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Travelers on a Mission

Road trip to San Luis Rey and sister churches yields much history, some mystery

November 12, 2000|SUSAN JAMES | Susan James is a freelance writer based in La Canada Flintridge

OCEANSIDE — I'm mad about missions. I've had a passion for them ever since I carved a lopsided version of San Miguel Arcangel out of an Ivory soap bar for a fourth-grade project.

The appeal is obvious to me: In California, we rarely see and experience places that are as old or filled with as much history. The atmosphere is haunting, often mysterious.

That's why I found myself exploring San Diego County's back country one weekend in July with my mom, Barbara Harrison, and my sister, Linda Franco. I had coaxed them along to visit three lesser known sites: Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, in Oceanside about 1 1/2 hours south of Los Angeles, and its two surviving asistencias, or branches, San Antonio de Pala and Santa Isabel.

Although the coastal mission chain founded by the Franciscans is popular with visitors, most Angelenos are unaware the inland asistencias even exist. Here clocks run on mission time; the pace is slower, the ambience far from the city. I was eager to see the missions and to check out a comfortable B&B tucked in the hills nearby.

Our journey began on a Saturday as we drove down Interstate 5 to Oceanside, exited at California Highway 76 and traveled about four miles east to San Luis Rey, founded in 1798 by Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen.

This mission was the 18th in a chain of 21 (excluding asistencias). San Luis Rey was the biggest, covering six acres, with one of the largest American Indian populations. The mission was known for its extensive water gardens and lavanderia, or laundry, which made use of the two natural springs on the grounds. Remains of the lavanderia include gargoyle fountains and a tall flight of narrow stone steps where native Quechnajuichom women (more commonly known by the tribe's Spanish name, Luiseno) beat piles of wet clothes with wooden paddles.

By the time we arrived at San Luis Rey, the place was humming. A wedding party posed for photographs beneath a flowering wisteria vine. Bride and groom batted blossoms out of their hair as flower girls in green satin dresses played tag around the fountain.

As we wandered the grounds, we noticed that in the old cemetery a huge cross of fresh flowers lay on the final resting place of Carolina Moreno de Bandini, who, according to the marker, died in 1873 at age 24. Despite the enormous floral tribute, no one could tell us who she was.

Other aspects of the mission's history were less mysterious. In 1957, Disney filmed episodes of the TV show "Zorro," starring Guy Williams, at the mission. Heavy wooden gates painted by Disney artists once opened onto the cemetery; they're still here, but on display in the museum.

As fountains splashed and birds twittered all around, we walked through reconstructed rooms where friars slept on rope beds and prayed before crucifixes (still on display) from Spain. The past surrounded us. My mother took a deep breath and said she could catch the scent of cooking smoke from the old cocina.

In the cool dimness of the church, under the domed roof, wedding guests were trailing out beneath religious oil paintings darkened by time. I looked up to see not the mark of Zorro but the notches of an adz blade on the wooden ceiling beams, left there by an Indian craftsman who couldn't sign his name.

We drove east on California 76 and, like the early padres, followed the San Luis Rey River. We passed golf courses, spa resorts and residential developments painted pink.

After 20 minutes, we drove by Interstate 15, and Old California reasserted itself--citrus and avocado groves, dairy farms and cattle ranches, vineyards and riparian habitat.

We entered the Pala Indian Reservation, where the land looks, I imagined, just as it did 100 years ago. At a tiny gift shop, a Pala woman was stringing beads in front of boxes of freshly packed oranges and kumquats for sale. I told her that I remembered my father bringing me herewhen I was 5. She welcomed me back.

Three gigantic pepper trees flank the buildings of San Antonio de Pala. The friars who founded the asistencia in 1815 brought the trees from their home, San Luis Rey. I thought the pepper tree was merely ornamental, a symbol of Old California. But the woman said that the tree's small berries can be dried, ground up and used as seasoning.

Like all mission churches, the one at Pala was built by American Indians. They painted symbols on the walls, and when a disapproving padre had the artwork whitewashed in 1903, he nearly caused a riot. The whitewash was removed and, original symbols intact, the church stands quiet and pristine across the street from a store where a few examples of Pala crafts are on display.

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