Mission San Juan Bautista: A Step Back in Time

Updated on February 17, 2020
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

San Juan Bautista
San Juan Bautista | Source

Of the 21 California missions built over 200 years ago by Spanish explorers and missionaries, San Juan Bautista is one of the best preserved. It is fifteenth in the chain started by Father Junipero Serra of the Franciscan order, but it was established by his successor Fr. Fermin de Lausen in 1797.

Though it is still an active place of worship, the sanctuary, surrounding buildings and historic town structures are part of one of California's State Park sites with historic significance.

The church itself is a tall and impressive structure with many arched walls and three aisles or naves. It is the widest California mission church. In fact, it is the largest of all churches in the state's mission chain at a whopping 188 feet long, 72 feet wide, and 40 feet tall.

Even if you have visited many of the old missions, you will realize that this is an exceptional structure. Stepping inside, you first notice the altar wall with its reredos, or niches, with huge, saintly images. It is an impressive sight.

Since we were there on a Sunday morning, and people were worshiping, I did not take photos inside the sanctuary. Masses are held on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings in the church and Monday through Friday in the chapel, so visitors are politely quiet and respectful.

As in most California missions, the thick adobe walls provide a cool refuge on a warm summer morning.

A Town Grows Up

With the labor of indigenous people, the Spaniards established the church and settlement with adobe houses, storage spaces, and other structures. San Juan Bautista soon became a busy town with many industries such as weaving, tanning and candle making, in addition to the gardens and orchards. Hotels and a livery stable provided lodging for travelers and their animals and work for many permanent residents.

The surrounding area is still a productive agricultural zone with deep, rich soil and many vegetable farms.

San Juan Bautista (aka  John the Baptist) was a saint with a limited wardrobe and unlimited devotion.
San Juan Bautista (aka John the Baptist) was a saint with a limited wardrobe and unlimited devotion. | Source

Vestments and Texts

Inside the mission museums, there are examples of original furniture, sacred objects, and old vestments, including priestly robes from Russia, China, and Venice. Large, handwritten hymnals and sacred manuscripts written on vellum by a priest known for his musical talents are also on display.

You can see that the thick adobe walls were built to last, and provide very effective insulation from the summer heat.

The priest's wardrobe was awesome.
The priest's wardrobe was awesome. | Source

Ongoing Work

Conservation and archeological efforts continue to discover old artifacts on the grounds of the mission church. Unlike most California Mission sites, the surrounding area has not been encroached upon by urban expansion. The adjacent town is still small and rural in character, with miles of surrounding farms and ranches.

Restoration efforts on the mission and surrounding structures have continued throughout the years. This is "earthquake country", and there has been occasional damage and rebuilding from time to time. All repairs are based on preserving the original style, character, and atmosphere of the early mission days.

The old graveyard overlooks valley fields, beyond the San Andreas earthquake fault.
The old graveyard overlooks valley fields, beyond the San Andreas earthquake fault.

The Old Graveyard

Outside the north wall of the church is the old graveyard. Its tilting white crosses seem to have no names, but there is a memorial plaque on the wall remembering the life of the last full-blooded Indian woman to be buried there.

The first burials in this consecrated ground were done in 1808. It is believed that the mortal remains of 4300 Indian converts, Europeans, Californios, and Mestizos were buried here up until the 1930's

The burial grounds are shaded by the church walls and olive trees. To the north in the distance are rows of vegetables growing in the well-tended fields.

A ghost?
A ghost? | Source
The Plaza Hotel  building  - SJB State Park .
The Plaza Hotel building - SJB State Park .

A Spanish Plaza

San Juan Bautista is the only California mission which still faces an existing Spanish-style plaza which at one time was a typical plan for other mission churches.

The surrounding buildings and the open countryside still present a scene of a simpler time with an agrarian based community. If you can ignore the modern vehicles, you might imagine yourself transported back in time.

Surrounding the grassy plaza, many of the historical structures date back to the 1800's.

The large livery stable has several stalls as well as coaches and wagons, most of which are in fine restored condition.

In back of the livery is a series of workshops, filled with machinery and blacksmith items of the era. You might notice that the drill press, pictured below, needs no electrical or other power-- other than human.

Mechanical Drill Press
Mechanical Drill Press | Source
Luxury carriage in the livery stable
Luxury carriage in the livery stable | Source

We were on our way back from a weekend in Monterey, CA and still had plenty of time to get home. Our route took us a few miles off Hwy 101 to State Route 156, and right past the San Juan Bautista State Park.

We decided to stop for a short visit and were glad we did. The town is still small and surrounded by farm and range land, so the historic setting still retains its rural character.

I have visited most of the California Spanish missions and this is one of the most interesting. If you find yourself in this area, it is worth your time to stop and look around.

Questions & Answers

  • What was the Mission San Juan Bautista used for?

    It was, and still is, a church.

    The California mission chain was established to convert the Indians, and for the Spanish to establish settlements to strengthen their claim to California.

  • What was the mission named after?

    It was named by the Spanish founders honoring San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist).

  • What is the mission made of?

    California missions were made of locally available materials, generally stone, timber, tile, and adobe brick. Adobe was made from earth, water, straw, and animal manure. The walls of the adobe buildings were usually two or three feet thick. This natural insulation kept the interiors comfortably cool in the hot summers.


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    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      2 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks, Peggy.

      California is a big state. Some people don't realize how much open land there is. I live in a rural area and it is nothing like LA or San Francisco.

      The SJB mission area is very beautiful.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for showing us this pretty mission church and telling us details about it. It is nice that there is still quite a bit of land around it.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      2 years ago from California Gold Country

      Most of the California missions have been well preserved or restored,but in this state earthquakes occasionally take a toll.

    • Teraisa Goldman profile image


      3 years ago from California, Hawaii, Nevada, and Texas

      Thank you for sharing and great photos. I was recently at San Juan Capistrano but did not get to go inside this trip. I'm hoping next year to tour as many as possible; perhaps one a month for two years. Here's to you getting another relaxing drive home from your next getaway.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks for the comment, Dolores. That's a good suggestion about the clip. I'll see if i can find something.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Rochelle - reading the comments I see that this mission was used in the filming of "Vertigo." You should add a film clip! I have visited a few of the California missions but never San Juan so I really enjoyed the armchair visit!

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      I think I did hear something about that filn being made there-- but it is not something that is featured information at the site. If I had seen the film, I might have thought about it. Thanks for adding that info, e-five.

    • e-five profile image

      John C Thomas 

      6 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      I clicked on your article because I knew this mission as one of the major settings of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film "Vertigo." I was surprised that the article and the comments never mentioned this significant fact. The bell tower in the film was changed to make it look much taller, but your photos show many of the same scenes from the film.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you, MsDora. It is an interesting spot that we almost didn't stop for. I am glad we did.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      7 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for introducing the San Juan Bautista Mission with its historic and architectural importance to us. Certainly a tourist attraction I would live to visit if I'm ever close enough. Voted Up!

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you, expertscolumn. As saints go... he seemed to be worthy of veneration, despite his wardrobe.

    • expertscolumn profile image

      Stanley Soman 

      7 years ago from New York

      Why do they give him such a revered name from the bible, San Juan Bautista ?? "(aka John the Baptist) was a saint with a limited wardrobe and unlimited devotion" seems to be like a direct biography of John the Baptist himself. I thought your description was a little funny as well

      Thanks for the pictures

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks for commenting, robie2. I'm glad you took the time to armchair travel -- no luggage needed.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      7 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks for a delightful visit to a very interesting spot. I loved your description and the photos. I'm an avid armchair traveler and this was a marvelous trip:-)

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you , Lita. The inside was most impressive, but we came at a moment when it was not proper to wander around and take photos. If you google the name with California Mission, you will find some interior photos. The surrounding buildings provided an interesting context and setting.

    • Lita C. Malicdem profile image

      Lita C. Malicdem 

      7 years ago from Philippines

      What a vivid description of this ancient mission, kept as close to its historic setting by the people. I'm glad I visited here and experienced the beauty of this magnificent edifice with your help. I enjoyed the tour! Thank you!

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you for your lovely comment, drbj. I did not plan to be there in person, but time and opportunity occurred simultaneously.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      7 years ago from south Florida

      A lovely tour of this old mission, Rochelle. The next best thing to being there in person. Thank you for this treat.


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