Father Junipero Serra founded the first California Mission on July 16, 1769 on Presidio Hill in what became the city of San Diego. Five years later he moved Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala to its current location in Mission Valley.
Known as the Mother of the Missions because it was the first of twenty-one eventually established in California, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala is now an active Catholic Parish in the Diocese of San Diego. The forty-six foot tall Campanario holds the Mission bells.
Bells play an important role in the everyday life of the Missions. They are used to announce times for Mass, work, meals, and siestas, to signal danger, honor the dead and to celebrate feast days, weddings, and fiestas. At Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala’s peak its land area encompassed 50,000 acres with harvests of corn, wheat, barley, kidney beans and chick peas. There were vineyards producing grapes for wine and gardens providing vegetables. The mission owned 10,000 head of cattle, 1250 horses and 20,000 sheep.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was burned to the ground by Native Americans on November 4, 1775. After California became part of the United States the Mission was used for several years by various companies of artillery and cavalry until 1858 or early 1859 then abandoned for several years. For seventeen years, beginning in 1892, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet ran an American Indian childrens’ school here. In 1931, the mission was rebuilt to mirror the 1813 church. The garden became a formal part of the Mission after the rebuilding of the church.
A statue of St. Joseph in the garden represents the patron saint of the original expedition to San Diego. The chapel at Mission Basilica San Diego was built in 1977. It has choir stalls, a throne and an alter that came from a Carmelite monastery in Plasencia, Spain. The choir stalls are constructed in such a way that no nails are needed to hold them together.
A life size bronze sculpture titled the Pieta – The Thirteenth Station of the Cross is in one corner of the garden. A project of the Via Dolorosa Society it is one of a series of life size works of art depicting the fourteen Stations of the Cross or stopping places on Jesus’ journey from Pilate’s Practorium to His death on Calvary that the Society plans to produce and install. A museum at the mission has informative exhibits on California history and Native Americans, including the Kumeyaay, their crafts and lifestyle. The emphasis is on the development of San Diego and the California Missions. Numerous plaques and signs around the Mission provide additional historical information about Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala.