A Very Unique New Mexico Spanish Mission

The Spanish Missions of New Mexico

Early New Mexico history is the history of Spanish exploration and colonization during the 1600’s. Today, the missions of New Mexico, just like the ones in California, tell a story of the regions earliest settlement and colonization. When the Spain colonized the southwest the missions were, for most intents and purposes, on an equal footing with the military. The effort to convert the Native population to Christianity was key in trying to secure a territory.

san francisco de asis church

San Francisco de Asis

The Spaniards had colonized New Mexico (Nuevo Mexico) long before California, which they referred to as Alta California. Santa Fe was established in 1610. Initially, churches were built during that time up until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. As a result, the Spaniards were driven out of New Mexico and not returning for twelve years. During their absence, most of the missions built were destroyed by the Pueblo Indians.

The Pueblo revolt was blamed mostly on the strict rules laid down by the early Spanish friars on the pueblo Indians. The forced building of churches, often times on the very ground that the Natives had earlier worshiped on. Also, strict punishment for those caught practicing their native spirit religion

San Francisco de Asis

One historic site you’ll want to visit if your western road trip takes you to northern New Mexico is the San Francisco de Asis Mission. This old mission church built circa 1772 is located in Rancho de Taos New Mexico, just four miles south of the Taos plaza and just east of NM 68.

adobe structures at rancho de taos

Original adobe structure at Rancho de Taos

San Francisco de Asis was built of adobe and featured twin bell towers and an arched portal entrance overlooking a courtyard. The church is over 160 feet long, 25 feet high and 90 feet wide. The church has a French style altar, retablos and altar screen completed by the finest santeros in New Mexico.

Both Taos and Rancho de Taos is a showcase of natural beauty with ancient roots. The site of this mission was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970. The church was also designated a World Heritage Church.There are 890 sites around the world who share this designation.

This old Spanish Mission church is a piece of living history and it’s a must stop when visiting the Taos area. Many people claim that San Francisco de Asis Mission is the most photographed and painted church in the country. New Mexico’s well known artist Georgia O’Keeffe made four paintings of the church alone. The church was also photographed by Ansel Adams. The church today is an active parish.

san francisco de asis church grounds

San Francisco de Asis grounds

Surrounding the church are shops, galleries, trading posts, and restaurants. The north end of the scenic by-way, The High Road to Taos, comes out at Rancho de Taos.The High Road to Taos is a terrifically scenic drive that begins north of Santa Fe and winds itself through small villages filled with art galleries of local artisans, unique shops and restaurants. This is another excellent activity to add to your northern New Mexico vacation planner.

The Shadow of the Cross Painting

Of special interest inside San Francisco de Asis church is the painting The Shadow of the Cross by French-Canadian artist Henri Ault.

A phenomenom of this painting when viewed by some occur in darkness. When in darkness the clouds surrounding Jesus begin to glow and the silhouette of Jesus becomes three dimensional. His robe also begins to billow in the breeze and some see a halo over his head. The Catholic Church itself does not make any official explanation as to why people experience what they do when viewing The Shadow of the Cross. The church has not referred to this experience as a miracle but merely something that as of now is not understood.

taos new mexico photo

Taos New Mexico

There is a story that years ago scientists from the nearby Los Alamos laboratory tested the painting for the presence of phosphorescent minerals or even radioactivity and that their tests came back negative. Henri Ault always had denied that he did anything to the painting to cause these effects and this phenomenom is not thought to be present in any of his other work.

While there have never been claims of healing attributed to The Shadow of the Cross painting, many people have had emotional reactions to it’s viewing.

Two additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are on the links below…

Driving the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway

The Santa Fe Railroad and Santa Fe

A Visit to Fiesta Santa Fe

san francisco de asis mission New Mexico

Arched entranceway to the San Francisco de Asis grounds


As with all original adobe structures they deteriorate over time and San Francisco de Asis is no exception. To help preserve the church a cement coating was added during the 1960’s. Unfortunately, the cement coating didn’t allow the natural materials original to the church to breathe and expand. Cracks resulted and by 1979 the structure itself became unstable.As a result portions of the adobe walls and buttressing were replaced.  Today, to keep San Francisco de Asis in top condition an annual remudding takes place. Each year several coats of mud from south of town are applied to the exterior and this natural type of restoration works well to protect the structure from the elements.

San Francisco de Asis is a very unique New Mexico Spanish mission and is a must stop when visiting northern New Mexico.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Trips Into History)




California and the Old Spanish Missions

Alta California

The story of the Spanish missions is the story of California. Visiting the sites of the twenty-one missions established in present day California is a journey into the very origins of what one day would become one of the largest states in the U.S. Going from south to north, the California missions helped Spain to colonize this region bordering the Pacific Ocean.

san francisco mission dolores

Mission Dolores, San Francisco CA

Spain of course was the European power that first explored North America’s southwest region. The first colonization efforts occurred in present day New Mexico and Texas. The earliest explorer to that region was Coronado. His 1540 expedition moved north out of New Spain (Mexico) and traversed over present day Arizona into New Mexico. His expedition was not one of colonization. That would come years later. Coronado was in search of the Seven Cities of Gold which he and others had heard so much about from the Aztecs in old Mexico.

The Spaniards would begin their settlement of California, which was named Alta California with Fray Junipero Serra’s founding of the first mission of California in present day San Diego. The year was 1769 and the San Diego mission was Spain’s first foothold on the west coast. Because of Spain’s earlier colonization of Nuevo Mexico along the Rio Grande, the Alta California missions were built many years after the New Mexico missions. As an example, the mission in San Diego was founded well over 100 years after the Spanish founding of Santa Fe.

california mission san jose

Mission San Jose

The Missions and the Military

When you research anything to do with Spain’s missions in North America you come to understand how their colonization differed from those of other European countries. The key difference was the close association between the church and King. While the church was a separate entity, their efforts in the colonies were hard to differentiate from those of the Conquistadors. The missions in California were an integral part of it’s colonization. The King granted the land to the Franciscans who in turn built the California missions.

If you look into the history of the Spanish colonization of Nuevo Mexico during the early and mid 1600’s you will realize two things. In New Mexico, the Spanish authorities and the friars were working as one. The other thing you’ll realize is that the administrations in old New Mexico and Alta California were quite different. Although there were incidents of violence, Alta California never went through anything similar to the Pueblo Revolt in Nuevo Mexico in 1680. The revolt was essentially a very violent Indian backlash against the harsh rules imposed on them by the authorities which included the friars. Most of the trouble centered around forced labor and punishments meted out for those rebelling against Christian worship. The 1680 coordinated pueblo uprising was to such a degree that the Spaniards fled the region for some twelve years. They returned in 1692 with a different, more gentle attitude toward the native population. The second time they were successful.

santa clara califorina mission

Santa Clara Mission

Colonizing Alta California

Research shows that the attitude of both the friars and the military toward the Indians was much more accommodating than a century earlier in New Mexico. The friars in Alta California concentrated on education and agricultural pursuits as it pertained to the missions and the surrounding Indians.

To be sure, the Spanish military was present to protect the missions but the warfare between them and the Indians never approached anything near to what happened in New Mexico. The overall goal of both the Spanish missions and military was to help assimilate the Indians to a more European way of existence . By doing this they would be able to create subjects for the King of Spain which is one of the purposes of a colony. The missions in California also served to show Spanish claim to the territory. This would have been directed to the Russians who had settlements in northern California north of the San Francisco Bay area. It would also give notice to the British who were active in the Oregon and Northwest region.


mission carmel california

Carmel Mission

In a big way, it was the Russian and British interests to the far north that made the Sonoma Mission the northernmost of the twenty-one Spanish missions. After the Mexican Revolution which expelled Spain from Alta California and North America, the new Mexican government built a secular society and mission expansion ceased. The one exception was that the Sonoma Mission, named Mission San Francisco Solano, was erected during Mexican rule. The Mexicans also considered building a mission to the north in Santa Rosa but never went ahead with it. A case could probably be made that the construction of the Sonoma Mission and the consideration of one in Santa Rosa was more of a military initiative than a religious one. To further make the point, after the Mission San Francisco Solano was built, the military stationed General Mariano Vallejo and his northern command in Sonoma with the task of keeping an eye on the Russians.

sonoma mission

Sonoma Mission

The Old Spanish Missions Today

The old Spanish missions have been and still is one of California’s biggest tourist attractions. In fact, if visiting California for the first time, a tour of the Spanish missions is a must. The missions, through their artifacts, paintings and museums tell the story of the real founding of California. It all started with the mission system.

The current state of the missions vary greatly. Most of the missions deteriorated over the decades and a few are almost non existent but many have been beautifully restored and many are still used today for religious worship.

Three missions that I believe are of special historic significance would be the Mission San Diego, the Carmel Mission and the Sonoma Mission or referred to as Mission San Francisco Solano.

mission san rafael arcangel

Mission San Rafael Arcangel

The mission in San Diego is named Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. This mission of course was the very first and was built by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. The mission in Carmel California which is named Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, was also built by Father Serra. Serra built this second mission about a year later in Monterey California adjacent to the military presidio. After a short time he thought it best to have the mission some distance from the presidio to be closer to the Indian population and he thus built the Carmel Mission a short distance south of Monterey. The Mission San Francisco Solano is significant in as much as it was the only one founded under Mexican rule and served as a military outpost as well during the 1830’s and 1840’s up until the conclusion of the Mexican American War.

Links to three interesting photo articles on our Western Trips site are a Visit to Mission San Juan Bautista…the Carmel Mission in Carmel California and a Visit to Sonoma Californiaand the Sonoma Mission.

mission san juan bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista

Tips on Visiting the Missions

The first thing I would suggest is to get a good statewide California road map. Check online for mission visiting hours. The missions are controlled by the local parish and visiting hours can vary greatly. Keep in mind that many of the missions are active places of worship so scheduled events can also have an effect on visiting hours. Visiting hours also can change by season. Also remember that some missions are in remote areas while others are in busy tourist destinations such as in Carmel and Sonoma. The remote missions will be much further away from travel conveniences so bringing along bottled water is a good idea.

From south to north, the missions are; Mission San Diego de Alcala in San Diego… Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside…Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano…San Gabriel Mission Archangel in San Gabriel…Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana in Mission Hills (Los Angeles)…Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura…Mission Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara…Mission Santa Ines in Solvang…Mission La Purisima Concepcion northeast of Lompoc…Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo…Mission San Miguel Arcangel in San Miguel…Mission San Antonio de Padua northwest of Jolon…Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad located south of Soledad…Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel…Mission San Juan Bautista in the San Juan Bautista Historic District…Mission Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz…Mission Santa Clara de Asis in Santa Clara…Mission San Jose in the Mission San Jose District in Fremont…Mission San Francisco de Asis in San Francisco…Mission San Rafael Arcangel in San Rafael…Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma.

(Photos are from author’s private collection)


New Mexico Missions / Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light

Old New Mexico Missions chronicle the history of the region. They tell about the history of the region in many ways. Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light was built in Lamy New Mexico in 1926. Lamy, located about 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe was in an active area of New Mexico Territory when first established. Lamy was the closest main line train depot to Santa Fe.

Old mission church Lamy, New mexico

For those wishing to leave or depart Santa Fe via train, and that meant the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, they had to pass through Lamy. While there was a spur line between the two towns, Lamy was the station on the AT & SF main line.

Essentially, Lamy lost population when railroad travel declined. To give you an idea of the railroad activity in and around Lamy before the decline, the town had a Fred Harvey dining room and hotel, the El Ortiz, adjacent and to the east of the train depot and Lamy had it’s own elementary school. When all of this came to a halt, Our Lady of Light lost parishioners when people left Lamy for jobs in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Lamy is only one example of population decline due to lost railroad jobs. Texas has many examples of this along US Hwy 287 from Wichita Falls to Amarillo.

Our Lady of Light Bell Tower

Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light in Lamy was deconsecrated in 1994. Two reasons for this was that there just were not enough parishioners to send a priest for Mass. The other reason was that by the mid 1990’s, the church was structurally unsafe.

The abandoned chapel is historically important to New Mexico for a few reasons. First, the architecture is Mission Revival which makes the structure quite rare for a mission church in northern New Mexico. Another reason is that this structure was the only church in the Lamy community ever. The current structure replaced one on or near today’s site that was built around 1889 and with the same name, Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light. One story is that the old structure was washed away during a flood.

Due to the historic significance of the structure, the old Mission Church has been placed on the State Register of Cultural Properties. Additionally, the settlement of Lamy New Mexico (once called Galisteo Junction)  was named after Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe after the U.S. took control of New Mexico Territory. The old abandoned mission church serves as a connection with the historic Santa Fe Catholic diocese as well as the work of Archbishop Lamy and therefore is important to preserve and hopefully restore.

Historic foundations have become involved In an effort to restore the old mission. Having it place on the State cultural registry is a big step forward.

Stained glass windows in Our Lady of Light Mission Church

It’s been estimated by those involved that a full restoration of the church might cost around $300,000 to 500,000. The old church is owned today by the Our Lady of Light Historic Foundation. Thanks to volunteers, restoration work to date has involved a new roof and stabilizing the foundation. It appears that any restoration going forward will be dependent upon money raised by the foundation.

When visiting Lamy New Mexico you’ll notice that the Mission Revival architecture of the mission church is the same as the architecture of the train station. The razed El Ortiz Harvey House was also of the same design.

Related articles you’ll find interesting are Railroad Depots / Lamy New Mexico and The Southwest Chief.

If your New Mexico vacation or road trip takes you to the south of Santa Fe, I would definitely recommend a stop at Lamy. Lamy is easily reached off of US Hwy 285. The town and the abandoned New Mexico mission church is just a half mile east of Hwy 285 and about six miles south of Interstate 25. It makes an easy side trip when visiting Santa Fe.

(Photos from author’s private collection)

Juan Bautista de Anza and the Expedition that Established San Francisco / The National Trails System

There is a very historic old Spanish trail that eventually established what is today San Francisco California, the historic Mission Dolores and the Presidio. Today, this trail is administered by the National Park Service through a partnership with other federal, state, county and municipal parks and volunteer groups. Some of the areas of this Spanish trail are in the hands of private ownership but there is a remarkably large amount of the trail that is ideal for a California auto tour. In 1990, Congress established the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail as a part of the National Trails System.

juan bautista de anza

Juan Bautista de Anza, public domain

This very important Spanish trail was blazed by a Spanish military officer by the name of Juan Bautista de Anza. Ther idea actually originated with Anza’s father who dreamed of finding an overland route to Alta California. This was an important route for Spain who was trying to secure their stronghold in the region. Spain’s concerns were the explorations of both the Russians and the English. The Russians had a thriving trade operation in the area about 100 miles north of San Francisco Bay at Fort Ross on the Pacific coast. The English of course had operations in what is today Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Using mission and Indian trading routes, Juan de Anza found a path into Alta California in 1774. This route would allow passage of supplies, livestock and much needed settlers. When Anza identified the route he secured permission from the Viceroy of New Spain to make the Spanish expedition.

Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition was quite different from a mere exploration. Some of the earlier expeditions were for simple exploration. This expedition was to help colonize a distant land. This essentially went hand in hand with the Spanish Mission system being established around the same years. Traveling through Sonora New Spain, Anza put out a call to men to join him and be paid as soldiers. His men told about the lush land to the north which was greatly different than the desert region around Sonora. Interest was high but Anza placed certain requirements to many of the prospective recruits. There were two primary conditions. The men would agree not to return to New Spain and they were obligated to bring along their families.

de anza trail map

Route of the Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition, public domain

Anza’s expedition departed from Tubac Presidio on October 23, 1775. The expedition included thirty families which amounted to some 240 men, women and children. The expedition had a purpose. The purpose in general was to safely deliver the settlers and their livestock to el Rio San Francisco, the first Spanish settlement in that key area. There was no guarantee of success but the travelers put their full faith in Anza. The families who joined the expedition, after weighing their current opportunities in Sonora, felt strongly that a better life could be found in Alta California. They risked everything for a chance to be among the very first settlers to California.

As with just about all Spanish expeditions, religion and the Franciscans played a large role. Most days began with Mass and hymns of praise. These were conducted by Franciscan priest Pedro Font. In addition to Font’s religious duties, he kept a very detailed diary and recorded latitudes using a quadrant. His journals were a running historic record recording locations, miles traveled and supplies used. It is from his diary and one written by Anza himself  that today we have an excellent record of the Anza expedition. Coming up from present day Mexico around the Nogales area, the expedition which included some 1,000 head of cattle crossed the Colorado River into Alta California at present day Yuma Arizona. Anza was fortunate to have received able help from the local Indians and this included finding the Yuma Crossing. The trail went through Riverside and north of present day Los Angeles to the coast near Oxnard. Then it was up the Pacific coast past San Luis Obispo and to the east of Monterey before reaching present day San Francisco. Much of the route fairly follows US Hwy 101. It’s interesting that riders on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles to Oakland also follow a section of this trail.

juan bautista de anza interpretive center in martinez california

The Juan Bautista de Anza Interpretive Visitor Center in Martinez, CA, from author's collection

The Juan Bautista de Anza expedition was a great success for Spain. After Juan de Anza selected a site for both a presidio and a Spanish mission, on June 27, 1776 a Lt. Moraga led the settlers to what is today the city of San Francisco. This marked the establishment of Mission Dolores on the San Francisco peninsula. This also marked the very northernmost settlement to that date for Spain. What’s very interesting to the tourist is that many of the names of settlers and military involved with Juan de Anza’s expedition are still seen today throughout northern California. These are names such as Moraga, Berryessa, Bernal and Peralta. Today, these are names of towns, highways, landmarks and counties. De Anza’s name can be found on buildings, schools and streets.

The National Park Service has sixteen sites along the de Anza Trail where many visitors like to collect stamps showing their visit. These stamps are given out by the NPS to officially confirm the visit. The National Park Service administers the Anza Historic Trail Exhibit Visitor Center located at John Muir National Historic Park in Martinez California. This is the historic adobe on the Muir grounds that has been made into the Anza Historic Trail Center. This center has some great exhibits and would be a fine addition to any san Francisco area trip planner. Martinez is located northeast of San Francisco opposite the town of Benicia California.

Take a Grand Tour of the California Spanish Missions

Anyone visiting California by automobile or if you happen to have a rental car and some time while in California, a visit to the California missions on the El Camino Real is one of the most interesting California trips you can take. They make a great addition to your California vacation planner.

The Spanish missions are California. The California Spanish missions represent California’s, then called Alta California, very beginnings. It represents the very firs settlement of California by a European power. When visiting several of these historically restored missions you also can learn about the method in which the Spaniards sought to civilize the region and you might wish to contrast it with how the United States tried to settle the old American West over a century later. This is why the tour of the California missions offer a unique learning experience in addition to a great photo taking opportunity.

mission san juan bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista

The missions in California were built south to north. The first mission established was in present day San Diego.  The San Diego mission was built by Father Junipero Serra. Many historians contend that Father Serra was the first genuine Californian. At that time the region north of Baja California was called Alta California. There were a total of twenty-one missions constructed in California from 1769 to 1823. The last mission built was the Sonoma Mission in the now Sonoma California wine country. Interestingly so, this last mission was built under Mexican rule after the Spaniards were driven out by the Mexican Revolution. This was out of character for the new Mexican government since they secularized the missions after the revolution. Many facts point out that the Sonoma Mission was actually built for military reasons since just to the north was Russian occupation and further north was British occupation.

The missions today are in various states of condition. Some have been beautifully restored and many are current active houses of worship. Mission work back in the 18th century had many elements. The primary goal of the Franciscans were to convert the Indians to Christianity. The Spanish government felt that the first step in civilizing the Indians was for them to be converted to Christianity. It was believed that when the Natives were converted they would be more capable of assimilating to European ways and that would help make them loyal subjects of the King of Spain. The Spanish rulers also felt that the expense of building a mission system would be a fraction of what the cost would be to pay an army to go to war. At the same time, an established mission system spanning most of Alta California would give notice to other European powers of their presence.

carmel mission

Carmel Mission

There are three missions among the total number that make a good trip up the coast of California. I point out these three missions because each had a very pivotal role in California history.

The first of course is the first mission built in San Diego. This was the first attempt at missions in Alta California although missions had been established decades earlier in present day New Mexico. Information on the San Diego Mission is on the following link  San Diego Mission.

There is also a listing of all twenty-one missions on the San Diego story.

The second mission I would recommend is the beautiful Carmel Mission. This mission was established in Carmel California somewhat near to the old Monterey Presidio which served as the military and sometime capitol of the province. Prior to the Carmel Mission there was a mission next to the monterey Presidio but Father Serra wanted a new one further away from the military and a bit closer to the Indians. This is how the carmel Mission came into being. Information for the Carmel Mission is at this link. Carmel Mission

The third mission which is quite significant is the Sonoma Mission. This mission also housed a number of mexican military troops under the leadership of a General Vallejo. This was the last mission built and is located in the heart of Sonoma California just north of the San Francisco Bay. The city of Sonoma now is a historic district and there’s plenty to see there. In addition, it’s right in the middle of the Sonoma and Napa County wine region. California’s very first commercial winery, Buena Vista Winery, was built just east of Sonoma and is a must stop when in the area. Information on the Sonoma Mission is at  Sonoma Mission.

Every mission on the list of twenty-one were important to the early Spanish settling of Alta California. Any you are able to visit is a treat. There are several  missions I’ve visited that are quite interesting as well as the three highlighted. These would include the Santa Barbara Mission, the Mission San Jose and Mission San Gabriel outside of Los Angeles.

I hope you are able to visit the Spanish Missions of California on your next visit to the West Coast. They are definitely worth adding to your California vacation planner.