Founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772, the church of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is perched above a small plaza in the heart of the city that grew up around it.
Like other mission churches in California, the original structure was a simple adobe building with a thatch roof. After several attacks involving flaming arrows (the local Chumash Indians were friendly with the padres, but their neighbors were not), the padres began experimenting with tile production. By the 1790s the mission could produce enough tile to roof mission buildings and construction of a new church – with a tile roof – began.
That church is structurally the same one I visited over the winter, although various changes have been made over time. For example, the distinctive front façade – which also serves as the church’s belfry – has been demolished and rebuilt more than once.
(In 1865 the church probably looked much as it did when first completed in 1794.)
(It’s hard to imagine today how anyone thought it would be a good idea to remove the front of the church, build a steeple, and then cover much of the mission with wood siding – but obviously someone did. The church looked like this for over 50 years.)
(Today the exterior of the church again looks much like it did when it was originally built in 1794.)
In addition to the changes made and unmade at the front of the church, a large addition was added in the 1800s.
Like the exterior, the interior of the church also underwent a variety of changes over time.
(This photo is dated 1885. It was taken before the original tile floor was replaced with wood flooring or the chapel was added, but after the beam ceiling and wall decorations were hidden from view.)
(Although dated as circa 1900, this photo must have been taken much later, as it shows both the chapel addition that was constructed in the 1890s and the original ceiling beams that weren’t restored until the 1930s or 40s. This is a corrected copy of a photo that was digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library from the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California.)
While neither of the historic images I found showed any interior decoration aside from the elaborate ceiling beams, apparently a few painted decorations discovered hidden under layers of plaster around the altar were incorporated into the restoration.
I’m not sure why those motifs weren’t carried throughout the church, but they weren’t. Instead a whimsical mix of local birds and imaginary flowers leap along the walls in the rest of the church.
They don’t seem to be historically accurate, but they are charming.
The side chapel includes an alcove with a small altar.
It also has a number of paintings, one of which really begged for my attention.
It seems so different from the others . . . in my imagination it once hung in a medieval chapel in France. So now I can’t help but wonder what its story really is. Who created it? Where? If not here, how did it end up here? If here, why is it so different from the other paintings?
(If you know anything about this particular painting, tell the rest of us!!)
Back outside, there is a small garden. There are a few flowers and a stand with some of the original church bells, but the quadrangle that the church once anchored has all but vanished over time.
Although never particularly large in terms of converts, at its peak Mission San Luis Obispo was one of the most productive in California. Besides its tile works (the first in California), the mission was famous for its wine, olive oil, and the vast amount of wheat grown in its fields. Large herds of cattle (at least 2,500 head at one point) assured plenty of beef for all and even larger flocks of sheep provided wool that was woven into fabrics sought far beyond the mission itself.
But the mission fell on hard times even before it was secularized and sold off in pieces during the 1830s, with a shrinking community and deteriorating buildings. That deterioration continued even after the site was returned to the Catholic Church in 1859. Despite work done to modernize the church itself (the rebuilt façade, new steeple, and wooden siding were just the most obvious features of the work undertaken at the time), by 1900 many of the remaining mission buildings were crumbling.
The mission’s fortunes finally began to change in the 1920s with increasing public interest in historic preservation in general and the mission era in particular. Restoration of the remaining buildings began in the 1930s. But by that time the mission had been reduced to the church, a bit of open space for a small garden, and the padre’s quarters. (There are still a few old adobe structures in the area around the mission that probably were part of the mission once, but they have long been in private ownership.) The padre’s quarters were restored along with the church and now house a very good museum with exhibits on both life at the mission and the lives of the local Chumash Indians before the arrival of the padres.
When the padres came, they initiated the destruction of Chumash civilization, yet it was only a brief time until their own world was wiped away as well. The museum here is a good place to consider the ebb and flow of history.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is located in the heart of the historic city of San Luis Obispo, California. It is an active Roman Catholic church that serves a large faith community. The church is open during regular business hours every day except certain holidays. There is no charge to enter the church or the excellent museum.
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