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Fixing Crumbling Missions Will Be a Costly Challenge

Activists aim to raise $50 million to rehabilitate all of California's 21 historic churches.

August 07, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

SAN MIGUEL, Calif. — Parishioners at the historic old mission in this rural Central California town are still talking about last year's Christmas Eve service.

Not because of the priest's eloquence, but because of his derring-do. Father Larry Gosselin delivered the midnight Mass from the 182-year-old pulpit, raised about 10 feet above the chapel floor and up a creaky wood staircase that worshipers feared would give way at any moment.

"I was in the back of the church, going 'Oh my God,' " said Karen Fontanetta, the mission's curator, who knew just how rickety the structure was.

Thankfully, Gosselin got through the service without mishap and the pulpit was roped off and closed, as it had been for years. For Mission San Miguel Arcangel, it was one more colorful tale in an often rollicking history dating back 200 years that has included everything from a stint as a dancehall and saloon to its role in a mass murder.

Its present challenge, however, may be its most grave since part of the original structure burned to the ground in 1808. The place is literally coming apart with age and decay. Walls around the grounds are crumbling. Gates hang from hinges. Rats and other vermin scamper around cracked beams in the chapel ceiling. And walls in the sacristy are pulling apart.

Things are so bad that the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department has imposed a Sept. 1 deadline for a plan to shore up windows and doorways or face shutting down the place.

People at Mission San Miguel have become used to this high-wire existence. "They always send letters like that," Fontanetta said of the county. "We'll make it."

Located in a small town without the resources to institute a big building campaign, Mission San Miguel might struggle to find the money for repairs. But because of the extensive disrepair, it has suddenly become a symbol for an ambitious campaign launched earlier this month to restore all 21 of the state's missions. The California Missions Foundation hopes to raise $50 million, beginning with a $10-million appropriation of federal money recommended by U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

Boxer said many of the missions are "in dire need of structural attention and major rehabilitation." Feinstein called the facilities "state treasures" and said "they are on the verge of being lost to us forever."

'Massive Cracks'

Of all the missions, San Miguel has "the most serious problems," said Richard Ameil, founder and president of the Missions Foundation. "The adobe is separating in the foundation. There are massive cracks in the facade."

The integrity of the buildings also has been undermined by ground vibrations from traffic on the U.S. 101 Freeway on one side and railroad tracks on the other. It could cost up to $10 million to repair Mission San Miguel.

Perhaps the lone benefit of the dilapidation is the window it offers on the building's past and on historic construction techniques. "All the missions are unique in their own way," Ameil said, "but this one really typifies what mission life was like in the 1700s."

"You can almost see the Indians and fathers," agreed Corinne Pepperell of Oakland as she toured the mission buildings on a sweltering Thursday afternoon.

The mission was established July 25, 1797, the 16th in order of founding along Father Junipero Serra's famous mission trail. Reconstruction after the 1808 fire was completed in 1818; timber for roof beams was hauled from a forest 40 miles away in Cambria.

Original wall art was done by Spanish artist Esteban Munras in 1824. The centerpiece is the eye of an all-seeing God. Though touched up from time to time, the paintings have never been redone.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain, the mission was secularized, becoming a saloon, dancehall and warehouse.

Artifacts from its history are on display, including an 18th century ivory crucifix, paddles for winnowing wheat, and even a quaint 1939 scale model of the mission made by San Quentin prison inmates.

11 Killed at Mission

The most scandalous chapter of mission history occurred during the Gold Rush era, when the Rios and Reed families bought the mission for $600 and moved in. William Reed went off to hunt gold, and when he came back made the mistake of bragging about his good fortune in the company of five sailors who were AWOL from a ship in Monterey, Fontanetta said.

The sailors robbed and killed all 11 people at the mission, and later were caught and hanged.

The missions were returned to the Catholic Church by order of President Lincoln in 1863. Today the mission is occupied by 10 people, Fontanetta said, including two men studying for the priesthood and a resident tailor who sews vestments and clothing for the mission.

Despite the small size of the surrounding community -- 1,100 people -- the mission counts 200 families as parishioners. The chapel is usually full for Sunday Mass, Fontanetta said.

"The mission serves the local community, and it will continue to serve the local community as a church and place of worship as it has for the past 200 years," Fontanetta said. "We're doing all we can to stabilize the church."

Jim Casper, a county building inspector, said the mission is not being treated any differently from 100 other unreinforced masonry structures that need strengthening. "We do have an abatement proceeding that includes a notice to vacate" written into the law.

But he denied that the county plans to empty the mission Sept. 1.

"We would try to work something out," he said.

Raising the money to refurbish the mission has not been easy in a small town, but local officials hope the attention the mission is getting from the Missions Foundation campaign will make it easier.

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