Monterey is Home to the Smallest Cathedral

Most of us have a mental image when we hear the word

– a huge, ornate building with sumptuous furnishings. Well, in
fact, the word simply designates a

bishop’s church

(the location of his throne or


Most of us have a mental image when we hear the word “cathedral’ – a huge, ornate building with sumptuous furnishings. Well, in fact, the word simply designates a “bishop’s church” (the location of his throne or “cathedra”). 

An interesting local example of a cathedral that doesn’t fit the popular stereotype is Monterey’s San Carlos Cathedral, a building small in stature and humble in appearance but glorious in history.

In 1770, the Spanish government in Mexico founded a “presidio” (fort) in Monterey. At the same time, the Franciscan padres founded Mission San Carlos of the Port of Monterey nearby, dedicated to educating the local native Americans in the practice of Christianity. The mission was moved to its present site a year and a half later on the banks of the Carmel River, and it became the stately Mission San Carlos de Borromeo. 

The soldiers and residents of Monterey needed a closer church, however, so a chapel was built on the old site, first of wooden poles, then replaced by adobe. Fire destroyed this building in 1789, and a new structure was built of sandstone, using plans crafted in Mexico City. It was completed in 1794. Soon after, this Royal Presidio Chapel was transferred to civilian use and became Monterey’s first Catholic parish.

When Monterey was given diocese status in 1849, the chapel became the bishop’s temporary cathedral, but by 1859 the bishop moved to Los Angeles and established his cathedral there. The Royal Chapel returned to being a parish church. In 1899, it was the site of the wedding of Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry. Despite neither bride nor groom being Catholic, the pastor performed the ceremony as a civil magistrate, making Hoover the first U.S. president married in a Catholic service.

Because of economic hard times caused by the Great Depression and World War II, plans for a new parish church were never followed through on. In 1942, a major restoration of the church began: Pavement and windows were replaced, the interior was repainted, a statuary was added and a new floor was installed over the concrete crypt. The National Park Service designated the chapel as a National Historic Landmark in 1962.

As the Catholic population of California continued to grow, Rome established a new Diocese of Monterey in 1967, and the new bishop returned the church to cathedral status, making it the smallest Catholic cathedral in the United States. Two years later, it was remodeled to better conform to the revised liturgy put in use after Vatican Council II.

San Carlos Cathedral, the Royal Presidio Parish, is located in downtown Monterey at 500 Church St. A visit should include notice of these special features:

n A replica of the Lourdes Grotto was added in front of the church in 1921.

n A fragment of the historic Viscaino/Serra Oak tree, which is known as “California’s Plymouth Rock” and is exhibited in a glass case in the church’s narthex (entry).  The Spanish explorers celebrated the first Mass under this tree in 1602, and it grew near the Royal Chapel until it died in 1904.

n A badly needed preservation campaign is being organized, and for good reason – a legally required notice outside the front door reads, “Earthquake Warning:  Unreinforced Masonry, CA Gov. Code 8875.8.”

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