Behind the adobe walls of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, there is a complicated history tied to Spanish conquerors, church leaders and Native Americans.
“We really started with the mission era. It’s the beginning of California,” said Connie Pillsbury, who is a docent at the San Luis Obispo Mission.
250 years later, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa still stands.
“A mission is a verb before a noun. It is what we do,” added Father Russell Brown, the San Luis Obispo Mission’s pastor.
The mission system has been a controversial symbol, especially for Native Americans.
“It's a very dark part of our history and the history of California, but also, it is a reflection of where we are,” said Violet Sage Walker, Northern Chumash Tribal Council Chairwoman.
In order to understand the mission’s complicated past, it is important to go back in time to see why the Spanish established the mission system.
“The missions in California were established in the late 18th century, so you had about 200 years of Spanish contact, conquest and colonialization and the mission system was kind of the backbone of the colonization and settlement,” explained Dr. Zachary Mckiernan, a World History Professor at Cuesta College.
According to historians, there was a global competition to settle in California.
“The reason they came up here was that Russia was coming down the northern coast settling with fur trapping and seal hunting and whales and oils,” Pillsbury said. “The king of Spain got word of that, so he said we need to get some people out there in Alta California.”
A so-called Sacred Expedition began along the coast of California.
“Which would come from Mexico City and established 21 missions, each one with two priests," Pillsbury said.
Soldiers were key in these expeditions.
“They would be accompanied by the presidio. The presidio would house a garret of soldiers, again, sort of defensive,” Dr. McKiernan explained.
The incursions devastated indigenous communities, not only because of widespread diseases.
“Women, children and the men were forced to work, women were sold into arranged marriages and for prostitution for soldiers, a lot of people don’t realize how many of our relatives are buried there. It’s a very sad place. It’s a Chumash cemetery,” Walker said.
The first mission was founded in San Diego in 1769 by Saint Junipero Serra.
“He was a man with his own flaws, personal flaws but also a man of great vision,” Fr. Brown said. “A very complicated individual who came here with a vision of what they were trying to do and create a kind of a new community in California.”
Although the San Luis Obispo Mission was not originally planned for, it was established out of necessity in 1772 thanks to grizzly bears.
“During their travels north, they had seen grizzly bears at this lake, Los Osos, so they came back, started hunting the bears to provide meat, beef jerky for the other missions,” Pillsbury said.
And San Luis Obispo became the fifth mission in California.
Its location changed when the original site flooded because it was too close to the creek.
“By 1793, the neophytes, and that is baptized, Catholic Native Americans, lived around the area and worked and it became a big vocational school,” Pillsbury said. “They learned to tend cattle, sheep, garden, tan hides, make wine.”
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, changes were made across the missions.
“All of the Spanish-born males in California under the age of 60 were required to leave by the Mexicans, they wanted to establish a Mexican government in California,” Pillsbury added.
Under Mexican control, missions were secularized.
“The mission was sold for $510 to a Scottish sea captain,” Pillsbury said.
After the Mexican-American war, missions returned to the hands of the Catholic Church. Despite wars and even fires, much of the mission’s structure survived.
“The original sanctuary, priest quarters and padre's kitchen still stand,” Pillsbury said.
The original bell tower was taken down due to an earthquake in 1878.
“And built a New England bell tower in the back,” Pillsbury said.
It was an effort to make people from the East Coast feel more at home. But by 1933, it went back to a Spanish-style bell tower.
“The bells would tell them what time it was, time for mass, when it was time to eat, or they would tell them to come back to the mission in case of an emergency. Those original bells could be heard for 16 miles,” Pillsbury explained.
Nowadays, they still utilize bell ringers.
“There are 19 bell ringers who pull on the ropes and play the bells, so it’s not turned on with an electric switch, it’s a human playing old Franciscan tunes,” Pillsbury added.
The church made of adobe blocks has gone through renovations, many of which were made thanks to a grant given by William Randolph Hearst in 1947.
“It used to be this main wing but over the years, we have added a second wing that runs off 90 degrees and probably doubled our seating, but the principal work we’ve done recently is structural,” Fr. Brown explained. “We had to do some earthquake retrofit.”
The influence of Chumash art is visible to this day.
“Those beams are exactly the same as they were at the very beginning and behind them, the stars are painted on the ceiling. Those are original, those were painted by the Chumash because their belief system was that you access the gods and ancestors through the heavens,” Pillsbury said.
The choir loft is still original to the main church.
“One of the best ways to teach the Native Americans the faith was through music,” Pillsbury said.
The church has some modern touches such as a paint restoration designed by artist Eric Krever, which was completed in 2003.
“The vine of life, the Christian faith and the colors that could’ve been by the indigenous people to make their own paint,” Pillsbury described.
A combination of Native American and Spanish art is present in missions across California.
“It’s a merging of different cultures, different times in history, it’s accommodation, there’s tension,” Dr. McKiernan said.
While there’s much healing yet to be done, Walker said she would like to see a memorial on the mission’s grounds acknowledging the Chumash lives lost.
“It is the first time in history where the governor of California actually apologized to the people for the past atrocities that happened here,” Walker said of the executive order issued by Governor Newsom in 2019.
Moving forward, leaders of Mission San Luis Obispo said they remain committed to keeping their doors open.
“The fact that it has continued to exist here and to do the catechesis and evangelization that was intended from the beginning has kept it a holy work,” Fr. Brown said. “Our desire is to always reach out and to be inclusive and to administer to the people who are here.”
The mission was founded on September 1772, but with it being the 250th anniversary, the site will host several events throughout the year to commemorate this milestone.
One of them will be on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the mission’s courtyard.
There will be an “Early California Life” display for the community to learn more about the mission’s history.
For more information, click here.