The San Luis Rey Mission celebrated its 215th anniversary in 2013, being formally dedicated June 13, 1798. The Mission was founded by Fathers Lasuen, Santiago and Peyri, under the leadership of Fray Junipero Serra. The task of building the mission was delegated to Fr. Antonio Peyri.
Named Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, it was known as the "King of the Missions" because of its size and the land it occupied. The Mission building was a large structure and encompassed over six acres, surrounded by 200,000 acres. The location has a commanding view and was called by the Indians "Icayme," which means "fairview."
The Native Americans who lived in this area, now known as Oceanside and San Luis Rey, were part of the Shoshone tribe. The Franciscan Fathers called the Indians "San Luisenos", later shortened to Luiseno. They were essential in the building of the Mission under the direction of Peyri as they were tasked with making the adobe bricks and tiles.
At one time the Mission San Luis Rey owned 22,010 head of cattle, 23,532 sheep, and over 8,000 head of horse stock, more than any other mission. The glory days would soon be over, however, when in 1833 the Decree of Secularization was issued by Mexican Governor Jose Echeandia, and in 1835 all of the Missions had been secularized. The missions were turned into parishes and the lands were sold or gifted to colonists and members of the military and politicos who established large ranchos.
In May of 1846 Governor Pico sold the Mission for $2,437 and what little was left was further plundered and left to decay and ruin.
Captain John Fremont assigned John Bidwell to secure the mission in 1846 after the war between Mexico and the U.S. Later that year, Kit Carson and Captain Stephen Kearny arrived at Mission San Luis Rey and set up camp. In 1847 Captain Kearny’s troops arrive at the mission and the Mormon Battalion reach the Mission just weeks later. In 1849 an army squadron built military barracks at the mission.
In 1851 1st Lieutenant Cave Johnson Couts is assigned to the Mission San Luis Rey. In 1853 Couts moved to Rancho Guajome which was given as a wedding present to his wife Ysidoa Bandini.
After troops withdrew the Mission was left vulnerable to civilians. By 1860, settlers in the valley began to use brick from the outer walls of the Mission to build their homes, including roof tiles and wooden beams. Left exposed to the rain and elements, the Mission walls soon eroded, columns collapsed. The altar had been stolen and even the front doors were taken off their hinges.
On March 18, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation giving the Mission San Luis Rey back to the Catholic Church. However, the proclamation only returned the Mission buildings and 64 acres.
In the 1870s the San Luis Rey Township is established just to the west of the Mission and eventually has its own post office, general store, hotel and creamery. Settlers from across the country as well as England and France settle in the valley and begin farming.
By 1879 it was reported that sixty families had settled around the Mission San Luis Rey. They included James M. Griffin, Herbert Crouch, D.C. Pitts, Tomas Alvarado, D.R. Foss, E. Ormsby, and the Freeman family. The paper also noted the township boasted of livery stable and a large school house, with nearly 30 children in attendance.
With a growing population both in the valley and the new town of Oceanside, the San Luis Rey Star newspaper reported in 1885 that “Rev. Jos. Mut from San Juan, held service at the old Mission Church at San Luis Rey on Sunday last.”
In August of 1889 a Fiesta was held at the mission to honor Feast Day. The festivities began with the celebration of mass, by Rev. A. E. Ubach of San Diego. After mass, eleven infants were christened “at the baptismal fount of Mission times.” Preparation for the Fiesta included construction of brush houses, a 300-yard race track, eating and drinking houses and the and the courtyard “fixed up for the bull and bear fight.” In the evening, Luiseno Indians dances were featured which included the fire dance, the game of peon and the bride's dance.
Isaac J. Frazee started a fund to help with a restoration plan but the Mission continued to deteriorate. Help came in 1893 when Father Joseph Jeremiah O'Keefe arrived to oversee the restoration of the historic mission. O'Keefe was a native of Ireland, coming to San Francisco as a boy. He was ordained as a priest in 1868 and stationed at Mission Santa Barbara for nearly twenty five years before coming to San Luis Rey. He was fluent in English and Spanish, but spoke both with an Irish brogue. With a small budget of $5,000 O'Keefe set to restoring the King of Missions to its former glory.
On May 12, 1893 the mission church was rededicated with more than 300 people in attendance. Later that year the local newspaper reported that “Work is progressing on the mission. The walls are being strengthened, a new dome and roof will be put on and the towers restored; in all about $5,000 will be spent in order to make this historic relic fit for occupancy the coming winter.”
In 1899 Tomasa Huisch died and was buried in the Mission San Luis Rey cemetery. Tomasa was a Luiseno Indian and along with two to three other women, were deemed the “Belles of San Luis Rey.” Visitors to the Mission would gather around the women as they told stories of the early days of the Mission. Tomasa was “known to be more than a hundred years old” in 1895 and she claimed that she packed adobes bricks when the mission was built. The women lived by themselves at the rancheria on the north side of the river near San Luis Rey mission.
Restoration and rebuilding continue under Father O’Keefe’s direction which included living quarters that formed a small quadrangle, about one-fourth the size of the original. After 19 years of dedicated service, Father O’Keefe left San Luis Rey in 1912 to serve at Santa Barbara where he later died on August 13, 1915.
According to the “Chronicles of San Luis Rey”, on February 12, 1913 the Very Rev. P. Benedict Schmidt OFM (Provincial) donated the statue of St. Louis the King to be placed in the center niche on the front of the church. On July 25, 1913 the statute of San Luis Rey was blessed and placed in the niche over the main entrance to the church.
In Aug of 1913 the restoration of the ruined chapel on the east side of the church was begun by Antonio Leyva of Santa Barbara. Until that time the chapel was essentially roofless for fifteen years.
On August 31, 1924 the newly restored patio with Fr. Peyri's fountain was opened to the public as restoration and rebuilding continued. Other restoration projects listed in the San Luis Rey Chronicles included: Corridors cemented; interior of the church decorated; two wings west of the church connected; upper corridors plastered; vault built; drainage system built in the patio; kitchen remodeled; rooms repaired; electricity installed; fountain erected; new reservoir begun; door made in the Sacristy; septic tank finished. In addition it was noted that several acres were leveled for alfalfa and that two acres of the Gomez property purchased and property bought from the county below the school joining the highway (Mission Road).
On July 22, 1926 the Mission Bell tower collapsed. The newspaper described the event: “With a crash that could be heard for a considerable distance, and just as the big bell gave the call for early mass this morning, the entire southeast corner of the campanile or bell tower at the San Luis Rey Mission fell to the ground. The portion of the tower that is wrecked is comparatively new work that was laid when the tower was repaired about 1897, the original portion built by the padres in the early days standing unshaken. For some time past a crack has been noticeable between the old brickwork and the rebuilt portion and this grew steadily wider until it finally parted at the joining and the many tons of huge bricks of the more modern portion slid off. In the tower were several bells, among them the large one originally placed there when the Mission was completed, and these fell with the brickwork. None was hurt by the falling debris and the damage is thought to be not much in excess of a thousand dollars.”
On May 8, 1927 the new bell tower was dedicated by Father Augustine of the Santa Barbara Mission. The Pala Indians asked for permission to give a barbecue “in order to have a share in the restoration of this Mission, which was the home of their forefathers.”
In 1929, a large barn for hay, horses, cows and implements was built. One of the barn’s builder’s, Hubert Schlickum, was a native of Germany born in 1897. He made his novitiate in Holland and came to the United States in about 1921. For six years he worked in Arizona, constructing and repairing chapels and dwellings of Native Americans. On December 8, 1927 Schlickum, who was known as Brother Benedict, took solemn vows at the Mission San Luis Rey. He was an expert craftsman and woodworker and built hand-carved altars. He served at the Mission San Luis Rey for thirteen years building and reconditioning the church and other buildings. His barn still stands and is one of the few remaining barns still standing in the San Luis Rey Valley.
Other projects completed in 1929 included a new approach to the Mission from the highway, restrooms built, the cemetery wall in front extended, heating installed, and the old barracks were partly uncovered.
The Chronicles of San Luis Rey note that Brother Benedict began the work on enlarging the church choir on February 27, 1930. He helped to put a new roof on the building, remodel the kitchen and other areas of work needed around the Mission. In October of 1931 Benedict built new confessionals for the Church. In the process of installing them, he discovered two places in the wall “which formerly had been used for Confessions many years ago”.
In 1931 an entire new roof was completed. Lescher and Mahoney, of Phoenix, Arizona, architects were hired to do the work at a cost of $30,000. Later that year Ralph Young uncovered a well that was covered with a large gargoyle which was located a few feet below the steps leading to the sunken garden. It was reported that the gargoyle was removed and placed in Peryi’s Court.
World War II had an impact on life at the Mission. The priest wrote down his thoughts on January 1, 1943. “High Mass at 10 o’clock, fair attendance. Weather perfect, no rain in sight. Holidays were very quiet this year due to conditions in the world. Hope and pray New Year will bring peace. There is still a God above. Listened to football game played at Rose Bowl Pasadena between Georgia and U.C.L.A. score 9 to 0 in favor of Georgia. Very few visitors today. A perfect day in every respect. Closed the day with Holy Hour. Many improvements are being made on the farm. Better quarters for the animals. Finished reading “The Golden Fleece,” found it most interesting as I like history, especially of old imperial families. It is interesting to note how the world changes. At present it appears that Emperors and Kings, courts, Dukes and all such are on the decline. God knows best. History repeats itself. No reports from the fighting front. Must we live through another year of blood and hate? God knows. The Guayule Plantation Project now in progress in San Luis Rey Valley is changing the aspect and quietude of this valley. Many strangers are coming in and San Luis Rey is beginning to show a little life.”
On June 2, 1949 ground was broken for the construction of the San Luis Rey Franciscan College. It was to be built on the foundation of the original west and north wings of the mission quadrangle. The new work was linked with existing structures, previously restored between 1900 and 1930. Adobe brick, made to the original Indian size of 4 by 11 by 22 inches, was used construction and to strengthen and reinforce the old arches. The mechanized brick manufacturing plant of the Adobe Construction Co. moved from Escondido to San Luis Rey to make the brick from the soil on the site. The following year the new college dormitories and classrooms were dedicated on June 25, 1950 by Lt. Gov. Goodwin J. Knight.
In 1970 the Mission San Luis Rey is designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. That year the retreat center was opened.
To mark its 200th birthday in 1998, the King of Missions, celebrated with four performances by the Vatican Choir, the only time the 485-year-old Capella Giulia has performed outside Europe.
In August of 1998 the Mission San Luis Rey held what it called its “final” fiesta. For Decades, the Mission held the annual event which was highlighted by a horseback ride onto the Mission grounds by the Caballeros Del Camino Real. The “Days of San Luis Rey” was a popular event hosted by longtime residents including John Steiger, hearkening back to the days of the early fiestas and the glory day of the Mission San Luis Rey.
Today restoration of the Mission continues with a multi-million dollar retrofit project. Careful removal of the adobe roof tiles was the first step of the project and that process revealed many of the original tiles fashioned by the Luisenos still in place.
One hundred and twenty years ago Mission restoration began with Father Jeremiah O’Keefe and now the important retrofit and repair continues under the watchful eye of Father David Gaa.
By Kristi Hawthorne, President of the Oceanside Historical Society