Everything you need when planing a vacation trip to San Francisco
The altar dating from 1796 in Mission Dolores

MISSION DOLORES

Mission Dolores and the basilica

In a Nutshell...

Misión San Francisco de Asís, popularly known as Mission Dolores, is the oldest building in San Francisco. It dates back to 1791 when the Spanish were building a chain of 21 self supporting mission communities up the California coast to strengthen the empire's hold on the territory and to spread Christianity to the native population. The building that you see standing today is the exact same one that was built over 200 years ago and still contains the atmosphere of the early years of Spanish colonization.

Pros:

  • The church is little changed from its early days
  • Its small museum underlines the area's humble beginnings

Cons:

  • The stream of tourist buses can make it hard to get in touch with the mission's primitive provincial ambiance.

Hours

  • Monday - Friday, 9:00 am - 4:30 pm (closed for the noon hour)
  • Saturday, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm
  • Sunday, 9:00 am to 3:00 pm

Admission

  • Adults $5
  • Seniors & Students $3

Location

Neighborhood: Mission (not surprising)

3321 16th Street (between Dolores St & Landers St)

San Francisco, CA 94114

(415) 621-8203 / MissionDolores.org

 


View Mission Doloris in a larger map

 

Some Mission Dolores highlights ...

The Church

Inside the church at Mission Dolores

 

As we said in the introduction, the Mission’s church is original, not a rebuild like many of the old Californian Spanish missions.  This fact is all the more remarkable when one remembers it is a unreinforced dried mud brick structure and its proximity to the San Andreas Fault.  That this structure with its primitive construction techniques, survived the great 1906 earthquake was seen by some as a miracle.  Structural engineers tell us that at least in part, its primitive construction helps explain why it stood. Construction materials such as iron nails were in short supply in these parts in 1791, so they lashed the roof timbers together with rawhide. This gave the roof some flexibility that may have helped it to ride out the waves of the great quake, as well as the three other major quakes it survived.

 

The Altars

One of the side altars in Mission Dolores

 

Covering the end wall of the sanctuary is a large reredos made in Mexico and installed in the church in 1796. Its style is early baroque, which was considered passé by the 1790’s in Europe’s cultural centers, but here in Alta California, a world away, on the edge of colonial New Spain, the fine points of fashion were undoubtedly not so important. One can only imagine the effect this altarpiece had on the Indians and rough frontier men who worshiped before it.


There are two side alters containing three figures each, that joined the main altarpiece in 1810.

 

The Basilica

The Basilica Mission Dolores in San Francisco

 

While the mission church is original, the basilica that sits next to it is a rebuild. The original basilica was shaken to the ground during the 1906 earth quake. The present building was finished in 1918. It is open to the public and it is worth a step inside if for no other reason than provide contrast with the rustic frontier church.

 

You may find the stained glass windows interesting – they depict Saint Francis of Assisi, the city’s name sake, the California Missions as well as Father Serra who also stands outside, high above the building’s main door.


This parish church was elevated to the status of Basilica by Pope Pius XII during his visit in 1952.

 

The Cemetery

Father J unipero Serra in the cemetery of the Mission Dolores

 

The mission cemetery is one of only two in San Francisco (the other one is the military cemetery in the Presidio.)  In its center, stands a statue of Father Serra. You may notice that this statue is the same as the one of him high above the main door to the basilica.  Father Serra is so honored for being the founder of the California Missions. He is not buried in this cemetery, but in the Carmel Mission.


The grave markers mostly date from the gold rush era, although burials continued until the 1890’s.  The earliest graves dating back to the mission era (the first burial being in 1776) were marked with wooden crosses which have long since deteriorated. At one point the unmarked graves were consolidated. There were thousands of Indians buried in the mission cemetery, but their graves are mostly under the school parking lot directly behind the mission.

 

El Camino Real

 

The bell marking El Camino Real in front of Mission DoloresWhen the Spanish built the string of missions from San Diego to Sonoma, just north of San Francisco, one of the main objectives was to make the California territory accessible to travelers and thereby open it to development. The missions were placed about a day's journey apart so travelers could move from safe harbor to safe harbor along a trail linking them. This 600 mile long trail was named El Camino Real, or, in English, The King's Highway.

 

After Mexico won its independence from Spain, naturally, it did not want to refer to any road as being the King's, so the name El Camino Real was dropped. But with Mission Revival Movement of the early 20th century, the public developed an interest in romantic stories about the mission era and the road was again called by its original name. Starting in 1906, it was marked with some 450 bell markers made up of a pole in the shape of a shepherd's crook, to remind one of the Franciscan fathers who used them as walking sticks, and a bell. A bell marker was placed in front of each mission and about a mile apart along most of the old road. Over the years most of the bells disappeared until there were only some 105 left. In 2005 a program was implemented to restore them and mark this part of California historical heritage.

 

Today, the bell you see in front of the mission is one of the original bell markers and you will see many others as you drive up and down Highway 101.

 

The Indians

 

The Indian hut in the cemetery of Mission DoloresIn the center of the mission's cemetery stands a replica of an Ohlone hut. The Ohlone were the people who lived in the area before the Spanish arrived. Their culture had survived for some 6,000 years in the area before the Spanish and seemed to be quite stable. But that was all about to change as they were devastated by culture shock and old world diseases that they had no defenses against. Measles and syphilis were the most deadly. In the spring of 1804, a great measles epidemic swept through their population taking about one quarter of their lives. And again in 1826 they faced another deadly measles outbreak. By the 1850's the Ohlone people, whose territory, just 100 years earlier, had ranged from the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula to Big Sur, had been reduced to less the 1,000 people.

 

One more disturbing side note: after Mexico took over the administration of Alta California, and secularized the mission in 1834, the Indians that had joined the mission were supposed to receive ownership of much of its lands, but in the end few received anything.

 

bottem of the shadow

 

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