower and enclosed portico, stands on a small knoll overlooking Mission Valley in San Diego. The original mission, founded on July 16, 1769, by Spanish Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra, was a crude, thatch-roofed, brushwood hut that stood on Presidio Hill above Old Town, six miles up the San Diego River from its present site. It is the oldest mission in California, the first in a chain of twenty-one Franciscan missions that extended for 650 miles up El Camino Real (the king’s highway) along the coast of Alta (Upper) California.

The original mission was moved to its present site in 1774, where it was burned in an Indian attack a year later. The mission was rebuilt in 1780 and destroyed again in 1803 by an earthquake. It was again restored and enlarged in 1813. The present structure is a 1931 restoration of the 1813 church. The church’s sturdy facade, the only part of the structure still standing at the time of the 1931 restoration, is characterized by wide brick step and outspread walls on either side of the door. The church interior has been restored to its original form, the plastering applied unevenly in imitation of the original craftsmanship. The five bells, scattered during decades of neglect, were located and reassembled. The largest bell, the 1,200-pound Mater Dolorosa, was cast in San Diego in 1894 from five bells sent to the mission by the viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) in 1796.

Colonizing Alta California

Earliest interest in establishing a mission in San Diego began soon after its port was discovered and mapped in 1542 by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. Spanish missionary orders sought government aid and permission to set up missions at Alta California’s principal ports in San Diego and Monterey, but the viceroy of New Spain, responsible for the establishment of missions in California, was not interested at the time. It was not until after 1765, when news arrived in Madrid that Czarist Russian fur traders and explorers had been setting up temporary outposts in the Farollone Islands off San Francisco, that Spain revisited plans for colonizing Alta California.

Under Inspector General José de Galvéz, a high-ranking officer of the Spanish Council of the Indies and King Carlos III’s personal agent in New Spain, plans were developed in 1768 for a settlement in Northern California to hold its frontier against Russian encroachment. Plans were worked out months in advance in Mexico City for two expeditions by land and two by sea from a base in Baja (Lower) California to colonize a port in Monterey in Alta California.

The port of San Diego was selected as a common intermediate stopping point between Baja California and Monterey for the four contingents of the expedition. Once the port of San Diego had been reached, three missions in Alta California were to be established: one in San Diego, one in Monterey, and one at an intermediate point. Two presidios (military outposts) were also to be established.

Captain Gaspar de Portolá was assigned leadership of the project in 1768. One year previously, Portolá had been appointed governor of Baja California and ordered to supervise the transfer of Baja mission property to the Franciscans from the Jesuits, who has been banished from Spanish territories that year by King Charles III. Father Junípero Serra, who had been made president of the Baja missions in 1768, was ordered to turn over his presidency to the Dominican friars so that he could assist Portolá by supervising the missionaries in Alta California.

Born in Petra, Mallorca, Spain, in 1713, Serra had gained distinction as a brilliant professor of philosophy and theology, pulpit orator, skilled administrator, and devout missionary with thirty-five years of experience in the frontiers of New Spain. Although the padre stood only five feet, two inches tall and was fifty-five years old when he was named president of the mission in Alta California, Serra was known as a man of great energy, ambition, and religious zeal who, despite an infected leg, rode 750 miles on muleback leading a pack train up the California peninsula into San Diego.

The Voyage Begins

The first contingent in the packet, the San Carlos, sailed out of La Paz on January 7, 1769, with soldiers and supplies on board. A month later, the San Antonio, under Captain Juan Pérez, embarked for Alta California. The vessels were loaded with ornaments, sacred vases, church vestaments, household utensils, field implements, seeds, and other supplies needed for mission settlement. Both ships made landfalls near San Pedro. A supply ship, the San José, was dispatched in June, ran into problems and returned after three months, set sail again from La Paz the following spring loaded with food and supplies, and was never heard from again.

After the ships had left, the two land expeditions departed. In addition to the officers and cavalrymen, the expeditions included eighty-six Christianized Indians from the Baja missions for handling several hundred head of pack mules and beef cattle. The first land expedition, under Captain Fernando de Rivera and accompanied by Father Juan Crespi, diarist of the expedition, set out from El Rosario on Good Friday, 1769, driving a pack train of 180 mules and 500 domestic animals toward San Diego, 350 miles away. The party reached San Diego two months later.

In mid-May the final contingent, under Captain Portolá and Father Serra, departed, marching along an alternate route, also driving a herd of cattle. The party stopped along the way at the Baja mission settlements to pick up supplies for Alta California.

When Portolá and Serra reached San Diego on July 1, 1769, they learned that sixty of the ninety crewmen of both ships had died of scurvy. All but two of the crew of the San Carlos, which arrived April 29, had died; the ship had been at sea for 110 days after being blown two hundred leagues off course. The entire crew of the San Antonio, which arrived April 11, before the San Carlos, was ill. Of the 219 persons who had made up the original four contingents of the expedition, only half reached Alta California. A quarter of the entire expedition had died, and two-thirds of the Indians had died or deserted on the way.

Portolá ordered the remaining eight of the San Antonio’s original twenty-eight crewmen to return south to report on the conditions at San Diego and to bring back supplies, while he continued with a small company 450 miles northward to Monterey Bay to establish the capital of Alta California.

Shortly after Portolá’s company had left, Serra ordered a small thatch-roofed chapel to be built on what is today Presidio Hill. On July 16, 1769, the padre raised a cross to dedicate formally the mission to Saint Didacus (San Diego) of Alcalá, a Franciscan friar sainted in 1588.

Conflict with Local Tribes

Converting the native Ipai-Tipai (Diegueño) Indians proved to be a challenge for the padres. Friendly at first, the Indians accepted gifts of beads and clothing from the strangers. Once accustomed to the settlers, they became bold and hostile and began stealing from the camp. Within a month of Portolá’s departure, the natives attacked the camp with bows and arrows, attempting to drive the foreigners from their territory. The Spanish, defending the new settlement, opened fire with a musket volley. Two Spaniards died and three were wounded, and at least three Indians died during the attack. The Spanish soldiers built a stockade around the mission and forbade the Indians to enter, in an effort to protect the camp against a further attack. Although a temporary truce prevailed, the Indians continued to resist conversion, and it was two years before the mission baptized its first native.

By the time Portolá returned to San Diego from Monterey six months later, another nineteen men had died and mission supplies were running out. Portolá told Serra that if the relief ship San Antonio did not return by the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19), the mission, despite Serra’s protests, would have to be abandoned.

On the evening of March 19, 1770, a ship was sighted, but it then disappeared from view for four days. The ship turned out to be the San Antonio on its way to Monterey with supplies. The ship had lost its anchor and had to backtrack to San Diego, where its shipload of supplies relieved the mission’s crisis. The colonists erected a presidio and a temporary mission building of interlaced sticks fastened with mud.

Within a month, Portolá again headed north, this time to found a mission in Monterey. Serra, after turning the San Diego mission over to four padres, several dozen soldiers, and a few Christian Baja Indians, sailed aboard the San Antonio, which resumed its course up the California coast.

In August, 1774, the San Diego mission was moved from Presidio Hill to its present site six miles up the river. The garrison at the original site antagonized the Indians, and there was not enough arable land there to support the growing number of Christianized Indians. Thatch-roofed palisade buildings were soon completed at the new site, which was near Indian villages.

Although the new site was also chosen because it was believed to be a good source of water and land for farming, the padres soon discovered that there was not enough of either to produce sufficient crops for the growing population of Christianized Indians. The Indians therefore stayed in their own villages and came to the mission only to work or attend services. The mission could only convert a few Indians at a time this way, and many of these converts reverted to their native religion.

On the night of November 5, 1775, under the leadership of ex-convert Francisco of the Cuiamac Rancheria, an army of eight hundred armed natives from seventy Indian villages united and attacked the mission. The Indians looted what they could and set fire to the buildings. Three Spaniards were killed in the attack: a carpenter, a blacksmith, and Father Luis Jaime, who was clubbed and shot with arrows when he tried to calm the Indians. Jaime thus became the first Christian martyr in California; he is buried under the altar of the mission sanctuary. (Four other padres are also now buried there.)

When the battle was over, it was discovered that the presidio garrison had slept through the entire attack. The mission’s inhabitants moved back to the presidio, where they remained for several months. While the attack caused Governor Portolá to suspend the founding of additional missions without adequate military protection, the ultimate failure of the uprising served to discourage the Indians from attempting such an attack again.


In 1776, eight months after the revolt, Serra returned to the burned-out site and began rebuilding the church and mission buildings. The church, shops, residences, storage areas, and other buildings were arranged in a full quadrangle, surrounding a 120-square-foot patio. The structures were footed in tile, and adobe was used to cover the walls to increase fire resistance in the event of another attack.

By 1780 the reconstruction was completed, and the mission was rededicated. Years of growth and prosperity for the mission began. In 1797, 565 Indians were baptized, bringing the number of converts to 1,405. The mission’s landholdings had grown to fifty thousand acres on which wheat, barley, corn, and beans were grown. Vineyards, orchards, and vegetable gardens grew near the mission, which also owned 20,000 sheep, 10,000 head of cattle, and 1,250 horses. Barracks were erected for soldiers, corrals for the livestock, and dormitories for the converts.

The second church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1803, but by 1813, a restored, enlarged, adobe church was rededicated. A buttress-like structure, built onto the present structure, has withstood successive earthquakes.

Between 1807 and 1816, a 220-foot dam with a 12-foot-high center was designed by the padres and built by Indians six miles upriver. Stored water was brought to the mission through miles of cement flume aqueduct. Among the first irrigation systems in California, the dam outlasted the mission by several decades, surviving until a flood burst it open. Fragments of the dam, engulfed in silt, still stand and are visible in the river.

In 1830, having recovered from the damage of the earthquake, the mission owned more than sixteen thousand sheep, eight thousand head of cattle, and one thousand horses and mules.

In 1834, during the Mexican occupation of California, the Act of Secularization was passed, returning mission property to public use. After secularization, the mission declined rapidly.

From 1846 to 1862, the mission was occupied by the U.S. Cavalry, during which time the soldiers made some temporary repairs to the buildings. A second story was built inside, and horses were quartered on the ground level. Once the soldiers departed, the unoccupied mission gradually fell into ruin. In 1862, by order of President Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Land Commission returned the twenty-two acres of mission grounds to the church.

By 1892, half of the mission had caved in. The roof tiles were used to cover Old Town homes, and most of the quadrangle had disintegrated into the soil. Neglect and weathering had reduced the structure to ruin. Only the facade, reinforced with heavy timbers, was still standing.

In 1915, fund-raising began to rebuild the mission; it took several years to raise the needed money. By 1931, after nearly a century of neglect, the mission was restored and rededicated. Original portions of the church’s buttresses and walls were incorporated in the reconstruction.

On March 1 of the same year, a statue of Serra was unveiled in the Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., in tribute to the pioneer missionary considered by some to be the founder of California. Other memorials are a bronze statue of the padre in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and a granite monument at Monterey. During his fifteen years of service, Serra founded nine of the twenty-one California missions. In 1943, canonization proceedings began for Serra; they are still in process today.

The present mission church at San Diego was named a minor basilica by Pope Paul VI in 1976. Today, parochial school is conducted in the modern building beside the mission church, which serves as an active parish for the local Catholic community.

For Further Information

  • Bates, Brian. Along the King’s Highway: The Missions of California. Carmichael, Calif.: Wordwrights International, 1997. A guidebook that includes the history and descriptions of El Camino Real and mission buildings.
  • Heizer, Robert F., ed. California. Vol. 8 in Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978. Sympathetic to the Indian cause.
  • Johnson, Paul C., ed. The California Missions: A Pictorial History. Menlo Park, Calif.: Lane, 1964. An excellent, finely detailed, illustrated guide to the history of the mission chain.
  • Riesenberg, Felix, Jr. The Golden Road: The Story of California’s Spanish Mission Trail. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962. Another, less important guide to the California missions.
  • Wise, Winifred. Fray Junípero Serra and the California Conquest. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967. An account of Serra’s life, detailed in notes from the writings and diaries of Serra and his contemporaries.