The King of the California Missions: Mission San Luis Rey

The 21 restored California Missions are part of the state’s history but also wonderful family-friendly attractions that often don’t get enough credit. One of main purposes of these missions was for the Spaniards to convert the local Native Americans into Christianity. They are now parishes, museum complexes and a popular place to visit for California’s fourth graders learning state history. I’m lucky to live near one. Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, also known as Old Mission San Luis Rey, is located in the suburbs of north San Diego. It is surrounded by residential homes and shopping centers. While its location may be deceiving, it’s very much worth visiting the King of the Missions.

Mission San Luis Rey sign

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was named after St. Louis IX, King of France, a patron saint of the Franciscans who founded the missions. It was founded in 1798 by Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen and has a long varied history that started with the Luiseno Indians. Spain established these missions in California to claim the lands. They sent in priests and soldiers to “colonize” the Indians by teaching them new skills and eventually converting them to Catholics and become citizens of Spain.

Mission San Luis Rey

There were about 3,000 Indians in Mission San Luis Rey with over 50,000 livestock at one time. Since this was the 18th of the 21 missions established, the founders had learned their lessons and were more self-sustaining. It became the biggest and most successful of the California Missions earning its nickname. The mission fell out of the church’s control in the 1830s instead of being handed over to the Indians as promised. The mission was returned to the Catholic Church when California became a state in 1850.

Old mission san Luis Rey

The mission was also used by the American military in the mid-1800s as a base. But, once they left, the mission was left to the elements and abandoned until 1892. The mission was rebuilt and repaired by Franciscan priests and completed in 1912. Restoring and preserving the mission is an ongoing process up to today. We constantly see some areas roped off or dug up every time we visit. Who knows what else they’ll uncover?

Old Mission San Luis Rey Historic Church

The gem of Old Mission San Luis Rey is its historic church which is considered a National Historic Landmark. This Spanish colonial, cross-shaped church was completed in 1815 and was largely made of adobe, wooden timbers and fired clay bricks. The church was closed for months recently for an earthquake retrofit and just reopened last June.

Old Mission San Luis Rey fountain

I’ve only gone to mass here on several occasions since regular Sunday services are held at a much bigger and more modern center nearby. I’ve felt a sense of wonder every time I’ve sat in here of the amazing things they were able to accomplish with this church. It’s a little bit dark and gets quite hot but gives one a sense of the Spaniards and Indians’ experiences when they attended mass centuries ago. The church is now mainly used for weddings, funerals and some masses.

Upon entering the church, the altar initially catches one’s eye. The large wooden background is called a reredo. A statue of San Luis Rey is flanked by St. Michael and St Raphael. The central crucifix was brought by the Franciscans from Mexico in the 1800s.

Mission San Luis Rey altar
This is the largest of the 21 California Missions and considered the most unique especially with its wooden dome and cupola located near the altar. There are 144 glass panes in the cupola.

Mission San Luis Rey cupola
The mission has done a great job in preserving the architecture and beauty of this church

Mission San Luis rey dome
The decorative designs weren’t just on the ceiling but all over the walls. The Spanish and Native American designs and symbols were the original drawings but have been repainted over the years.

Mission San Luis Rey walls
The church at San Luis Rey is recognized as the most unique and one of the most beautiful in the mission chain. It has two side altars and the Madonna Chapel which originally served as a mortuary chapel. This octagonal room now houses a statue of the Immaculate Conception. The two side altars now function as devotional areas.

Mission san luis rey madonna chapel
The wooden pulpit where the priests said their sermons still stands as well as the choir loft by the entrance.

Mission san Luis Rey church
This hand-hammered copper font was used to baptize many of the Indians into Christianity.

Mission San Luis Rey baptismal font

One of my favorite parts of the mission is this walkway with its rustic ceiling that houses the museum and gift shop next to the church. It’s even more photogenic when the bougainvilleas are in full bloom by the arches.

Mission San Luis Rey arches

The mission’s museum has some great exhibits that include various artifacts from the Native Americans and Spaniards. It was interesting to see the Luiseno Indians culture as well as items that once belonged to the Franciscan missionaries including the grey habits they wore at that time.

Old Mission San Luis Rey museum

Like the other mission museums, it showed what some of the rooms looked like back then behind glass windows. This was the Friar’s bedroom which was very simple with very few belongings. It shows how much the padres gave up to make the missions work. That bed really looked uncomfortable.

Mission San Luis Rey friar bedroom

I always find the mission kitchens interesting to see. I can imagine all the delicious and fresh food that was cooked here despite the plastic fruit and vegetable displays.

Mission San Luis Rey kitchen

It was hard to put into perspective how the original mission looked but this model helped a lot. This model showed the church and the quadrangle where the Spaniards and Indians worked, lived and played. There were originally 32 arches in the front of the mission.

Old Mission San Luis Rey model

Mission San Luis Rey Outdoor Area

The outdoor areas of the mission were every bit as historical as the church and museum. The quadrangle was once surrounded by buildings, workshops and living quarters. Its foundations are now a retreat center with peaceful gardens.

Mission San Luis Rey retreat gardens

Like many other missions, there is a fountain in the courtyard. It’s a great spot for pictures and popular with the kids and birds.

Mission san Luis rey fountain

An original arch to allow for carriage traffic into the quadrangle can still be seen here with the view of California’s oldest pepper tree. It was planted here in 1830 from seeds brought by a sailor from Peru. The tree was used to treat various wounds and infections. Unfortunately, it’s usually closed off to the public except for certain times of the year.

Mission San Luis Rey pepper tree
There is an inner quadrangle with a sacred garden (also closed to the public) and is where the current friary is located. One of the priests told us there were 18 Franciscan priests in residence here.

Mission San Luis Rey cloistered garden
An entrance to the cemetery is next to the church marked by a skull and crossbones. These symbols were used to show the entrances to Spanish cemeteries.

Mission San Luis Rey cemetery gate
I’ve always loved seeing the cacti variety here. This arch lead to a trail covered in cacti and the kiln or outdoor brick oven.

Mission San Luis Rey arch
This was one of the other major archways leading to the sunken gardens, bathing site and laundry area. The gates were supposed to keep the animals out of this area and was also once surrounded by an adobe wall.

Mission San Luis Rey arch
These stairs from the arch led the residents to the lavanderia or open-air laundry and the tile and stone pools. The ruins have also become a popular place for picture backgrounds. We’ve seen quite a few fellow residents use these stairs for their family and engagement portraits.

Mission San Luis Rey lavanderia stairs
Can you imagine the level of activity around this area once used for bathing and washing clothes? I guess you can also call this the social hub of the mission. These structures were used to channel the water from the nearby river.

Mission San Luis Rey lavanderia
Water came out of the carved gargoyles’ mouths as a means to control water flow.

Mission San Luis Rey gargoyle
It is unfortunate that Mission San Luis Rey doesn’t usually show up in many tourist attraction listings for San Diego. The mission is a huge part of the community. Its history, grounds, architecture and church among other things have earned its well-deserved place as a historic landmark. Please put it on your places to visit if you’re ever in Southern California.

Visiting Mission San Luis Rey Tips and Basics

Related Posts on some of the California Missions we’ve visited:

*Have you visited Mission San Luis Rey or any of the California Missions?

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