Mission Dolores the History the Tour

Mission Dolores is set at 3321 16th Street, San Francisco, California 94114.  The cross street is of course Dolores. The adobe chapel completed in 1791 is the oldest building of any kind in the city. What began as a mission built by Spanish missionaries and colonial expedition leaders saw its peak as a religious center in 1820 and was gobbled in pieces by the Gold Rush, 1906 earthquake and fires. By 1913 all that was left of the complex of mission buildings – chapel, priest dormitories, stables, kitchens, granaries, carpenter shops, and living quarters for the native Ohlone living within the Mission walls, even the brick Gothic Revival church built beside it in 1876 – was the adobe chapel.

Weird how something so much a part of the actual beginning of the city could be such a hidden treasure.  As a kid growing up nearby, I certainly never heard stories about it.  As a tourist you hear about Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Gold Rush that stampeded the city into existence, Chinatown blooming from cheaply paid railroad and mining labor, the ever popular 1906 earthquake, and even the wild 60’s and 70’s era Height Ashbury district.  But a single Spanish Mission built of redwood beams and adobe blocks standing since 1791 (through every earthquake since then) that ushered in the first breath of European culture on San Francisco shores, nope, they don’t pass out slick brochures about that one.  WTF man?

Cathy Bogdan Museum Docent

Established by several Spanish soldiers, a few settlers, and a handful of padres in 1776, it was originally christened Misión San Francisco de Asís. Later it took on the name of the stream that wound beside it, Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.  Like every other mission in the renowned California chain they were there to convert the natives and expand European (read Spanish) territory.  They wanted devoted Christians and Spanish citizens. 

So the good missionaries of San Francisco de Asís spent a lot of time rounding up and enlightening the native Ohlone people of the area – Chutchui, Ssalson, and Yalamu – to the errors of their heathen ways and leading them on the path to salvation in Spanish Catholicism. Drawn by curiosity, offers of exotic trinkets and food, many died of diseases brought by their benefactors, or found that once they had entered the Mission grounds they were not allowed to leave as freely as presumed.

 One of the Native Ohlone tribes
about print above

The rest of their time was spent on farming, care for livestock, and ongoing construction of buildings for the mission itself which included carpentry and adobe block masonry. Each mission in the chain had to be self-sustaining like a ranch or small village.  The Spanish would send out a minimal crew of soldiers, padres and settlers with the expectation of “enlisting” as many indigenous people as possible to flesh out the number of laborers necessary to set up and maintain the settlement.  They could hardly afford to have their “employees” leave en mass during their tribal winter migration. Spanish soldiers were sent to round up the wayward natives and drag them “home” where they were told that they would be safer from cold and hunger.

Aside from the ranching, farming, and unenlightened abuse of the native peoples, the mission spent its time in communion with God – the Spanish Catholic one anyway. The chapel that still stands probably saw countless baptisms and sermons suffered by many a “redeemed” Native Californian. The simple white exterior with its twin pillars and terracotta tiled steps and roof is plain wrapping for what waits inside. The ceiling is ablaze with orange and yellow patterns originally painted in vegetable dye by the mission’s captive workforce.  There are lush religious oil paintings on every side and a massive mural covers fully one third of an entire wall. The altar or reredos is wildly ornate and filigreed – glossy with lacquer and gold leaf. It seems completely inappropriate for what was possible in the rough and raw California back then. But it was delivered from Spain via San Blas, Mexico in sections on the backs of mules and oxen somewhere around 1796.  Two side altars flank the main altar and are equally extravagant (hauled from Mexico in 1810) with glossy heroic saints and columns painted to resemble marble.

Main Chapel Altar and twin Side Altars
Main Altar
one of two side altars
One of the Side Altars

Buried inside (or under) the chapel is William Leidesdorf – the first man of mixed race to become a millionaire in the United States, and the most important mover and shaker of Alta California before it became part of the United States. Mr. Leidesdorf we meet again! One of the Museum docents, Quene Rolo, a historian who had done his Masters thesis on Mr. Leidesdorf was kind enough to share some of his time and bring to life the history.  Please ignore the number of times I say “facinating”.  Or you could use it to play a drinking game.

The same gentleman from the Barbary Coast tour, was so important to the blossoming San Francisco that he was buried beneath the most prestigious edifice of the day. Upon arriving in the unshaped city from the shipping capital of New Orleans, he set up the first wharves, the first proper hotel (well a clapboard building with wooden bunks along the walls but that was class in the day), and the first school for both boys and girls. He built his home near Portsmouth Square – the rough business center of town and constructed a lush garden that drew every visiting person of interest to his door to be entertained and lobbied.

When Sutter finally struck gold, William had property near the Sacramento River which he had serendipitously invested in that soared in value, making him one of the richest men in America at the time of his death in 1848.  Unfortunately Mr. Leidesdorf passed without heirs, intestate. By 1854, when the California State Legislature considered escheat to take control of the property, Leidesdorff’s estate was worth well over one million dollars and multiple of millions of dollars in gold was mined off his land.

The Mission Chapel is connected to the much grander Basilica which began as a gothic brick church that mostly toppled in the 1906 earthquake. In 1918 it was rebuilt in the more Baroque Spanish Colonial Revival style made popular in the 1915 – 1917 Panama-California Exposition.

The massive interior is full of glittering mosaic domed ceilings and glowing stained glass windows. Undeniably awe inspiring and beautiful. I can’t say what the experience is like from the point of view of a devout Catholic as I fell away from the faith some time in college.  The size, grandure, and overwhelming opulence must be meant to comfort the believer with a sense of a powerful, respected God, capable of protecting all of his flock.  But to me it feels shiny and distant.  Too much space between me and…I don’t know, whatever I’d be seeking a connection with.  It’s times like these that I really don’t miss my Catholic childhood.

Back to the Mission there is a small museum directly attached to the rear wall where you can find a glass window showing an exposed square of the original adobe brick that makes up the chapel itself.

The rest of the room is packed full of awesome artifacts, both Spanish missionary and native, a large diorama of a Native Ohlone village, and even a full size mannequin wearing authentic tribal attire from the period.

Ohlone Ceremonial Headress made entirely of feathers and feather shafts
Elaborate Diaorama of Ohlone tribe way of life prior to the Missions
Description of Diorama

Leaving the museum you wind into the Chapel cemetery, a modest affair full of wobbled gravestones in a wide range of age and decay.

The first Alcalde or Mayor of Yerba Buena (pre San Francisco) Francisco De Haro has a very clear headstone.

There is a lovely if dour statue of Father Junipero Serra that dominates one area and another sculpture of a sweetly rapturous native maiden which stands in another surrounded by roses.

Unfortunately there is a fairly creepy element to the monument here.  It’s meant to somehow acknowledge the more than 5000 native americans that died within the Mission grounds and were uncerimoniously buried without markers, likely more than 2 to a grave – I don’t want to go further there because it’s likely to get really grim. 

But the story of the monument gets worse in that the woman depicted isn’t even a representation of one of the local Ohlone tribes people who would have lived, worked, and died on Mission property.  She is instead a Mohawk maiden by the name of  Takakwitha who not only converted to Catholicism but did so so devoutly that she took an oath of virginity until her death at 24. She was also renound for her excellence at mortification of the flesh – a popular Christian passtime of driving out sin through fasting, abstinence, and obsessivly long periods of kneeling (usually on painful surfaces) – and those were the easy options. She was so good at all of this that she was shunned by her tribe and the Catholic church eventually beatified and cannonized her as a Saint (after her death, of course). She was the fourth Native American Saint in American history.  It all strikes me as fairly twisted and wrong.

Built later is a replica of an Ohlone reed hut.  It stands open for visitors to see, touch, and even duck inside.  I found it a much more authentic rememberance of the people who lived and died within the Mission walls. There was a printout attached to the hut with a brief explanation of the structure’s history.

Of course there is the obligatory exit through the gift shop.  A stunning array of crucifixes plaster one wall almost completely.  There is a small section devoted to Alfred Hitchcock and his film Rear Window which involved some scenes that were shot in the Chapel courtyard. The rest of the place is filled with postcards of the California Missions, miniature desktop missions, glass display cases of Native American inspired jewelry, and even a rack of somewhat tasteful men’s Hawaiian style shirts decorated in a map of the California Missions print. 

That’s just a sampling, but the real treasure here is the staff.  The two I met were Cathy Bogdan and Quene Rolo. Both were extremely knowledgeable about not just the Mission and Basilica but about San Francisco’s history during the Mission’s heyday.

Of course the history of the Mission barely begins with its final construction in 1785 – there was a lot of moving around to find the perfect spot for farming and building after arriving in 1776. In the 1830’s the California Missions were on the decline. The Mexican War of Independence left the missions cut off from Spain and Mexico saw them as something to be used for real estate. In 1834 after years of encroaching squatters and illegal purchases of their land; the Mexican government enacted secularization laws whereby most church properties were legally sold or granted to private owners. In practical terms, this meant that the missions would hold title only to the churches, the residences of the priests, and a small amount of land surrounding the church for use as gardens.

During this period Mission Dolores was host to bullfights and various other public events. Without subsidizes from Spain or income from the lost farm land, the Mission began to crumble from neglect. As the 1840’s slid into the Gold Rush, Mission Dolores mutated into a hybrid creature amid the urgency of San Francisco’s population explosion.  It became a resort and entertainment district. The properties were used for saloons and gambling, even racetracks.

Straight Bullfight

A popular diversion of the time was bull vs bear fights.  Vicious, cruel affairs that involved unleashing the two animals into a high sided wooden pen and prodding them into killing each other.  They were banned inside the city limits (that’s how awful these were, even in wild-ass Gold Rush San Francisco this was too much) but the Mission was just outside that border. 

What they were expecting
What was more likely happening
Either way…horrific

While a two story wing of the Mission was still used as quarters for priests and as a seminary, another part of the same wall was converted into San Francisco’s most well-known tavern and way station for travelers, The Mansion House. 

Wild times, but that was San Francisco in 1850.  Unsurprising I suppose to find that Mission Dolores had become something of a deflowered virgin by then.  Still that’s what makes this period so exciting to me in terms of placing Evangeline’s story here and then.

In March of 1858 President James Buchanan, under an act of Congress, legally returned Mission lands in trust to Bishop Sadoc Alemany, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco.  The city had come a long way.  It had a Catholic Archbishop of its own.  That’s half way to being tamed and definitely beyond the period I’m writing about. 

So I’ll wrap up this post here.  I’ve kept my own video clips to a minimum here because – frankly I suck as a cameraperson and commentator. Also, I need to read up before I go on any more of these excursions because I seem to wind up sounding like an asshole when I talk about what I’m looking at as I say dumb-ass things that are blatantly wrong and I would know that they are wrong if I had just read something, anything, even the tiny brochure handed to me at the door, before opening my idiot mouth.  

So here are a few good links to follow for more information and some much, much better videos:


A very learned overview video tour of the mission

A beautiful and fairly thorough, if unarrated tour of the mission and basilica


A fantastic timeline history of the mission – as a bonus there are links to all the other missions that can be similarly explored

https://missiontour.org/wp/sanfrancisco/mission-dolores-history.html at missiontour.org

This one is great for general info about Mission Dolores

More in-depth look at the Mission Cemetery and the Indian Monument

Unfortunately These are Links that won’t Embed so You’ll need to copy and paste but they are well worth the effort

Interesting information about daily life inside the Mission


Everything you never wanted to know about Bull v Bear matches A well written San Francisco Chronicle Story


Beautiful shots of the Basilica interior


An interesting history of the Indian Monument at the Mission cemetery


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