On this date in 1776 Mission San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores, the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco and the sixth religious settlement established as part of the California chain of missions, was founded by Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga and Father Francisco Palóu, both members of the de Anza Expedition, which had been charged with bringing Spanish settlers to Alta (upper) California, and evangelizing the indigenous Ohlone. The settlement was named for St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, but was also commonly known as “Mission Dolores” because of a nearby creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (“Our Lady of Sorrows Creek”).
The original Mission consisted of a log and thatch structure. It was located near what is today the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets (according to most sources), very close to the surviving adobe Mission building, and on the shores of a lake (supposedly long since filled) called Laguna de los Dolores. An historical marker at that location depicts this lake, but whether it ever actually existed is a matter of some dispute. Creek geologists (yes, it is a profession), Janet Sowers and Christopher Richard propose that the legendary lake is the result of misunderstandings of Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1776 writings. According to their 2011 hydrological map, there were no lakes in the area, only creeks.
The present Mission church, near what is now the intersection of Dolores and 16th streets, was dedicated in 1791. At the time of dedication a mural painted by indigenous artists adorned the focal wall of the chapel. The Mission was constructed of adobe and was part of a complex of buildings used for housing, agricultural, and manufacturing enterprises. Though most of the Mission complex, including the quadrangle and convento, has either been altered or demolished outright during the intervening years, the façade of the Mission chapel has remained relatively unchanged since its construction in 1782–1791.
According to Mission historian Brother Guire Cleary, the early 19th century saw the greatest period of activity at San Francisco de Asís:
At its peak in 1810–1820, the average Indian population at Pueblo Dolores was about 1,100 persons. The California missions were not only houses of worship. They were farming communities, manufacturers of all sorts of products, hotels, ranches, hospitals, schools, and the centers of the largest communities in the state. In 1810 the Mission owned 11,000 sheep, 11,000 cows, and thousands of horses, goats, pigs, and mules. Its ranching and farming operations extended as far south as San Mateo and east to Alameda. Horses were corralled on Potrero Hill, and the milking sheds for the cows were located along Dolores Creek at what is today Mission High School. Twenty looms were kept in operation to process wool into cloth. The circumference of the mission’s holdings were said to have been about 125 miles.
The Mission chapel, along with “Father Serra’s Church” at Mission San Juan Capistrano, is one of only two surviving buildings where Father Junípero Serra is known to have officiated (although “Dolores” was still under construction at the time of Serra’s visit). In 1817, Mission San Rafael Arcángel was established as an asistencia to act as a hospital for the Mission, though it would later be granted full mission status in 1822. The Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821) strained relations between the Mexican government and the California missions. Supplies were scant, and the Indians who worked at the missions continued to suffer terrible losses from disease and cultural disruption (more than 5,000 Indians are thought to have been buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Mission). In 1834, the Mexican government enacted secularization laws whereby most church property was 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. In the period that followed, Mission Dolores fell on very hard times. By 1842 there were only 8 residents.
The California Gold Rush brought renewed activity to the Mission Dolores area. In the 1850s, two plank roads were constructed from what is today downtown San Francisco to the Mission, and the entire area became a popular resort and entertainment district. Some of the Mission properties were sold or leased for use as saloons and gambling halls. Racetracks were constructed, and fights between bulls and bears were staged for crowds. The Mission complex also underwent alterations. Part of the convento was converted to a two-story wooden wing for use as a seminary and priests’ quarters, while another section became the “Mansion House,” a popular tavern and way station for travelers. By 1876, the Mansion House portion of the convento had been razed and replaced with a large Gothic Revival brick church, designed to serve the growing population of immigrants who were now making the Mission area their home.
During this period, wood clapboard siding was applied to the original adobe chapel walls as both a cosmetic and a protective measure; the veneer was later removed when the Mission was restored. During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the adjacent brick church was destroyed. By contrast, the original adobe Mission, though damaged, remained in relatively good condition. However, the ensuing fire touched off by the earthquake reached almost to the Mission’s doorstep. To prevent the spread of flames, the Convent and School of Notre Dame across the street was dynamited by firefighters; nevertheless, nearly all the blocks east of Dolores Street and north of 20th street were consumed by flames. In 1913, construction began on a new church (now known as the Mission Dolores Basilica) adjacent to the Mission, which was completed in 1918. This structure was further remodeled in 1926 with churrigueresque ornamentation inspired by the Panama-California Exposition held in San Diego’s Balboa Park. A sensitive restoration of the original adobe Mission was undertaken in 1917 by noted architect Willis Polk. In 1952, San Francisco Archbishop John J. Mitty, announced that Pope Pius XII had elevated Mission Dolores to the status of a Minor Basilica. This was the first designation of a basilica west of the Mississippi and the fifth basilica named in the United States. Today, the larger, newer church is called “Mission Dolores Basilica” while the original adobe structure retains the name of Mission Dolores.
The San Francisco de Asís cemetery, which adjoins the property on the south side, was originally much larger than its present boundaries, running west almost to Church Street and north into what is today 16th Street. It was reduced in various stages, starting with the extension of 16th Street through the former Mission grounds in 1889, and later by the construction of the Mission Dolores Basilica Center and the Chancery Building of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in the 1950s. Some remains were reburied on-site in a mass grave, while others were relocated to various Bay Area cemeteries. Today, most of the former cemetery grounds are covered by a paved playground behind the Mission Dolores School. The cemetery that currently remains underwent a careful restoration in the mid-1990s. The Mission is still an active church in San Francisco. Many people attend services in the Mission church and even more attend mass in the adjacent basilica. The Mission is open to visitors, and is located on Dolores Street near its intersection with 16th Street. The San Francisco neighborhood closely surrounding the historic Mission is known as Mission Dolores, and the much larger Mission District is named for it as well.
Present day San Francisco is foodie paradise. It is one of the few cities in the USA with a claim to serving real food of local origin (New Orleans is another). My faithful readers will know that I have a healthy disdain for “those who know” in the U.S. mocking British food. Homegrown U.S. “cuisine” is, in general, nothing to write home about. Who wants to regale me with tales about the best hamburger ever? Or superb hot dogs? But I have no trouble admitting that there are regional cuisines of exceptional interest in the U.S. I once took a road trip from Santa Fe to Indiana, sampling the local barbecue everywhere I could. My cue from the highway was a thick galvanized chimney belching smoke, and a load of firewood stacked by the door. Such an amazing adventure – Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois – each with local barbecue traditions. Indiana, not so much.
Rice-a-roni is NOT the San Francisco treat. But there are so many dishes to wax lyrical over. When you are in SF (not “San Fran” or “Frisco”) you are a fool to miss the Ferry Building Marketplace. I left there 2 kilos heavier when I visited. I cannot resist Recchiuti chocolates (you have to sample them one at a time, and the grapefruit and rosemary dark choc is exquisite), Far West Fungi specializing in wild mushrooms hand picked, Acme Bread Company making the best SF sourdough bread ever . . . and so much more.
For now I will go with the mission burrito, a treat that has spread over much of the U.S. My favorite food writer, Calvin Trillin, said that the mission burrito “has been refined and embellished in much the same way that the pizza has been refined and embellished in Chicago.” You might want to be careful in New York or Naples with remarks like that Calvin. But he is right about the mission burrito. Cook’s choice here. Start with a large flour tortilla, Spanish rice, and refried beans. Then you have a choice of ingredients – stewed or grilled chicken (pollo or pollo asado), grilled beef steak (carne asada), barbecued pork (al pastor) and braised shredded pork (carnitas). Or you can try pork stewed in green chile sauce (chile verde – my absolute fav), beef stewed in red chile sauce (chile colorado), Mexican sausage (chorizo), beef tongue (lengua), stewed and shredded beef (machaca), stewed beef head (cabeza), beef brain (sesos), beef eyeball (ojo), and shrimp (camarones). Or why not try birria (goat meat), camarones diablos (extra-spicy shrimp), carne deshebrada (shredded beef with red chile sauce), carne molida (ground beef), chicharrónes (fried pork rinds, stewed), barbacoa (marinated lamb), pescado (fish, usually fried or grilled tilapia and sometimes salmon), picadillo (ground beef with chopped chiles and tomatoes), mole (chicken stewed in a chile and chocolate sauce), nopales (prickly pear cactus), and tripas (beef tripe). You get your choice of salsa too. I’d go with pico de gallo, heavy on the chiles. OK – now I am hungry.