Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Monterey, CA | CruiseBe
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Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo

History and museums
sightseeing, attractions, history, culture, museum, church

Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo, also known as the Carmel Mission or Mission Carmel, is a Roman Catholic mission church in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The mission was the headquarters of the Alta California missions headed by Saint Junípero Serra from 1770 until his death in 1784. It was also the seat of the second presidente, Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen.

The mission buildings and lands were securalized by the Mexican government in 1833, and had fallen into disrepair by the mid-19th century. They were partially restored beginning in 1884. In 1886 it was transferred from the Franciscans to the local diocese and has continued as a parish church since then. It is the only one of the California Missions to have its original bell tower dome.



Mission Carmel is the second mission built by Franciscan missionaries in Upper California. It was first established as Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Monterey, California near the native village of Tamo on June 3, 1770. It was named for Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, Italy. It was the site of the first Christian confirmation in Alta California. When the mission moved, the original building continued to operate as the Royal Presidio chapel and later became the current Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo.

Relocation to Carmel

In May 1771, Spain's viceroy approved Serra's petition to relocate the mission to its current location near the Carmel River. The relocated mission was renamed Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo. Serra wanted to put some distance between the mission's neophytes and the Presidio of Monterey, the headquarters of Pedro Fages, who served as military governor of Alta California between 1770 and 1774, and with whom Serra was engaged in a heated power struggle. Serra also did not want the Indian neophytes to be influenced by the bad behavior of the Spanish soldiers and the agricultural land was better around the new mission.

Indian baptism and conscription

After the Carmel mission was moved to Carmel Valley, the Franciscans began to baptize some natives. By the end of 1771, the population of mission was 15 with an additional 22 baptized Indians, out of a total population of northern California of 60. Farming was not very productive and for several years the mission was dependent upon the arrival of supply ships. Historian Jame Culleton wrote in 1950, "The summer of '73 came without bringing the supply ship. Neither Carmel nor Monterey was anything like self-supporting." To improve baptismal rates, they sought to convert key members of the Esselen and Rumsen tribes, including chiefs. This persuaded some Indians to follow them to the mission.

The Esselen and Ohlone Indians who lived near the mission were baptized and then forcibly relocated and conscripted into forced labor as plowmen, shepherds, cattle herders, blacksmiths, and carpenters on the mission. Disease, starvation, over work, and torture decimated these tribes., though highly contested. See July 1, 1784 letter written by Junipero Serra on life at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. Native neophyte laborers made the adobe bricks, roof tiles and tools needed to build the mission. In the beginning, the mission relied on bear meat from Mission San Antonio de Padua and supplies brought by ship from Mission San Diego de Alcalá. In 1794, the population reached its peak of 927, but by 1823 the total had dwindled to 381. There was extensive "comingling of the Costanoan with peoples of different linguistic and cultural background during the mission period."

On November 20, 1818, French privateer Hipólito Bouchard raided the nearby Monterey Presidio before moving on to other Spanish installations in the south.

Secularized and abandoned

The mission was secularized by the newly independent Mexican government in August 1833 with the stipulation that half the mission lands would be awarded to the native people. This purpose was largely subverted however. The priests could not maintain the missions without the Indian's forced labor and they were soon abandoned. The Indians drifted from the mission. Some found work on farms and ranches in exchange for room and board.


The Carmel Mission was in ruins when the Roman Catholic Church regained control of the mission building and the land in 1863. In 1884 Father Angel Casanova began to restore the mission building. In 1931 Monsignor Philip Scher appointed Harry Downie as the curator in charge of mission restoration. Two years later, the church transferred the mission from the Franciscans to the local diocese and it became a regular parish church. In 1960, the mission was designated as a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII. Downie labored for virtually the rest of his life to restore the mission, ancillary buildings and walls, and the grounds. In 1987, Pope John Paul II visited the mission as part of his U.S. tour.

"Mission Carmel", as it came to be known, was Serra's favorite and, because it was close to Monterey, the capital of Alta California, he chose it as his headquarters. When he died on August 28, 1784, he was interred beneath the chapel floor.


As a result of Downie's dedicated efforts to restore the buildings, the Carmel mission church is one of the most authentically restored of all the mission churches in California. Mission Carmel has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. It is an active parish church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey.

In addition to its activity as a place of worship, Mission Carmel also hosts concerts, art exhibits, lectures and numerous other community events. In 1986, then-pastor Monsignor Eamon MacMahon acquired a magnificent Casavant Frères organ complete with horizontal trumpets. Its hand-painted casework is decorated with elaborate carvings and statuary reflecting the Spanish decorative style seen on the main altar.

The mission also serves as a museum, preserving its own history and the history of the area. There are four specific museum galleries: the Harry Downie Museum, describing restoration efforts; the Munras Family Heritage Museum, describing the history of one of the most important area families; the Jo Mora Chapel Gallery, hosting a cenotaph sculpted by Jo Mora as well as rotating art exhibits; and the Convento Museum, which holds the cell Serra lived and died in, as well as interpretive exhibits. At one end of the museum is a special chapel room containing some of the vestments used by Serra.

The mission grounds are also the location of the Junipero Serra School, a private Catholic school for kindergartners through 8th grade.

Notable interments

Several notable people are buried in the church and churchyard.

  • Juan Crespí (1721–1782), Spanish missionary and explorer
  • Fermín Lasuén (1736–1803), Spanish missionary
  • José Antonio Roméu, (1742? – 1792) Spanish governor of California
  • Junípero Serra (1713–1784), founder of the mission

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