Historic church buildings given new life

Monterey's San Carlos Cathedral is the oldest continuously

California lacks the ancient buildings so popular with tourists
in Europe, and even our oldest buildings are rather young by East
Coast standards.
California lacks the ancient buildings so popular with tourists in Europe, and even our oldest buildings are rather young by East Coast standards.

But the state does boast some structures of historical note, symbols of the devotion, interests and building skills of Californians in centuries past. Two of them fairly close to us are noteworthy for the recent transformations they have undergone.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel (St. Michael the Archangel) located just off U.S. Highway 101 between Paso Robles and King City, was 16th in the series of 21 remarkable churches built by the Franciscan padres when California was under Spanish rule. Founded in 1797, the original structure was destroyed by fire in 1806.

A replacement mission building was started in 1812, and the traditional adobe construction was completed six years later. In 1820, the Spanish-trained artist Esteban Munras supervised a crew of Native Americans in painting the unique murals still adorning the church’s interior.

In December 2003, the central California coast experienced a major temblor, the San Simeon Earthquake, and the mission was badly damaged. Numerous cracks appeared in the walls and plaster fell off, exposing the original adobe walls. The mission was declared unsafe and closed to the public.

Neither the residents of the small community of San Miguel, the Diocese of Monterey, nor the Franciscan Order had enough money for the needed repair construction.

However, a public campaign for donations resulted in raising $15 million to restore the historic building, and in October 2009 it was reopened to the public for worship services and viewing. It is one of only seven California Missions to be awarded the status of “National Historic Landmark.”

Located at 775 Mission St., Mission San Miguel’s appearance today is much like when it was built, including the murals and many original artifacts.

The cemetery has a monument to the more than 2,000 Native Americans buried there. A museum and gift shop are open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call (805) 467-3256 for more information.

Another historic religious building in our area has recently undergone a rebirth. Monterey’s San Carlos Cathedral is the oldest continuously functioning house of worship in the state (and the smallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the continental United States). When I first visited this venerable building several years ago, it was looking rather shabby. And visitors were greeted by a precautionary legally required notice: “Earthquake Warning: Unreinforced Masonry, CA Gov Code 8875.8.”

The mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra on the shore of Monterey Bay in 1770, but a year later he replaced it with a larger building along the Carmel River, which is today’s Mission San Carlos de Borromeo.

The soldiers at the Presidio (fortress) and residents of Monterey needed a closer church, so it became a chapel to serve them. When it burned in 1789, it was replaced six years later by the present building, known as the Royal Presidio Chapel.

Eventually the garrison left, and the building became a parish church. In 1967, it was named the cathedral (Bishop’s church, site of his official throne) of the newly formed Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey.

More than $5 million has been spent in renovating the historic edifice, including vital seismic retrofits. The Spanish colonial style building has beautiful portals carved in sandstone with fine molding and ornamental arches. The niche over the entrance doors contains a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, reportedly the oldest non-indigenous sculpture in California.

The cathedral is located at 500 Church St., within easy walking distance of Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Its site houses a museum and an outdoor replica of the famous grotto in Lourdes, France, where the Virgin Mary is said to have made miraculous appearances to St. Bernadette in the 19th century. For more information call (831) 373-2628.

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