Mission San Juan Bautista

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Mission San Juan Bautista (John the Baptist)

A brief history

The Mission San Juan Bautista is the 15th mission founded in California. It was founded on June 24, 1797 by Friar Fermin Lasuen. Named for John the Baptist.

Mission San Juan Bautista’s location was selected only a scant thirteen days after founding the Mission San Jose. The mission grew fast and the natives were so friendly and willing to assist that in only six months, they had an adobe church, granary, barracks, a monastery and even adobe homes. A short while after that, the padres considered to build either a new church or enlarge the existing one when a series of earthquakes over a twenty day period of time collapsed the existing church. The padres then rebuilt and enlarged it.

Unfortunately, even that was not big enough, so on June 13, 1803 the cornerstone of a new church was laid. This church was designed to be to be large but destiny made it even larger. In 1808, Father Felipe del Arroyo de la Cuesta arrived; he convinced the builders that a larger building was necessary. So instead of the customary long narrow nave and center aisle, a huge edifice was erected, with three aisles and room for over a thousand people. But fear of another earthquake again changed plans, a fearing the open arched walls would not support the heavy roof, they closed all the arches, creating once again, a single aisle church. This church was dedicated on June 23, 1812.

Fear of the earthquakes was justified; the church is built right on the edge of the San Andreas fault line. Although the work done to protect the mission is of questionable value, the mission has stood for over 200 years while others have not survived. In 1906, the big earthquake hit and walls fell. The church was repaired with steel and concrete, combined with some cross-bracing and is now much safer.

The interior of the church was continued through 1817 when the floor was tiled and then Thomas Doak, the first Anglo-American resident in the province and an American sailor who jumped ship in Monterey, completed the main altar and reredos. He painted the reredos in exchange for room and board when the original artist demanded seventy-five cents a day.

Padre Esteban Tapis is buried in the sanctuary of the church. He was, at one time, Presidente of the Missions and he is founder of the Mission Santa Ines. When he retired, he arrived at San Juan Bautista where his musical skill created a choir and created a system of using colored notes for the different voices to follow in his choir books. Two of his handwritten choir books are on exhibit today still. As early as 1814 a town grew up around the mission and while the area surrounding the mission is now a state monument, the church itself has remained and is still an active church serving the mostly Spanish-speaking parish.

To north of the church is a cemetery bordered by one of the few remains of the original El Camino Real, the first road of California. This cemetery contains the remains of over 4,000 Christian Native Americans and Europeans.

In 1935 the mission was secularized and much of the mission property was seized by the Mexican government. In 1895, the present mission buildings and 55 acres were given back to the Church by Federal decree of the United States government. San Juan Bautista has the only original Spanish Plaza remaining in California.

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