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Mission San Francisco Solano
(Saint Francis Solano, missionary to Peru, South American)
A brief history
The Mission San Francisco Solano is the 21st mission founded in California. It was founded on July, 4th, 1823 by Friar Jose Altimira. Named for Saint Francis Solano from Montilla, Spain. Born in 1549 and at the age of 29 he joined the Franciscan Order and became a missionary in Peru. There, for twenty years, he was influential among both the Spanish colonists and the natives. He died in 1610 and was canonized in 1726.
The last mission of the chain, Mission Solano was a compromise between the ambitions of the governor and a brash padre. Eager to put off the Russians who were moving into the areas, Governor Don Luis Arguello conspired with Father Jose Altimira, who was dissatisfied with the current Missions Dolores and San Rafael. A plan was put together that, called for transferring Mission Dolores to the new site in the north. Presented to the Territorial Assembly in Monterey in 1823, it was approved. Unfortunately, they didn’t have authority to implement such an action. Such action had to be approved by the ecclesiastical authorities. When word of this plan reached Father-President Senan, then on his death-bed at San Buenaventura, he informed his successor Father Sarria and sent a rebuke to both the Governor and Father Altimira. The letter caught Father Altimira, who was at Solano, already starting the buildings for the new mission. Work was halted immediately and remained suspended while a compromise was reached. Father Altimira was permitted to build his mission and be in charge of it, but San Francisco and San Rafael bother were to be left alone.
Work was resumed and in 1824, the church was dedicated. Mission Dolores donated the church necessities as well as cattle. But the gifts from sister missions which usually arrived to start a new mission on its way failed to reach Sonoma. The Russian fur traders surprisingly proved to be friendly, sharing their supplies and donating Russian-designed bells. By the end of the year, a tile-roofed monastery, granary, workshops, guardhouse and barracks were complete. Soon orchards, vineyard and grain field were in place.
All might have gone well but for Father Altimira. He relied on flogging and imprisonment to hold sway over the natives. In 1826, the angry natives formed a band that stormed the mission, looting and burning the buildings. Father Altimira was forced to flee to San Rafael. Unable to return to the mission he eventually went back to Spain.
The mission was entrusted to Father Fortuni who had been working with Father Duran at Mission San Jose. In 1826 he arrived and spent seven years restoring Mission Solano to its former strength. He replaced much of the wood and thatch buildings with adobe, built a new adobe church and enlarged the convento. At the time of his retirement he had thirty structures built.
When secularization arrived in 1834, the last of the natives fell to San Rafael, unwilling to take orders from secular authority. General Mariano Vallejo was appointed commissioner of the mission. He transferred the local natives to his own properties and put them to work there. Under General Vallego, the pueblo of Sonoma was built to make homes for colonists brought from Mexico to settle the area. The old mission church, now without a missionary, was kept in repair for a while, but gradually was looted by the locals and the adobe wall gradually eroded.
A new adobe church was built in 1841 as a parish church on the site of Father Altimira’s original wooden structure. In 1845, the buildings were offered by Governor Pico but nobody was interested. In 1846, Mexican rule of California ended in a dramatic series of events. A group of American settlers throughout the Sacramento Valley formed a loose organization to set up an independent republic in the province. With help of Captain Fremont, they seized Sonoma, imprisoned General Vallejo and than raised a flag with a crude likeness of a bear and the words “California Republic”. Before the native Californians could do battle with the Bear Flag insurgents, the United States Marines landed in Monterey and the war between Mexico and the United States took over.
After occupation, Mission Solano was briefly operated as a parish church. But in 1881 the property was too dilapidated to salvage and it was sold with the money being used to build a new church in another part of the town. The purchaser used the priests house for a wine-making shop and the former church for hay storage. The monastery later became a blacksmith shop.
In 1903, the Historic Landmarks League intervened by purchasing the property. In 1906, the earthquake severely damaged the church itself and it was repaired until 1911 when the state provided funds to restore. In 1926, the League turned the property over to the state and it became part of the Division of Beaches and Parks. In 1943-1944 further restoration took place. Now known as the Sonoma Mission State Historic Park, it has a museum well stocked with exhibits from the mission days.
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