A California Mission Reopens

Six years after an earthquake, Mission San Miguel is restored.


Photographs by Therese Poletti

SAN MIGUEL, Calif.—Almost six years after it closed to parishioners and visitors, the 191-year-old Mission San Miguel Arcángel has reopened its doors. The church's thick adobe walls, once surrounded with police tape and a chain-link fence, are now covered with smooth white-lime plaster—a dramatic contrast to the gaping fissures opened by the San Simeon earthquake in 2003.

"It's just hard to walk in here and not cry," said Joy Camp, the mission's sacristan, as she looked around the nave, its brightly painted walls adorned with some of earliest surviving frescos by Native Americans in California. "I didn't think I'd live long enough to see it."

After the Sept. 29 consecration—the church's first—a fete on Oct. 2 heralded the public reopening of the mission, founded halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1797, the 16th in the chain of 21 missions. (The mission's first church burned; the existing building was completed in 1818.) Last week's reopening marked the completion of a $10 million seismic retrofit, the most significant phase of an estimated $15 million restoration project.

After the 6.5 magnitude temblor in December 2003, the sacristy, a small room where priests keep their vestments and prepare for mass, was severed from the church.

"You had, in some places, a gap of eight inches between the sacristy and the nave," says Robert Hoover, an archeologist and a board member of the California Missions Foundation, a nonprofit that helped raise money and awareness of the mission's plight. "You could see the sky."

11 most markIn addition to raising millions of dollars to make the church safe, officials faced another huge challenge: how to stabilize the building without damaging or destroying the unique artwork, painted directly on a lime-plaster wash on the surface of every adobe wall.

San Miguel is the only California mission with its original artwork intact. Its famous murals were painted in 1821 by local Salinan Indians, under direction of Esteban Munras, a Spanish amateur painter who ran a trading business in nearby Monterey. Other treasures, unharmed during the earthquake, were removed for restoration. The sidewalls are graced with pale blue Doric columns, with reddish-hued railings above, forming a gallery for a series of oil paintings brought to the mission during the 1820s. A large salmon-colored fan accentuates one wall.

But the pièce de résistance is the wood altar back, where rows of rosettes frame a trio of statuary, and wooden columns are painted to look like marble. A dramatic "Eye of God" seems to keep watch over the sanctuary and the nave, with painted chalices on each side, all carved and hand-painted wood. An entablature is brightly painted in pastels of green, pink, rose, and sky blue. The centerpiece is a wooden statue of St. Michael the Arcángel.

"This place has been frozen in time, for whatever reasons," said Pat Taylor, an adobe expert from Mesilla, N.M., who has been working and living at the mission on and off since February. "This is a real special place."

San Miguel may be magical, but its tiny rural town has a population of about 1,400, with an average annual income of about $45,000 in 2007. Its parishioners were hard pressed to raise the millions required to shore up the church.

Fortunately, the mission had purchased earthquake insurance after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which devastated downtown Santa Cruz and sections of San Francisco to the north. Still, the mission, jointly owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey and the Franciscan Fathers of California, had to fight to get its 2003 claim paid. After a mediation session, attended by a representative from the office of Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Lloyd's of London paid $7.5 million, with a $1 million deductable.

After the insurance settlement, other donations and grants came through. With help from both the California Missions Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the mission to its 2006 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, millions more were raised for the retrofit and work on the murals. The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Morgan Stanley Foundation, and the Getty Foundation were among the biggest donors.

Construction started late last year, and project manager John Fowler worked to complete restoration by Sept. 29, the Feast of St. Michael, for a religious dedication ceremony. Adding more pressure, Oct. 4, 2009, was the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan order. "I used that with every contractor," Fowler says.

During the project, workers removed the roof to reinforce the walls and doorways with steel beams. Amazingly, only two areas of the art-covered walls had to be cut out and reinstalled after restoration. Most carved and painted vigas and corbels stayed in place as 500 wood ceiling planks were numbered and put away.

"It was a surgical removal," said John Griswold, principal of Griswold Conservation Associates, LLC in Culver City, Calif. His team protected the pieces of wall they temporarily removed with layers of thin but strong Japanese tissue paper, in a slow—and sometimes scary—process.

Griswold recently saw the church without scaffolding for the first time. "It just took my breath away," he says.

Visitors can now see the interior and murals, one of California's most authentic reminders of another era. The church's benefactors hope others will be inspired to help Mission San Miguel (the mission still needs more money to finish conserving its murals) or another dilapidated mission in need of funds.

"San Miguel is the poster child for how you save California missions," Fowler says. "Yes, we are asking for more help with San Miguel, but we are hoping that this becomes the launching place for all the missions."

Save America's Treasures awarded the project a grant of almost $300,000 in 2006.

Read the magazine's 2003 story about Mission San Miguel

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Submitted by Sunshyn24 at: January 15, 2010
Wonderful! I used to attend mass at San Miguel when I lived in Atascadero years back, so that is exciting news...the pictures are great

Submitted by Doug at: January 14, 2010
I am very happy to hear the restoration is almost complete. I should note that San Antonio de Pala, one of the asistencias (in this case, the ancillary mission to San Luis Rey de Francia in the County of San Diego) also has original native California artwork. This little known mission was never secularized and coincidentally was also completed around 1818. The chain of assistencias never made it beyond San Diego due to secularization.

Submitted by Jason at: December 21, 2009
I drove through San Miguel this evening, assuming I'd still see the sad, cracked building surrounded by fencing. What a joy to see the doors open and light shining out (they were preparing for mass). I had never been inside before, and the murals did not disappoint!

Submitted by wejo at: October 7, 2009
I visited the mission before and after the earthquake. Now, I must see it again.

Submitted by Michelle at: October 6, 2009
I am so happy to see this story. My husband and I stopped by in September of 2002. We chose this mission to stop at because of my name. We have been to Mont St Michel and France so I thought it was meaningful to have visited two places for St Michael the Archangel. Thank you for restoring such a special place.

Submitted by Nelda at: October 6, 2009
I've been there! It was a little 'side trip' in July when my aunt & uncle took us to the coast for a few days (which was also beautiful). The 'gps' kept saying 're-evaluate' or what she says. But, we knew we wanted to stop at the Mission San Miquel - which I saw on the map (so I could say I've been to San Miquel, Mexico and San Miquel, California :) We enjoyed our little side trip & have great pictures and fond memories. Thanks for preserving! Have a great day! NR in Texas

Submitted by Wanda at: October 6, 2009
Wow, this is amazing, I'm getting goose bumps as I read and write, as I actually lived in San Miguel for a short time during my "wonder years" and was taught by the nuns at this mission. And, ironically, as a director of a historical society, I am a preserver of history and historical sites, thanks!