Like time capsules, the 21 California missions, between San Diego and Sonoma, offer a glimpse into the distinct cultures of the Native American people, Spanish missionaries and townspeople, whose lives intersected with one another in days gone by. Fortunately for SLO CAL visitors, two historic missions stand in San Luis Obispo and San Miguel, both beautifully preserved and active today.
Founded on September 1, 1772 by Father Junipero Serra, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa represents the fifth mission established in California, named after Saint Louis, Bishop of Toulouse. The building, a long L-shape with a portico running parallel to San Luis Obispo Creek, boasts a vibrant rose garden to the rear, an excellent museum and gift shop and a nave, which has an interior perimeter that is artfully painted with colorful flowers and local birds. The plaza outside the mission’s doors remains the center of town, featuring festivals, concerts and other events throughout the year.
At the northernmost end of San Luis Obispo County lies Mission San Miguel Arcangel, the 16th mission that was established on July 25, 1797 by Father Fermin Lasuen. Covering the 6-foot-thick interior walls of this historic property are original frescoes from the 1800s, painted by Native Americans, and considered to be the most authentic and best-conserved frescoes of all the California Missions. Such preservation is miraculous considering the devastating effects of an earthquake in 2003, which forced the mission to close until its reopening six years later. Today, Mission San Miguel Arcangel is once again a bustling parish, hosting concerts, events and festivals, as well as overseeing ongoing restoration efforts.
The bright and vibrant interior frescos of the church were painted by native Indians under the supervision of Esteban Munras of Catalonia, Spain. The inside of the church has never been repainted. The pictures and murals we see today are original and considered to be the most authentic and well preserved in the mission chain.
Outside the church stands the mission cemetery, where 2,000 Indians are buried alongside a bronze statue of Christ. The mission museum features a 16th-century Spanish wood carving of the mission patron saint, Saint Michael, who was victorious over Lucifer. The garden corridor is 230 square feet and includes three sides of the mission quadrangle. Meanwhile, the nearby bell tower stands as it did in the early 1800s.
Between 1845 and 1870, secularization tore apart the complex as the mission property was distributed among the Indians. Surrounding buildings, except the church and priest quarters, were sold to individuals. Mission rooms were converted to commercial stores, such as hotels, offices and saloons.
On the morning of December 22, 2003, the Central California Coast was hit by a powerful earthquake. Mission San Miguel, just 35 miles from the epicenter, was severely damaged. Numerous cracks appeared in the Mission’s walls, rendering the building off-limits to the public. On October 2, 2009, following extensive renovations, the church, along with the cemetery, marked its public reopening. Considered one of the 11 most endangered places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, full preservation of the mission compound is ongoing.