Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded 1772 on the Central Coast of California on a site located halfway between Santa Barbara and Monterey. It was named after Saint Louis of Anjou, the bishop of Toulouse. The Mission church of San Luis Obispo is unusual in its design in that its combination of belfry and vestibule is found nowhere else among the California missions. The main nave is long and narrow (as is the case with other mission churches), but at San Luis Obispo there is a secondary nave of almost equal size situated to the right of the altar, making this the only "L"-shaped mission church among all of the California missions.


The current prevailing theory postulates that Paleo-Indians entered the Americas from Asia via a land bridge called "Beringia" that connected eastern Siberia with present-day Alaska (when sea levels were significantly lower, due to widespread glaciation) between about 15,000 to 35,000 years ago. The remains of Arlington Springs Man on Santa Rosa Island are among the traces of a very early habitation in California, dated to the last ice age (Wisconsin glaciation) about 13,000 years ago. The first humans are therefore thought to have made their homes among the southern valleys of California's coastal mountain ranges some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago; the earliest of these people are known only from archaeological evidence. The cultural impacts resulting from climactic changes and other natural events during this broad expanse of time were negligible; conversely, European contact was a momentous event, which profoundly affected California's native peoples.


In the year 1769, Gaspar de Portolà discovered San Luis Obispo on a journey north to rediscover the Bay of Monterey It was in this year when San Luis Obispo received its nickname as the la Cañada de los Osos ("Valley of the Bears") by diarist, Padre Juan Crespi. Briefly following the discovery of San Luis Obispo, the city was forgotten for many years. In 1772, when food supplies started to dwindle, Father Junípero Serra remembered the "Valley of the Bears." He decided to send hunters on expeditions to kill the bears in order to feed the Spanish and the Neophytes (Indians that converted to Christianity) in the north. The huge success of the hunting expedition caused Father Junípero Serra to consider building a mission in fertile San Luis Obispo. Upon further investigation he was convinced that San Luis Obispo would be a perfect site for a mission based on its surplus of natural resources, good weather and the Chumash, a local friendly Indian tribe who could provide the labor for constructing the mission. The mission became the fifth in the mission chain constructed by Father Junípero Serra.

Father Serra sent an expedition down south to San Luis Obispo to start building the mission. On September 1, 1772 a cross was erected near San Luis Obispo Creek and Father Junípero Serra celebrated the first mass, marking the site as the destination for yet another mission. However, briefly following the first mass, Father Junípero Serra returned to San Diego and left the responsibility of the mission's construction to Father Jose Cavaller. Father Cavaller, five soldiers and two neophytes began building what is now Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Father Cavaller received help in the building of the Mission from the local friendly natives, the Chumash Indians. The Chumash helped construct palisades, which would serve as temporary buildings for the Mission. However due to several Indian tribes which were determined to get rid of European settlers, they set these buildings ablaze Because of this, Father Cavaller was forced to rebuild the buildings using adobe and tile structures.

Starting in 1794 Mission San Luis Obispo went through extensive building operations They helped build numerous buildings to accommodate the nearby Indians. They also made many improvements and additions to the Mission. The renovation was finally finished when they completed the quadrangle in 1819, celebrated a year later by the arrival of two mission bells from Lima, Peru The arrival of the bells marked the end of improvements made to Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa for many years In 1830 Fr. Luis Gil y Taboada took over the mission however 3 years later he died Then in 1842 the death of Fr. Ramon Abella marked the last Franciscan at the mission

In 1845, Governor Pío Pico declared the Mission buildings for sale and he sold everything except the church for a total of $510. John C. Frémont and his "California Battalion" used the Mission as a base of operations during their war with Mexico in 1846 (see Bear Flag Revolt). The Mission fell into ruins during the period of secularization and the priests that were left would rent out rooms to help support the Mission. The Mission San Luís Obispo de Tolosa became the first courthouse and jail in San Luis Obispo County, California. In 1872, during the 100th anniversary of the Mission, improvements began, but real restoration did not begin until 1933. The Mission is still the center of the busy downtown area, and functions as a Roman Catholic parish church for the City of San Luis Obispo in the Diocese of Monterey. Although many changes have come to the Mission, it remains the center of town. In 1970 the Mission “was recognized as the center of the City of San Luis Obispo, with the dedication of Mission Plaza

Native tribes

The Janellah Indians were some of the first people to settle on the coast of California. They covered a distance of 7,000 miles of the coast stretching from Malibu to Paso Robles The name Chumash translates to the “bead maker” and “seashell people.” As hunters and gatherers in lands of rich game and vegetation they become a prosperous and successful tribe, using resources from both the land and ocean. The natural productivity of their lands meant they did not need to farm for food, relying on fish and other meat that they would hunt or catch. Despite the abundance of fish and game in the area the Chumash believed that no part of an animal should be put to waste, tribe members used every part of the catch and were grateful for the animal's life. The tribe strongly believed in giving back to nature that was so generous to them, providing them with daily sustenance. The Chumash were united with nature and believed in “nature's time”; meaning human greed could lead to downfall They performed ceremonies and had feasts to celebrate the significant seasons and harvest that were given to them by nature.

The Chumash's appreciation for nature as well as other tribes caused them to be skilled traders. Their monetary system, an integral part of their trade system, was based on beads and seashells, hence the name of their tribe. They traded items such as herbs, beautiful handmade baskets, and stone cookware along with many other artifacts As the first Indian tribes to use the technique of putting tar between each piece of wood in the construction of watercraft the Chumash were also considered great boat builders. The boats constructed of red wood and tar allowed them to sail from village to village all along the coastline, enabling to become prosperous in not only trade but also hunting

Although the Chumash tribe has dwindled considerably, caves along the coastline used for religious ceremonies still give voice to the once powerful tribe. As a way to tell their stories they would draw on the walls of the cave with charcoal, creating a record of their lives and traditions ranging from mundane daily activities to exciting hunts and religious ceremonies. As time went on colors were added to their paintings of stories. Red, orange, and yellow pigments found in the environment were added to the walls in dots around the figures recording the vibrancy the Chumash once had

Five Spanish missions were eventually built in Chumash territory. In the area of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa the Spanish came through their territory in an expedition and introduced the gun to the Chumash. The Chumash were grateful for the Spaniards guns as they depended on hunting bears for food, which had previously caused many problems for the Indians. The Chumash helped these Spaniards build the missions and take care of it and its surroundings. The missions become part of life for the Chumash. Other tribes south of this area did not like the “white men” and wanted them to move on from this area. Therefore they would shoot burning arrows at the missions and village around it. It caused a lot of damage to the dry buildings. Finally they thought to make clay tiles for the roof because they would not burn. Those were the first roof tiles to be introduced and were quickly picked up by the surrounding villages for missions. Also not only were they fire proof, but they kept the buildings dry and protected

Between 1811 and 1820 there were numerous houses built for the Indians. They also made improvements and additions to the mission. Toward the end of this time two bells were sent from Lima, Peru to keep at the mission. The economy of the missions is similar to other missions in that they planted wheat and corn. They also raised cattle and sheep. The crops were used as food for the Indians or for trade. Also the bears they killed were traded between villages as well. In 1834 Mexico ended the missions operation and sold the land. They gave some land to the Indians because they could not buy land. .


In 1602 the Spanish began to show interest in California and sent Sebastian Vizcaino, a pearl fisher, to explore the area. Vizcaino traveled the coast naming many of the cities that are important to the California coast today such as San Diego, Santa Barbara and Monterey. Spain finally chose to create Vizcaino's suggested chain of missions when it was proven that California was indeed part of the continent. The goal of creating the chain was given to the Franciscan Order. While Spain had economic motives for establishing a stronghold in California, the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church also had religious motives With these factors in mind the missions were created in order to control the coast so that the ships from Spain would remain safe as well as bring the Natives to the Catholic faith. Re-education became the method for reaching Spain's religious and economic goals as they strived to convert the Indians to Catholicism as well as make them loyal Spanish subjects.

To accomplish these goals the Spaniards had to convince the Indians that the Catholic faith was better than their own and had much more to offer them. Once an Indian decided to convert to the Catholic faith he was baptized and became a neophyte. Once a neophyte, the Indian lived in the Mission and attended masses regularly. The Spaniards taught the new neophytes more in depth aspects of the Catholic faith and introduced them to the European lifestyle As a part of mission life the Indians were taught Spanish and Latin for services, how to read music, sing as well as how to be skilled weavers, seamstresses, carpenters, tile makers, farmers and cattle herders. These lessons prepared the Indians to be a part of the Church as well as of the self-sustaining community of the mission where everyone contributed work to the success of the mission.

Modern-day uses

Hundreds of years after its creation, Mission San Luis Obispo, located in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo, remains integral to the town and community that were built around it. The mission plaza has grassy lawns, benches, fountain, as well as meticulously maintained gardens that create a welcoming environment. California's 325th registered historical landmark provides a place of relaxation as well as of historical insight. Many families bring children to play and relax while others come to learn about the history of the mission. The mission is available to people of all interest levels, from the casual observer who would like to walk through the sanctuary and courtyard gardens admission charge free at their own pace, to the individual who is looking for a Church to participate in or a guided tour and reading information The mission is a fully functional Catholic church offering a variety of services. The Parish describes its vision in the weekly bulletin as “To be a Eucharistic Community striving to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Guided by the power of the Holy Spirit.” The bulletin also includes its mission “To make our vision a reality daily by being: Loving and open, faith-filled and prayerful, gracious stewards, passionate about the needs of others”. Saturday night vigils, Sunday mass given in English, Spanish and a Bilingual version, weekday services as well as reconciliation sacraments on Saturdays are offered in order to satisfy the diverse religious needs of the community. The church bulletin, available in the sanctuary details a plethora of other services and announcements including names and contacts for church officials, small group based religious programs for all ages, as well as announcements and church schedules.

In addition to offering religious services and a glimpse into the past, the San Luis Obispo mission is active in our community, providing assistance in a variety of ways. In the courtyard there are various wishing wells, all with notices of where the money thrown into the wells go, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Year round the mission collects money for this organization that provides things such as food, clothing, utilities, even rent money and bus tickets for people who are experiencing financial difficulties. The mission also recognizes that while some people need financial support others need guidance, which is why there is a youth group center on the mission property. The high school and youth groups are a place where young adults come together not only to deal with the stresses of their own lives but also do so while helping others. One of the main components of these youth groups are the special service projects that the kids participate in, helping them earn a better sense of self worth. While efforts to give to others and volunteer take place all year at the mission, the holiday season has many more programs to provide assistance to the community. The mission is involved with Toys for Tots, as well as the Giving Tree Project. In this program underprivileged children write down a wish they have for Christmas and tie them onto the Christmas tree, each member of the church then takes the wish and buys the gift for the child. The month of January marks a transformation in the missions, when it literally opens its doors and provides overflow housing for a month to the homeless as well as cots, food, clothing, toys.



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