The history of this church, more formally known as Misíon San Francisco de Asís, is the history of the early city, and there is no other surviving building that is more intrinsic to the early days of the town’s formation. The tale goes back to the storied summer of 1776, when this site, then an uninhabited grove, was selected for a mission in a network that ran up and down the coast. Its first Mass was celebrated under a temporary shelter. The current building dates from 1791 and is the oldest in town. For such a rich representative of a city that has lost so much of its history, this place is a rare glimpse into the not-so-distant past and the troubled origins of California. With its 4-foot-thick walls and rear garden, this precious survivor from California’s colonial days is a hushed and transporting place indeed. It’s also almost entirely original, having survived the 1906 earthquake by dint of good old-fashioned craftsmanship—its trusses, lashed together with rawhide, are made of redwood, although in 1916, after the quake, they were reinforced with steel. As you roam around the place, you’ll encounter gorgeous altars brought from Mexico during the days of the Founding Fathers.
Following the chapel and the sanctuary, the tour’s path visits a modest museum in the back before proceeding outside. In its heyday, the mission was home to some 4,000 people, but of course, most of that land was long ago sold off; look for the diorama, built in 1939, for a clearer picture of how it was all laid out. The back garden contains the graves of California’s first governor and the city’s first mayor, as well as, shockingly, the bodies of at least 5,000 Indians who died “helping” (read: slaving for) the mission. Sad to say, while few people know about the mass extinction, the mission is famous for the one grave that isn’t there: The headstone of Carlotta Valdes, which Kim Novak visits in the movie “Vertigo” (1958), was a prop. Around the same time (1952), the compound was named a Basilica, an honorary Church of the Pope, and in 1987, Pope John Paul II swung by for a visit.