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The goal of the Spanish padres was to convert the native people of California to Christianity. For this reason, the church was the most important building in the mission compound. It was usually the first building constructed. At most missions, the church occupied a place of honor at the northeast corner of the mission quadrangle. It was always the tallest building in the mission compound.

The church building was long and narrow. The width of the main room of the church was often determined by the height of tree trunks that were available to use as the roof beams.

Windows were placed high up along the side walls. This helped to prevent thieves from breaking into the church. It also made the walls stronger by having less weight of adobe bricks over the window openings. The windows were covered with specially treated rawhide rather than with glass, so the inside of the church was rather dim. Candles were used to light the church. There were also small candles called votives which were lit in gratitude to a saint, or as a request for a special favor.

While most of the mission buildings were very plain inside and out, the church was decorated as richly as possible. The padres felt that a beautiful church was an honor to God, and that it helped people to worship better. On the inside walls, designs were painted in bright colors. The Native California workers who did much of the painting often used the same designs in the church that they were accustomed to using on their baskets.

The colors the painters used -- red, blue, green, yellow -- were made with dyes from plants or minerals. Berries, mosses, flowers, and soil were used to make dyes. Minerals such as copper, iron ore, and ocher were ground into powder and mixed with cactus juice to make green, red, and yellow dyes. Sometimes the designs were of leaves, flowers, and vines. Often the designs were borders of geometric shapes. A good example of the painted walls can be seen at Mission San Miguel, where the bright colors have been preserved.

Some designs were copied from churches in Spain or Mexico. The padres wanted the mission churches to be as elegant as European cathedrals, so they sometimes had the walls painted to look like they were made of marble. Fake columns, balconies, arches and draperies were drawn on the walls with such fine perspective that they looked real. The fourteen Stations of the Cross (pictures showing events in the crucifixion of Christ) were hung or painted on the long inside walls.

The long narrow main room of the church, called the nave, had an altar (table) at one end, placed in a raised area called the apse. At the back of the apse, behind the altar, was a screen or wall called a reredos. The altar and the reredos were richly carved or painted, and sometimes covered with thin gold (gold leaf).

The reredos often had openings in it for statues of the saints. A railing separated the apse and altar from the rest of the church. A small room at the side of the church was called the sacristy. The sacred vessels and robes were kept here.

In the church were many religious images (pictures, statues, and crosses) to help the people understand the things that the padres taught them about the Catholic religion. Each mission had one special name saint, whose statue had the place of greatest honor in the church. The statues were brought from Spain or Mexico.

Within the church were kept whatever treasures the mission possessed. There were candlesticks and bowls made of silver or gold, and beautifully embroidered cloths on the altar tables. Some of the vestments (robes) that the padres wore on special days were richly decorated. The baptismal font (a basin from which water was sprinkled on the head of a new believer) was made as beautiful as possible.

Some of these fine objects were brought by the padres to California, or sent from Spain or Mexico as gifts to the new mission. Local craftsmen also did elaborate carving from wood and stone for some of the furnishings in the church. The baptismal font at Mission Santa Inez was hammered from zinc and copper by Native California craftsmen. The baptismal font at Mission San Juan Bautista was carved from local sandstone.

The pulpit, behind which the padre stood when he spoke to the people in the church, was sometimes attached to one wall high above the floor of the church. The pulpit was made of richly carved wood, or of wood painted to look like marble. Some pulpits had little canopy roofs over them.

Some mission churches had a choir balcony at the end opposite the altar. Choirs were made up of Indians who enjoyed singing. The padres also trained some of the people to play musical instruments, and they formed orchestras.

Each morning at 6 AM the mission bell called the people to the church. This bell was known as the Angelus bell, calling everyone over nine years of age to prayer each morning and evening.

The floor of the church was covered with adobe tiles. There were no chairs or benches. The people sat or kneeled on the floor, sometimes on mats made of dried tule reed, or on embroidered rugs. Some of the women took great pride in how nicely they had embroidered their church rugs. Women sat on one side of the church; men sat on the other side.

The Native Californians who converted to Christianity at the missions were called neophytes, which means “new grown.” In the mission church, the neophytes listened to the padre say Holy Mass and recite the prayers and doctrines of the Christian faith. Part of the service was in Latin and part in Spanish. Some padres became skilled enough in the native languages to give sermons in those languages.

The church service ended with the singing of a hymn of praise called the Alabado. On feast days and holy days of the Catholic Church, there were special ceremonies and processions. The mission church was also used for weddings and baptisms.

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