Mission Santa Clara de Asis is one of only a small number of California missions to remain active throughout its history.
Established in 1777, the mission barely survived “secularization” in the 1830s. It was ultimately saved from likely oblivion when California’s first college was established at the mission in 1851. That college grew and expanded; today Santa Clara University serves about 8,000 students on a sprawling campus that retains the historic mission at its heart.
That Santa Clara University grew out of the mission seems obvious when approaching from the city center, as what appears to be a classic mission-era building sits along the street.
Walking within the shelter of the building’s cloister provides a close-up view of the building and its construction. It has thick walls, heavy doors, rough-hewn window and door frames, and deep-set windows with streaked (reproduction) glass.
I can’t tell whether this building dates back to the mission period (only one wall is original), but I like the authentic look of it. Most of all I like the way the glass warps the reflected view of the garden along the walkway!
Once I reach the end of the cloister the view opens up. I can either continue around the corner along the cloistered walkway or walk out into the gardens and on to the church beyond.
I choose the garden path.
Even in December a few plants are in bloom.
However, I am most impressed with the wisteria that seems to clamber everywhere. Not with the blossoms (which won’t appear until spring), but with the plants themselves. The massive vines are like tree trunks!
These must be very old plants. Perhaps they were part of the mission’s garden in the days before the college was established.
Locked gates separate the mission cemetery – now a rose garden – from the rest of the gardens.
It’s a solemn space, but it looks lonely and neglected. It seems like the one forgotten space on the manicured grounds.
On the other hand, despite playing peek-a-boo with the trees, the church feels like the heart of this space. It draws you to it.
I can see why the church of Santa Clara de Asis is often claimed to be one of the most beautiful of the mission churches.
This is actually the second church built at this location (over time the mission built six churches at five locations), as the previous church was destroyed by a fire in 1926. It was designed to look much like the previous church did when completed in 1825, but with modifications that would allow it to serve as the college chapel. To accomplish this, the church was enlarged, but decorated much as it would have been 100 years earlier, including a copy of the original painted ceiling and Mexican altarpiece.
While it’s not the original church, or even an exact replica, it’s a beautiful place that provides a tangible connection to the past.
While Mission of Santa Clara de Asis is easy to find, information on visiting it is not. Although the grounds are (presumably) open at all times, I couldn’t find posted hours for the church (other than a schedule for worship services) or other buildings that appear to be part of the mission complex. The church was open when we visited during the Christmas holidays, but all other buildings were closed. Note also that the University has what appears to be a significant collection of mission artifacts tucked away in the nearby de Saisset Museum.
More information on the mission’s history is available on the Santa Clara University website on the history of Mission Santa Clara and Santa Clara Unearthed. A simple historical timeline and a handy drawing of the site can be found at the California Missions Social Studies Fact Cards on the mission.
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