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Mission San Luis Rey de Francia (“Saint Louis, King of France”) is in Oceanside, in north San Diego County. It’s the eighteenth of the 21 missions Spanish Franciscan friars built to bring the blessings of salvation and civilization to the natives of California. That seems a bit surprising, considering that San Luis Rey is only 67 kilometers north of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first California mission. (The freeways on which you would make that journey today mostly follow the route of El Camino Real, the Spanish “royal road” that connected the missions.)
The current mission complex is not the one Father Fermin Lasuén founded on 13 June 1798. Though it’s the third church on the Mission site, it is an authentic relic of the Spanish colonial era, built between 1811 and 1815. Its unique architectural features include a Moorish-inspired wooden cupola.
San Luis Rey acquired the sobriquet “the King of the Missions” early in its history. That’s because the Mission was the largest in California. Its grounds originally included some 384,450 hectares of farmland worked by the Payómkawichum Indians. (The mission now occupies 23 hectares.) Following the standard Franciscan practice of renaming Indian groups after the missions that “served” them, the Payómkawichum became the Luiseño*.
Another possible reason for the nickname is that the Mission’s patron saint was the French king Louis IX, who reigned in the 13th century. Some people today might call him a religious fanatic. He wore a hair shirt under his royal robes, and regularly mortified his flesh with a scourge. (Both items are in the collection of holy relics at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.) He expanded the power of the Inquisition in France, and burned Jewish books. He also led two crusades, the second of which resulted in his death— not by martyrdom in battle to liberate the Holy Land, but from dysentery. To be fair, Louis made France the wealthiest and most influential kingdom in Europe, and was a patron of arts and culture. The exquisite stained glass windows of the Sainte-Chappelle, Louis’ personal “Holy Chapel” on the Île de la Cité in Paris, might impress even a devout atheist.
Pope Boniface VIII canonized King Louis as a saint in 1297, proclaiming him the very model of a medieval monarch. Besides the Mission, the city of Saint Louis, Missouri is named for him. Mission San Luis Rey (as it’s most commonly called) is not to be confused with Mission San Luis Obispo. That one was named for the other Saint Louis, the Bishop of Toulouse who happened to be King Louis’ nephew.
Unlike most California missions, much of of San Luis Rey is off-limits to visitors. This mission is more than a historical monument. It’s an active parish church that includes an actual Franciscan friary. The friars, in their coarse brown robes, look as if they stepped through a time warp from the eighteenth century. San Luis Rey is also a retreat for Catholics looking for spiritual enlightenment, and a venue for conferences and meetings of Catholic organizations.
You can can walk freely around the exterior of the Mission, the adjacent cemetery, and the church. There is also a museum with Spanish-era artifacts. But you can only peek into the landscaped cuadrángulo (quadrangle courtyard) to view the tranquil colonnaded outside passages of the friary and retreat center, originally built to house a seminary when the Mission was restored at the end of the nineteenth century.
Amid the cobblestones and flowers in the courtyard is the oldest pepper tree in California. Although this species (Schinus molle) is now so iconic and ubiquitous that it’s often called the “California pepper tree,” it’s actually native to South America. Father Antonio Peyri planted the first grove of pepper trees in California at the Mission in 1830, using seeds a sailor brought from Peru. This is the only tree that survived the abandonment and ruin of the Mission after Mexico gained independence, sent the Franciscans back to Spain, and “secularized” (i.e., appropriated) all the mission properties.
The Mission cemetery, a walled enclosure adjacent to the church, has been in continuous use since 1798. It has accumulated a diverse collection of graves, markers, and memorials in a variety of shapes, sizes, and quality of workmanship, reflecting all the strata of Spanish, Mexican, and American societies. An 1830 memorial commemorates the many anonymous Indians buried in the cemetery. The Franciscans did not consider Indian “neophytes” worthy of individual grave markers.
A mausoleum in the base of the church’s bell tower contains the crypts of Franciscans who have served at the Mission. The crypts have uniform and appropriately austere markings that note only each occupant’s name and dates of birth and death. Although the mausoleum is only partially visible through a locked gate, I noticed that the wording on the crypts abruptly changed from Latin to English in the 1960s, apparently mirroring the Second Vatican Council’s mandated shift from Latin to vernacular liturgy.
*The Franciscans didn’t rename Indian tribes just because they couldn’t pronounce the native names. It was part of an official Spanish government policy of systematically eradicating the cultures of indigenous peoples in their New World territories. Sanitized official versions of history avoid the reality that the missions were very much like the plantations in the American South before the Civil War. Indian “neophytes”— the Franciscans’ term for new converts— were essentially slaves, whose agricultural and manufacturing labor provisioned the Spanish military as well as the Franciscans. That’s why Mission San Luis Rey needed 384,450 hectares of land.
The Franciscans did not explicitly consider neophytes as slaves, but as “spiritual children.” Neophytes were forbidden to leave mission grounds, and were subject to severe beatings at the whims of the friars. Indians at the missions thus availed themselves of any opportunity to rebel against their Spanish masters. San Luis Rey had no major rebellions, but the Payómkawichum suffered large population losses from mistreatment and European diseases.
That said, judging historical behavior by today’s standards can be problematic. The treatment of Indians by the Franciscans and the Spanish military reflected the norms and beliefs of 18th century European rulers and the Catholic Church. Similarly, King Louis IX (for whom Mission San Luis Rey is named) would have been regarded in the 13th century only as a pious and saintly prince, as fervent religious zeal was unquestionably a revered virtue in the “Age of Faith.”