San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo Mission

January 6, 2011

Whilst in California for my honeymoon (where I visited Hearst Castle), I also spent an afternoon sightseeing around the Carmel Mission, formally known as the San Carlos de Borroméo de Carmelo Mission. The mission dates back to 1771 when it was founded by Father Junipero Serra. For those of you not familiar with the California missions, they dot the California coast line, testaments to the early Catholic settlers in that region. Fourth graders in the state of California do a project each year about the missions, and when this art historian was a kid, she did her project on the Carmel Mission. I lived in San Diego at the time and so this was my first opportunity to see the mission in person. Trust me, it is much more interesting than the four foot wall hanging I made of it for my school project (although I’m pretty proud of that too!).

The main mission was partially destroyed in the mid-19th century, but was restored in 1884 and retains much of the original parish. The entire mission is enclosed by a low stucco wall which matches the materials used for the various structures. The roofs use Spanish-style red bricks and create a lovely visual break from the homes which now surround the mission. The two bell towers, one larger and domed, the other smaller and square, give the parish an appealing façade, wile the star shaped window reminded me of the star over Bethlehem.

Just inside the walls (once you pay the small entrance fee) there is a beautiful garden filled with some of Califonia’s most succulent greenery and flowers. There is also a pleasant fountain in the garden’s center, offering visitors a sunny place to sit and get the best view of the church itself.

The interior of the parish has a distinct feel of Spanish Catholicism: it is relatively sparse, dotted with a few religious images and prayer candles. The alter is the clear focal point with a wall covered in brightly painted wood and numerous three-dimensional religious figures.  It reminded me of many scenes of Christ in heaven, but here the artists used wood carvings rather than flat, painted figures.

There are also several pseudo-life-size dolls of the Virgin Mary and Christ placed away from the altar. I found these startling and a little unsettling, but admired their elaborate costumes. It was clear, looking around, that this is still a place of worship and parishioners are not to be distracted from their prayers.

As we wandered through the rest of the mission complex, we found a large open courtyard which connects the old barracks for parish employees and the Junipero Serra School, which still functions today. There was another large fountain in the center of this space as well as long, open corridors and a few relics from the mission’s early days.

Just before leaving, we visited the tomb of Junipero Serra, who was interred within the mission. This was my husband’s favorite element of the mission. It made the building seem more real and significant than just the architecture had. It also helped us realize why the main street in Carmel is called Junipero Street, something we had been discussing all week and which finally made sense.

You must leave the mission through the gift shop, which is filled with rather severe religious postcards and numerous prayer beads and which we politely declined. As we passed through, we heard a woman inquiring whether the parish allowed wedding ceremonies. The answer was yes, and I thought how lovely it would be to get married somewhere with so much history!

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