Mission Santa Clara de Asis is one of only a small number of California missions to remain active throughout its history. Today it is also the heart of Santa Clara University.
Discovering Mission Santa Clara
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.
Mission and campus grounds merge
That Santa Clara University grew out of the mission seems obvious when approaching from the city center.
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. And I have a choice: I can 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.
The rose garden
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.
A beautiful church reborn
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 modified to better 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.
Visit Mission Santa Clara de Asis
Mission Santa Clara de Asis is an easy day trip from San Francisco.
Located at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, the mission church has been the heart of Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, since 1851.
Because it is part of the university campus, week-day visitors need to stop at the guard’s kiosk to get a free visitor parking permit. (Parking permits are not required on weekends or, apparently, during school breaks.) Directions can be found on the mission’s web page.
Visit the historic mission and de Saisset museum
Mission Santa Clara de Asis
Mission Santa Clara de Asis is usually open daily from at least 8 a.m. until sometime in early evening. (The exact hours vary depending on where you look on the website.) However, this is the university’s chapel and it is often in use when it is open. The university suggests that visitors arriving during a worship service or other event first tour outside and enter after the activity inside has concluded. Visitors should always enter quietly and respectfully. Guided tours are not available, but a self-guided walking tour is available on the website and at the church.
The enclosed rose garden adjacent to the church commemorates the Ohlone, Californios, and Rancheros buried there and is not open to the public.
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.
Artifacts at the de Saisset Museum
The nearby de Saisset Museum houses a number of items from Mission Santa Clara de Asis, as well as from other missions, in its California history and mission-era liturgical vestment collections. The museum is generally open Tuesday-Sunday, but was closed when we arrived during the school holiday.
Visit nearby missions
While you are in the area, Mission San Jose is a half-hour to the northeast near Fremont, California. Like many of the missions, Mission San Jose is an active Catholic church. Daily mass is held week-day mornings. The restored church and museum are open to the public daily for a small admission fee.
Farther north, Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Delores) is located in San Francisco itself. This active Catholic church is the oldest intact building in the city and its cemetery is the final resting place of a number of notable San Franciscans. The church and gardens are generally open daily, with a small donation requested.
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