Even for history-rich San Diego, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is distinctive and without peer; the gargoyles at the lavenderia give it away. It’s the additional curiosities like the gargoyles, Roman arches, and California’s first pepper tree that gives the mission that extra touch of awe and wonder.
These are additional and apart from the wonder of the mission structure which is magnificent in itself. More than once in the mid-1800’s the mission was described as “beautiful”, and undoubtedly it was, even back then when it was abandoned and deteriorating. It was known as the “King of the Missions” for its grandeur and immense size, engulfing some 950,000 acres, the largest of all the missions. The church compound itself takes up 6 acres with a 500 foot square courtyard at its center.
High and wide is the front façade with one lonely bell tower that once held eight bells and reaches 75 feet in height where a sentry would be stationed to watch out for hostiles. The church alone has a height of 35 feet and its length measures an incredible 165 feet long. The mission was reportedly the largest structure in California until the 1850’s. By that time it was in ruins and it wasn’t until 1892 when repairs and upkeep begun that continue to this day.
The mission was founded in 1798, but construction was started on the edifice we see today until 1811. Indians, known as “Luisenos” labored using sun baked adobe and timber from Mount Palomar as the primary construction materials.
Today, excavation continues where military barracks once stood. This is an area where both the famed Morman Battalion and Kearny’s Army of the West with Kit Carson sheltered during the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-1847).
It’s not unusual for missions to have cemeteries which are usually located in back; Mission San Luis Rey is no exception with 3,000 Luisenos buried there. What makes this mission unique is that the cemetery is still in operation and has been since its creation in 1798. But the doorway leading into the cemetery is modern, having been built by Disney Studio for the filming of the Zorro TV series on the 1950’s.
It was about 1830 when pepper trees were planted in the inner courtyard. The seeds had come from Peru by way of a sailor who gave them to one of the Franciscan padres. The trees that emerged were the first of their kind in California. One of those trees has survived the ages and remains there in the courtyard.
Trees and other plants, along with shrubs, and a variety of crops, including exotic fruits were grown at the mission using water from the San Luis Rey River. This water was also purified with charcoal for drinking. At its height of operations, Mission San Luis Rey was also the most populous of the 21 missions in Alta California.
Perhaps the most striking feature in all the 56 acre mission grounds, are the gargoyles located in an area fronting the church. This area must have been rich in water as it also included a sunken garden. It is believed that two springs were tapped and the water channeled through the mouths of the gargoyles like a fountain and continued down a trough where the women would wash clothes. This is known as the lavenderia or laundry.
Entrance to this area is by way of an archway and wide tiled stairway, reminiscent of something out of the Roman era. If some of the architecture harkens back to old world Europe, consider that the mission is named after Luis IX, King of France from 1215-1270.
Mission San Luis Rey
4050 Mission Avenue
Oceanside, CA 92057
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