Mission Impossible?

A 2003 earthquake left California's San Miguel Arcángel mission fragile and vulnerable. The effort to save it is a battle against politics, nature, and time.


The mission is comprised of several buildings,
including the church and the arched convento wing,
with its 12 columns corresponding to the 12 apostles.

Credit: (Teresa Grimes)

On a quiet sunday in 1964, in a ranch-style house in Los Angeles, a fourth-grader sat at a large dining table assembling his school report on the California missions. Spread before him were library books that he had pedaled home on his red bicycle; scattered sheets of paper covered with loopy, schoolboy script; scissors and glue; a 10-cent binder with fold-down metal tabs; and materials for illustration, mostly mission postcards purchased at the corner drugstore. The boy had worked on his report for weeks, and once finished, it had a satisfying heft. He turned it in the following morning and a week later was pleased to see "A+" written in red pencil on its cover. Next to the grade, the teacher had appended a comment: "I can tell you love the missions."

It was a statement that made me—yes, I was that fourth-grader—scratch my head. Did I love the missions? I didn't think so, but to be honest, the question had never occurred to me. If you grew up in California, these 21 vestiges of Spanish colonialism dating from 1769 to 1823—some partly intact, others totally reconstructed, many in dire need of maintenance, and all but two still active Catholic churches—were simply things you studied in fourth grade and occasionally visited on school outings or family trips. Instead of inspiring singular affection, their whitewashed architecture, ornamental ironwork, and gardens of citrus, palms, and trickling fountains could seem almost too familiar, having been duplicated, with decidedly mixed success, in countless houses and public buildings across the state.

And yet the California missions, the first European settlements in the state, have a way of getting under the skin of even a kid. My fourth-grade teacher had clearly spotted something in me that I had no idea was there, and as I grew older and traveled California on my own, I made wide detours to visit missions that were new to me. Though I've now seen them all, I still brake for missions during trips around the state, taking an hour to wander among musty displays of rough-hewn furniture and faded brocade vestments, to breathe the sadness of a cemetery containing thousands of Indian graves, and to sit silently in a church where flickering votives illuminate wooden saints and a smell of old incense hangs in the air. And in what may be the surest sign that I do indeed love the missions, a favorite—one that has drawn me back at least a dozen times over the years—now weighs heavy on my heart.

San Miguel Arcángel may not be the largest or most beautiful of the California missions, but it is among the most evocative. Founded more than 200 years ago by Spanish friars, it lies midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the rural hardscrabble town of San Miguel, where Main Street flyers promise a buen ambiente de trabajo—a good work atmosphere—for those willing to labor in local vineyards for $8 an hour, 10 hours a day, six days a week.

The mission, which consists of several buildings, huddles near the Salinas River among oak-studded, grassy hills that, except for a fleeting period when winter rains turn them brilliant green, resemble mounds of golden brown velvet. Its long convento wing, where the friars lived, has arches of differing size and 12 columns representing the 12 apostles, and the church facade displays the same severe geometry you find in a child's drawing of a house, with only a doorway and a window to relieve its unadorned flatness.  But through the worn wood door lies an astonishing interior of hallucinogenic intensity—a hand-painted pink, green, and blue world of trompe l'oeil swags and garlands, stripes and florals, urns and columns, surveyed from on high by the all-seeing eye of God emerging from a puff of clouds and a blast of golden rays. Painted by a 19th-century Catalonian artist and by Salinan Indian converts, the walls, ceiling, octagonal pulpit, and reredos—the high wooden screen behind the altar—together constitute the most richly decorated interior of any California mission church, as well as a rare surviving example of colonial-era painting and a highly unusual Native American legacy. "San Miguel's interior is utterly unique among the missions," says Kristina Foss, director of the Santa Barbara Mission Museum, located two and a half hours to the south. "When you go into the church, you're looking at the original design and the original paint. You're having the 19th-century experience."

Sadly, San Miguel is also the only church interior you cannot currently see. The entire mission was cordoned off after an earthquake struck the region in 2003, and though some buildings have been reopened, the severely damaged church, made of unreinforced adobe bricks stacked in walls nearly six feet thick, remains shuttered as experts investigate how best to save it. The National Trust included the mission on its 2006 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. "We have watched closely the fate of all the Spanish missions," says Anthea Hartig, director of the Trust's western office. "And we are working to ensure that San Miguel receives the funds it needs so desperately for stabilization and restoration."

Meanwhile, insurance adjusters haggle over settlement figures, people argue whether taxpayers should finance the restoration of historic religious structures, a desperate hunt is on for deep-pocket donors to pay the expected $15 million tab, and the cash-strapped congregation of a thousand does what it can, making adobe bricks for a potential restoration and holding bingo and enchilada fundraisers. The thousands of annual visitors to San Miguel are reduced, as I was on a scorching day last summer, to gazing at the church through a chainlink fence and hoping that another temblor doesn't level this important link to California's past before it can be fixed.

Founded in 1797, san miguel was the 16th mission established by Spanish Franciscan friars along El Camino Real, "The Royal Way," what was actually a none-too-regal dirt trail through Alta California ("Upper California"), north of present-day Mexico. Running 600 miles from San Diego to Sonoma, the trail would eventually become a busy highway, U.S. 101, linking the towns and sprawling cities that grew up around most missions.

Although colonizers in other parts of North America often drove away indigenous peoples, the padres' aim, and that of Spanish colonization in general, was to create new, loyal subjects for the Catholic monarch of Spain, transforming "a savage race," in the words of San Miguel's founder, Father Fermín de Lasuén, "into a society that is human, Christian, civil, and industrious." Like most other missions, San Miguel served not just as a center for religious conversion but also as a large farm and ranch run on what to modern eyes might seem a strange mix of spiritual fervor, backbreaking work, affectionate paternalism, and the sometimes harsh treatment of Indians, who succumbed in vast numbers to European diseases. Converts—known as neophytes—were fed, housed, spiritually ministered to, and taught skills like leather manufacture and weaving, but in return they met labor quotas, were forbidden to return to their earlier lives, and were hunted down and punished if they left.

Lasuén was a pivotal figure in the development of California's missions. In 1785, he succeeded Father Junípero Serra as Padre Presidente of the chain. Serra had been amazingly productive, founding the first nine missions during a 15-year tenure, despite a bad limp caused by a chronically infected leg. Lasuén, however, managed to establish nine more and oversee a doubling of converts during his 18 years in office. He also introduced the now familiar mission style of architecture, upgrading earlier thatch-covered structures and building new ones of adobe or stone with rounded roof tiles and wide arches.

San Miguel generally prospered during its first decades, though one poor padre was shipped back to Mexico after becoming so unhinged by the heat, the loneliness, and the sheer number of ants—which he apparently ordered neophytes to catch and kill—that he took to randomly firing guns. By the end of 1798, less than two years after its founding, the mission boasted a small church, several houses, 185 Salinan Indian residents, and 939 animals, with a 430-bushel grain harvest for the year. Despite a destructive fire in 1806, it eventually grew to include a larger church, an attached single-story quadrangle of residential and work quarters, a big corral, soap works, a granary, an oven for baking tiles, a tannery, and a number of other buildings serving as workshops and neophyte housing. The padres kept careful records, and those of San Miguel show that by 1814 its neophyte population was 1,076, the largest it would ever be, and that 21,666 head of livestock grazed its lands. In 1816, construction began on the present church, which measures 144 feet long, 27 feet wide, and about 40 feet high at the apex. Its roof beams had to be transported from pine forests 40 miles away, but the building was finished in only two years because the astute friars had stockpiled adobe bricks and roof tiles in advance.

San Miguel's decline was astonishingly swift. After wresting independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico moved to secularize the missions, and a series of inept administrators took control of San Miguel beginning in 1834. In 1845, with no livestock, padres, or Indians remaining there, Pío Pico, the corrupt governor of Alta California, illegally sold most of the mission to a pair of buyers. One of them was a successful gold prospector whom desperados later killed at the site, along with 10 members of his household, in California's first mass murder. An 1850 sketch shows three-fourths of the quadrangle as nothing more than stubs of mud wall, and in the years that followed, parts of the mission would serve as a saloon, dance hall, barn, and sewing machine agency. The deserted neophyte dwellings that did not simply melt back into the earth were razed to make room for a highway, leaving just a moldering sanctuary and convento.

Although the Catholic Church regained ownership of San Miguel in 1859, not until 1878 did a resident pastor arrive. Emergency repairs were made during the next decade and again in 1901, and the Franciscans undertook major projects after San Miguel was returned to them in 1928, rebuilding missing quadrangle wings to house a retreat center, inserting steel girders to support termite-eaten roof beams, replacing crumbling adobe with new blocks made on-site by novitiates, and substituting poured concrete for the bottom three feet of adobe in the perimeter walls of the church. A fountain and a freestanding, reinforced bell tower were added, and the interior of the quadrangle was transformed into a verdant oasis of palms, pines, loquats, and Chinese elms. Over time, as the new began to resemble the old, San Miguel acquired an aura of gentle decline and became the place I would eventually know and love—faded but remarkably authentic, far removed from the frenetic pace of modern California, and utterly unprepared for the violent event to come.

The 6.5-magnitude earthquake that wracked San Luis Obispo County on the morning of Dec. 22, 2003, was one of the largest temblors ever to hit the region, killing two people, injuring 47, and damaging 480 houses and commercial buildings. Hot springs erupted; landslides severed roads. In some of the area's 85 wineries, bottles hurtled from shelves, barrels toppled, and tanks ruptured, washing floors with eerie purple rivers of Cabernet Sauvignon.

With its epicenter just 35 miles from San Miguel, the quake struck the mission hard. The most serious damage occurred in the church and the convento, with moderate to minor damage elsewhere. The movement of walls in different directions caused substantial fissures in both the outer layer of stucco and the underlying structural adobe, marking the church facade with a spider's web of lines. Entire sections of stucco sloughed off, exposing vulnerable adobe to the elements, and in the church sacristy, the room where priests prepare for services, one wall slumped dangerously outward. All buildings were immediately evacuated, and emergency wood bracing was installed on the sacristy wall and in many window wells and arches. Eventually, the Franciscans were allowed access to all parts of the mission except the church, where Christmas decorations in place the morning of the quake still gather dust. Under a deal worked out with the county, however, the friars—but not the public—can use some areas of the church, though only during daylight hours.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey and the Franciscan Fathers of California jointly own the mission. The two parties soon pooled their efforts, assembling a team of preservation architects, engineers, conservators, archaeologists, and historians to assess the damage and come up with a plan to save the buildings. "Getting top-notch specialists interested in working on San Miguel hasn't been a problem," says John Fowler, a San Luis Obispo CPA with extensive real estate project management experience who is coordinating repair and fundraising efforts. "They see this as a rare opportunity to work on buildings of outstanding historical value."

The experts developed a seven-phase plan to repair, restore, and reinforce the mission buildings. The first phase, now completed, transformed part of the former museum in the convento into a parish worship center and a gift shop. Next up, and currently in progress, is the remainder of the convento, to be followed by the retreat wing and other areas of the quadrangle. "The gift shop and retreat wing are among the first phases," says Fowler, "because they provide a livelihood for the friars. If we can't get the mission economically viable for them, they will be forced to leave, and the last thing we want on top of all the physical damage is to have the mission abandoned."

The work on the quadrangle and the retreat wing requires the removal of some of the roof tiles to expose the tops of the walls. A stainless steel strap is installed around the exterior of the buildings, toward the top, to prevent walls from falling outward. Tied into the tops of the walls and into the strap is a diaphragm in the form of plywood panels, to help the structure move as one during seismic events. Along the arched arcades, columns are cored out and stainless steel rods are inserted, set with epoxy, and tied in to the roof.

Work on the church will constitute the last phase because it is the costliest and most complicated part of the project. "With the convento," says structural engineer Nels Roselund, "we're following the standard guidelines for seismically reinforcing what I would call typical adobes, which are relatively small with interior partitions and a height of no more than two stories. The church, however, is much taller and has massive walls that enclose a relatively long space with no interior partitions to add seismic toughness. It may present a very different set of problems that will require us to come up with some variations on the usual practices." According to Roselund, although it is impossible to say how many more quakes the church can take before it falls, each one exacts a toll. "At some point," he says, "gravity will take over."

Part of the structural solution may involve the insertion of stabilizing rods into the church walls, but the team is concerned that vibrations from the boring could harm the interior paintings, which were fairly unscathed by the earthquake. "The painted wall decoration is extremely fragile," says conservator Carol Kenyon. "The binder, probably lime and water, has deteriorated, and the paintings are essentially powder on the wall that comes off on your finger if you touch it. I've been in this business for 30 years, and I honestly don't know at this point whether the painted decoration can be preserved."

Another severe problem with the church interior is insect damage to its decorative wood elements. "We can repair damage to the statues, and with the reredos we can work from ladders and in a meter-wide gap at the rear," says architect Anthony Crosby. "But the painted ceiling, which is probably the most valuable one I've ever encountered, is also among the most damaged, and I've seen what Formosan termites have done in New Orleans. One worker stepped on a six-inch-thick beam here and put his foot right through it." According to Crosby, the entire ceiling—about 300 individually hewn and pit-sawn planks—might have to be removed from below and restored board by board.

Of the estimated $15 million budget for the entire project, $6 million will be needed for the church. Neither the Franciscans nor the relatively poor Diocese of Monterey, which has faced clergy abuse lawsuits in recent years, has that kind of money. So far, $2.1 million has been raised from foundations, the Franciscans, and individual donations. Although the mission's insurance policy had a face value of $8 million, with a provision for increasing that amount if code upgrades were required, adjusters offered far less, contending that some damage predated the earthquake and that many things could be fixed with plaster and paint. Insurance negotiations continue, with mission lawyers working on an eventual settlement.

Last year, one state senator, Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), proposed amending the California constitution's particularly strict prohibition against taxpayer funding of any activity or structure connected with a religious entity. On a federal level, President Bush in 2004 signed bipartisan legislation sponsored by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to provide $10 million to the California Missions Foundation. A Washington, D.C., group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State promptly filed a lawsuit to block funding of the bill. "We recognize that the California missions are of historical importance and that some of them are in dire need of repairs," says Rob Boston, a spokesman for the group. "But in this country, for more than 200 years, active houses of worship have been maintained by their congregations, not by the government."

Mission advocates argue that federal funds under the Save America's Treasures program have gone to other historic houses of worship, including the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., and Boston's Old North Church, and that the significant history of some religious structures can give them a cultural and secular value as well. "The missions are all designated historic landmarks, either at the state or national level, and they are open many hours each week to the public," says Knox Mellon, executive director of the California Missions Foundation. "They are vital to understanding how California developed, and preserving them benefits the taxpaying public far more than it does the Catholic Church." Americans United voluntarily dropped its lawsuit last January, though it vowed to refile if appropriations are actually made.

For Shirley Macagni, a non-Catholic elder in the Salinan Tribe of Monterey, the funding for San Miguel—whether public, private, or both—cannot come too soon. "It may sound strange because of the hardships my ancestors endured at the missions," she says, "but San Miguel is sacred to us. It is in the heart of our ancestral lands, and the history of my people is forever tied to this complex we built with our hands. The buildings, the paintings, the records kept by the priests—these are the only tangible history of the Salinan people. If San Miguel disappears, my people, and all Californians, will lose something that can never be replaced."

That something is not just a building but a compelling reminder of where we came from as a state, an increasingly precious commodity in a place that prides itself on innovation and progress. Will future California fourth-graders have this mission to love? 

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