Step Into History at Oceanside’s Mission San Luis Rey

Step Into History at Oceanside’s Mission San Luis Rey

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

Kimberly Hayek

Kimberly Hayek

5/4/2024

Updated: 5/5/2024

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia—called the “king” of California missions—sits in a sheltered valley 10 minutes east of Coast Highway and downtown Oceanside just off Highway 76, a four-lane expressway that extends from Oceanside, through Bonsall and past Fallbrook in San Diego’s northeast, all the way east to Lake Henshaw.
All around the white Spanish-Colonial Mission, home to California’s sole remaining European Gothic cathedral, wildflowers and jacarandas dot the hillsides, blooming among the tall, lush green and gold grasses from the 30 inches in winter rain.
Founded in 1798, the San Luis Rey Mission was the 18th and largest of the 21 original missions established by Spain in California. The mission bore witness to the Spanish colonial period, the Mexican era, and the beginnings of California’s statehood. Considered a National Historic Landmark for its importance to the Spanish and Mexican heritage of the western United States, San Luis Rey de Francia still functions today as a parish church, Franciscan college, retreat space, and conference center. During the week, the grounds are not as busy with visitors and tourists.
Padre Fermín de Francisco Lasuén de Arasqueta, who founded the mission, was drawn by the safety of the valley, the proliferation of building resources and water, as well as the nearby Luiseno indigenous Americans, who provided labor.
As visitors pull into the mission’s driveway, a future archaeological site sits just to the east. Perhaps one day, pottery, jars, and other artifacts will be found on the dirt lot. To the west, an open field is located, with old ruins and statues that dance in the late afternoon’s golden rays.
From the parking lot, where two school buses are parked, the cathedral proper is but a short walk. The main facade mixes baroque and classic styles. A 75-foot bell tower on the eastern corner rang in the 1880s with a chorus of eight bells throughout the day. Only four bells ring today within the belfry, every half hour.
An arrangement of colorful succulents, cacti plants, and green, orange, red, and purple desert flowers lines the mission’s walkways. U.S., Mexican, and Spanish flags whip in the wind from white poles.
The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The cruciform cathedral greets visitors with hand-carved wooden doors and hand-painted walls and murals. Inside, red, gold, and sky-blue colors decorate the walls. A few people sit on the pews. Things are mostly quiet, except for the periodic laughter of field-tripping children echoing by the veranda. An opening at the center of a dome above lets in the light.
The first church here was a small adobe building in the same style as most Spanish missions. The mission’s success at converting people to Catholicism predicated the need for a bigger adobe church with a tiled roof. Its main walls were 30 feet high and 5 feet thick with an adobe interior and baked brick exterior.
On the western side of the building, a saunter past the museum (where the Abraham Lincoln-signed document granting the missions back to the Catholic Church is housed), leads to California’s oldest pepper tree—planted in 1830—beyond an entryway along the mission’s western wall and amid the ruins of former buildings. A sailor from Peru who stayed at the mission gave the friars seeds as a token of his appreciation which Friar Antonio Peyri planted. The tree was used by indigenous peoples and European settlers for food flavoring, infusing beverages, treating ailments, and tanning leather.
The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The cemeteries lie sprawling to the east and northeast of the church. An entire section is dedicated to children who have passed away—many of them newborns and infants. Almost every tombstone has stuffed animals, flowers, and pinwheels. A family of grieving parents and grandparents gather around one of the tombstones looking somber.
In the most eastern courtyard, a dead hummingbird laid itself to rest between the middle and ring finger of a seated Saint Francis of Assisi. The sculpture is one of many enjoying the expansive gardens and surrounding churches. A sculpture of a woman is one of the few with a placard: “Rachel—weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted for them because they are gone. You are gone but not forgotten.”
The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The quadrangle, now a beautiful garden, used to hold bullfights. A descent down dozens of red tile steps leads you to the 200-year-old lavanderia, a five-acre spot that was once a bathhouse and open-air laundry.
The San Luis River water once flowed from the mouths of gargoyles made of stone here and watered the gardens with an early irrigation system. Also on the grounds are the ruins of soldiers’ barracks.
The land is generous. There’s a lot of open space for young children to run around freely within the various courtyards. While the bustling highway and nearby plaza plant visitors firmly in the present day, they can just about close their eyes and be teleported back to a time of horses and carriages when the Luiseno and Spanish Franciscans brought the mission to life.
The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

The San Luis Rey Mission de Francia in Oceanside, Calif. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

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