California state’s fourth grade history curriculum focuses considerably on California’s Spanish missions. Personally, I think it’s a terrific tool for learning early California history, since the story of the missions incorporates native American studies, European colonization, America’s independence from Europe (in early California’s case, that being Mexican independence), the separation of church and state, 1700s Spanish art and architecture, and the importance of historical preservation. But the missions are distinctly and overtly Catholic, so I’m still a little surprised that the militant atheists who hyperventilate whenever a public school student refers to God (in the Christian sense) haven’t succeeded in transforming the unit into something duller.
In Neil’s school, the unit involves each student selecting a particular mission for specific study. I was hoping Neil would get one of the nearby missions, and we could visit it, and combine the educational lesson with a fine day out. Luck of the draw though, left Neil with the very last choice of missions, and he ended up with Mission San Antonio de Padua. I’d never heard of it, unlike Mission San Juan Capistrano (near where I grew up), the beautiful Mission Carmel, or the nearby Mission Santa Clara. I looked it up and found out it was the mission referred to as “most off the beaten path,” which essentially means it was the mission most in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, this middle of nowhere was a 2-1/2 hour drive from our house, making it barely close enough for a day trip.
On a briskly cold day, I put Neil and Kelly in the back seat of my car, with a big pile of books to entertain each of them, and drove south. I drove through Salinas, which for me is the end of civilization, since that’s where my friend Chris used to live. I drove past Gonzales, the suburb of Salinas Chris decided was too rural to buy a home in, even if it was cheaper than Salinas proper. I drove past Greenfield, whose downtown seems to be buildings left over from the early 1900s. I drove past Soledad, a town best known as the gateway to an obscure national park with caves, and into King City, which has nothing. At King City, I had to turn off onto a long desolate road running southwest and without a single road branching off of it. After 26 miles, we reached an army base, where I had to give a guard three forms of identification in order to proceed. We drove through the army base on a fresh asphalt road, and when we found a pitted and pocked old road branching off from it, we’d found the road to the mission.
It was set up nicely as an educational resource. The mission had posted big signs along the road detailing some of the mission’s history, such as the date it was founded, and that (ironically for a mission now located on an army base), it was one of the few missions without a military function. When we got to it, we found it to be absolutely beautiful:
To my delight, Neil immediately started talking about the mission. He told me he’d things he was now seeing in their full context showed him that, for instance, the well wasn’t as far away from the building as he’d thought it was, and that he hadn’t realized the statue of Junipero Serra (the founder of the missions) was right behind the sailors’ old wooden carvings of busts of Saint Anthony. The long drive had been worth it, and seeing “his” mission might help him on his report besides just letting me learn about it.
We toured the small museum inside, and explored the outside, including the ruins of the mill, the overgrown graveyard, and the chapel, which had amazing icons and paintings from the 18th century. As best as this non-Catholic could, I explained to Neil what Catholics do with the holy water at the entrance, and why they buy candles and light them at a shrine in the back. The mission is still functions as a Catholic church, though I don’t know who lives in the area besides the army–and they have a chapel of their own. In the small courtyard, I took a picture of the fountain:
Neil told me the cement gutters we saw running all around the mission’s walls used to be the irrigation system. After our homepacked lunch (if there were any restaurants, they were at least 30 miles away), we explored around the back of the mission. The former rooms seemed to have been converted to a Jesuit cloister. I took Neil into the mission’s gift shop, expecting it to be a cornocupia of educational resources to be bought about the mission. To my surprise, it was simply a little Catholic gift shop. In its small book section, beside the bibles and prayer books, it had a few books about the mission’s history, and instructions on how to build a small paper replica of it. I had been ready to buy Neil loads of materials for his report, but there wasn’t anything there he didn’t already have, or which we hadn’t already received at the mission for free. I ended up buying him a small medal (kind of like charm stamped with a picture of the mission on it) for $1 as a souvenir.