Mission San Diego, or Mission Sandiego de Alcala, was the first of California's 21 missions and founded in 1769 by Father Junipero Serra. Called the "Mother of the Missions," Mission San Diego stands as California's first Catholic Church and the birthplace of Christianity on the western frontier.
The Spanish had settled what-is-now Mexico and the Caribbean, and while they knew Alta or Upper California existed, they didn't seek to settle it. However, when they discovered the Russians were seal hunting off the coast of Alta California and British ships had been surveying the area, the Spanish sought to establish a foothold. In 1768, Spanish King Carlos III gave orders to expand their empire into Alta California by establishing a series of Catholic missions led by Franciscan Friars.
Establishment of Mission San Diego
Following four unsuccessful efforts to reach Alta California by land and sea, an expedition led by Father Junipero Serra finally reached the site of the mission in July 1769. The California Mission San Diego was established on a hill overlooking the bay. However, the water supply was not adequate in the area which negatively impacted agriculture. Five years later, the mission was moved six miles to the east.
While the Sandiego mission's pastor, Father Luis Jayme, enjoyed good rapport with the natives who lived in the area, two native men felt threatened by the mission's rules and incited a riot in November 1775. Some 800 natives stormed the mission, which was burned to the ground. Father Jayme was killed during the disturbance. As the first Christian martyr at a California mission, Father Jayme is buried beneath the altar of the present church. A carpenter and blacksmith were also killed in the uprising.
Father Serra returned to Mission Sandiego de Alcala to lead the rebuilding effort. Fearful of further attacks by natives, the mission was rebuilt as a military fort. The effort was long and tedious, and the mission was always challenged by its location. The chaparral was arid, and water was scarce. Despite these hardships, the mission found some success in its agricultural efforts. By 1797, the mission had amassed some 50,000 acres of land and was harvesting corn, barley, beans, wheat and grapes for wine. There were 20,000 sheep, 10,000 cattle and more than 1,000 horses. In that year, some 500 natives were baptized and nearly 1,500 converted to Catholicism.
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the new government was not committed to the missions. In 1834, the Mexican government removed the Franciscans from control. After the United States acquired the area from Mexico, the mission was used by artillery and cavalry regiments from 1853 until about 1859.
The mission was given back to the Roman Catholic Church in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln. At the time, the church was in ruins. The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet occupied the mission beginning in 1892. They operated a school for native children for 17 years.
Restoration work began in earnest in 1931, and the church became a parish church again in 1941. In 1976, Pope Paul VI designated the church a minor basilica. It remains an active Catholic parish, and is one of four missions in San Diego.